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The Best Dining Rewards Programs

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The Best Dining Rewards Programs

Going to a restaurant is generally more expensive than cooking at home, but if you like to eat out, signing up for a dining rewards program can help make the extra expense worth your while. These programs offer cash back or bonus rewards with your favorite travel loyalty program.

Usually, all you have to do to collect rewards is register any credit card with your program, then use that card to pay for a meal at one of the thousands of participating restaurants. In at least one case, you can earn extra points by writing a review.

Best general dining programs

Many dining rewards programs are linked to airline or hotel loyalty programs. If you’re not interested in travel or you want more flexibility with travel rewards, check out the following dining programs the next time you go out with friends or family.

iDine

In contrast to most of the dining programs we’ll cover, iDine’s rewards structure is based on how much you spend over a year, rather than whether you reach a certain status. More specifically, you earn:

  • 5% back on spending up to $250.
  • 10% back on spending between $250 and $750.
  • 15% back on spending over $750.

You receive your rewards as an American Express gift card once your rewards account reaches $20. The gift card includes all the rewards you receive through the end of the month in which your account reaches the minimum. You can then use the card wherever American Express is accepted.

Upromise Restaurants

If you’ve got your eye on future college expenses for your kids, the Upromise Restaurants program can help pad your education savings.

Members earn a flat 5% cash back on every purchase at one of the program’s participating restaurants, which is deposited into a Upromise account. You can then transfer your cash rewards to a Upromise GoalSaver account or a state-sponsored 529 plan you’ve previously set up, pay off student loans, or request a check.

While the rewards potential is significantly less than what you’d receive through iDine, keep in mind that many states offer tax benefits to those who contribute to a 529 plan. Plus, your contributions can be invested and used later for qualified education expenses on a tax-free basis. And if you use it to pay off student loans, you can save on future interest payments.

Orbitz Rewards Dining

If you like to travel but don’t want to restrict yourself to a single airline or hotel chain, Orbitz Rewards Dining is a good option. You’ll earn 5% in Orbucks per $1 spent at participating restaurants. You can then use your Orbucks to book part or all of your next trip.

Like Upromise, Orbitz Rewards Dining won’t give you the same potential return as iDine. But it does make redemption on Orbitz easy.

Best airline dining programs

Most of the airline dining programs we found offer up to 5 miles per $1 spent, so the value of each dining program is based on the value of its sponsor airline’s frequent-flier miles.

Keep in mind that if you live near an airline hub, that airline’s dining program is likely to be more valuable to you than one with a higher rewards rate, because you’ll be more likely to actually use the miles. Each program has more than 11,000 participating restaurants, bars and clubs, so it’s typically easy to find one nearby. Here are the top three:

SkyMiles Dining

If you fly Delta Air Lines often, SkyMiles Dining offers the best value. Here’s how the rewards tiers work:

  • Member: Earn 1 mile for every $2 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from SkyMiles Dining.
  • Online member: Earn 3 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
  • VIP member: Earn 5 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have 12 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.

As you can see, being a bottom-tier member is hardly worth it. Becoming an online member is as easy as checking a box agreeing to receive emails from the program. If you eat out regularly, it won’t take too long to reach VIP member status. And because NerdWallet values Delta SkyMiles at 1.8 cents apiece on average, your rewards rate can be as high as 9% if you’re a VIP member.

MileagePlus Dining

As with SkyMiles Dining, United Airlines’ MileagePlus Dining offers three tiers of membership, and the faster you can scale the status ladder, the better:

  • Member: Earn 1 mile per $2 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from MileagePlus Dining.
  • Online member: Earn 3 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
  • VIP member: Earn 5 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have 12 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.

NerdWallet values United MileagePlus miles at 1.7 cents each on average, so you’ll get an average rewards rate of 8.5% as a VIP member — but a measly 0.85% as a member.

AAdvantage Dining

For those looking to score more American Airlines AAdvantage miles, this dining program offers the same tiers as Delta’s and United’s programs:

  • Member: Earn 1 mile per $1 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from AAdvantage Dining.
  • Online member: Earn 3 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
  • VIP member: Earn 5 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have 12 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.

