Deals and Rewards

Airline Restaurant Rewards Programs: Eat Out for Big Airfare Savings

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So your dinner date chose the 5-star restaurant and pricey chardonnay. But here’s the good news: That big bill could earn you big miles toward your Maui dream vacation.

Depending on your comfort level with sharing personal information, dining point programs are a fairly simple way to collect miles for your favorite airlines. Even something as inexpensive as a pizza or a coffee can quickly add up. And one of the best ways to earn points is through your airline’s dining rewards program (US Airways’ Dividend Miles Dining, for example). But there’s no one “best” dining program. All major airline dining programs are actually run by 1 restaurant marketing company, Rewards Network.

Rewards Network is completely transparent about what they want: information about you -- your age, number of kids, income and so on. (Rewards Network is Better Business Bureau-approved, and promises not to share your information beyond its network.) Rewards Network provides information on 3.4 million diners to some 10,000 restaurants, then helps those restaurants connect with you via emails, websites and a mobile app compatible with most smartphones. Read on for everything you need to know.

Airline Dining Rewards: How It Works
Visit your airline’s dining rewards site and create a free account with a user name, password, contact information, and up to 5 credit or debit cards. Dine at a participating restaurant, bar or club, and earn roughly 1 to 5 points for each dollar you spend. Provide an optional review of your restaurant experience and earn more points. You can also receive bonus points by dining as a new member within the first 30 days.

Of course, you’ll get plenty of emails, but that doesn’t mean you have to slog through marketing emails for points. Opt out of emails and you’ll still earn 1 mile per $2 spent -- check that airline program’s rules (see “Member.”). Allow permission to email you and get 3 points per dollar spent, plus special offers (see “Online Member”). Or allow permission, and enjoy 12 qualified outings in a calendar year, then begin receiving 5 points per dollar spent and other special deals (see “VIP Member”).

Dining Program Pros
Dining programs have several pros. First and foremost, joining is free, period. You are immediately eligible upon signing up. Register at 4:59 p.m., and be earning points by 5 p.m. happy hour. Dining programs don’t require ID cards, membership numbers or coupons.

A “visit” can be as little as 1 drink at a participating restaurant. Points pros claim heroics of splitting bills between 2 registered cards, or closing out tabs only to reopen immediately to garner another visit, thus accelerating VIP status. (Your bartender may hate you, but …)

You can also tax and tip count toward your total bill. Search the restaurant database by ZIP code, city or more advanced parameters. View menus and ratings.

Your frequent flier account is usually credited with your points within 2 to 4 weeks. You earn extra points during special sales, certain time periods or when a new restaurant joins the network.

Dining programs use cards you already have, so there are no new fees or high interest rates. (That said, spending just to incur miles is counterintuitive, so be wise.) Finally, dining miles count toward all partner airlines.

Dining Program Cons
The lack of quality restaurants is a common complaint. This is subject to interpretation of course, but be open-minded about your choices. Maybe you would love vegan pizza and just don’t know it.

Note that when you search for restaurants, some withhold points on certain days. A calendar on the left side of the screen should illustrate this. (Because Rewards Network powers all the sites, they all have the same design.)

Once you sign a card up for 1 airline program, you cannot use it for any others. So if you register your Disney