NerdWallet values AAdvantage miles at 1.2 cents apiece on average, which will get you an average rewards rate of 6% once you reach VIP member status.

Other airline dining programs

While Delta, United and American offer the best programs, they aren’t the only airlines that have them. Here are some other airlines with programs worth considering:

  • Alaska Airlines: Earn up to 5 miles per $1 spent.
  • Hawaiian Airlines: Convert your cash back earned through Mogl into Hawaiian Airlines miles at a rate of 40 miles per $1 (Arizona and California only).
  • JetBlue Airways: Earn up to 2 points per $1 spent.
  • Southwest Airlines: Earn 3 points per $1 spent, plus 10 points per completed review. Also earn 500 bonus points when you earn 1,500 points through the program and an additional 300 bonus points with each subsequent 1,000-point increment.
  • Spirit Airlines: Earn up to 5 miles per $1 spent.
  • Virgin America: Convert your cash back earned through Mogl into Virgin America Elevate points at a rate of up to 30 points per $1.

Best hotel dining programs

While many hotel loyalty programs give discounts at select restaurants, we found only two that offer bonus points for eating out. As with the airline dining programs, you have more than 11,000 participating restaurants, bars and clubs to choose from:

Hilton HHonors Dining

If you’re loyal to Hilton and its wide selection of brands, you can easily earn up to 8 points per $1 with its dining program:

  • Member: Earn 2 points per $1 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from Hilton HHonors Dining.
  • Online member: Earn 5 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
  • Elite member: Earn 8 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have 12 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.

As exciting as it may be to get 8 points per $1 instead of 5 miles, NerdWallet values HHonors points at 0.5 cent apiece on average, giving you a 4% rewards rate as a VIP member and just 1% as a member. So unless you’re bent on boosting your HHonors point balance, you’re much better off with an airline dining program.

IHG Rewards Club Dining

Like Hilton’s dining program, IHG Rewards Club Dining — from InterContinental Hotels Group — offers up to 8 points per $1 spent:

  • Member: Earn 1 point per $1 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from IHG Rewards Club Dining.
  • Online member: Earn 5 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
  • Elite member: Earn 8 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have 12 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.

IHG Rewards Club points aren’t worth much at 0.7 cent each on average, according NerdWallet’s calculations. That’s good for a 5.6% rewards rate as a VIP member but only a paltry 0.7% as a member.

How to maximize your dining rewards

At this point, you may be wondering whether you can just sign up for all of the dining rewards programs and watch the rewards roll in — earning points in multiple programs for the same meal.

As exciting as that would be, it’s not an option. Most of these dining programs are administered by a company called Rewards Network, which doesn’t allow you to have your credit card number registered with two separate dining programs at the same time.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to maximize your rewards. Because Rewards Network lets you register any credit card with any of its dining programs, you can choose a card that offers bonus rewards on dining out.

For example, the Discover it® - Cashback Match™ typically lists restaurants as one of its 5% cash back categories (in 2016, it’s a 5% category in the second quarter). The same is true for the Chase Freedom®, which offers 5% cash back at restaurants during the third quarter of 2016.

The Santander Bravo MasterCard offers 3 points per $1 spent on restaurant purchases throughout the year, although the bonus is capped at 15,000 points per quarter — or $5,000 in spending — and also includes gas and groceries. Also keep in mind that the card’s annual fee is waived the first year and $49 every year thereafter.

Another option is the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer. While this card doesn’t offer extra rewards for dining, you’ll earn 1% cash back when you make any purchase and another 1% cash back when you pay it off.

Or you can use your airline or hotel loyalty program’s co-branded credit card, though they typically don’t offer anything more than 1 mile or point per $1 spent on dining.

Next steps

If you eat out regularly, there are several programs that will help you earn more of your favorite loyalty rewards points. Consider applying for one of the cards mentioned above if you don’t already have one of them, then head over to Rewards Network and choose the program that works best for you. After you sign up, add your card number to your new account and make sure you keep an eye on participating restaurants in your area.

Ben Luthi is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: bluthi@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @benluthi.


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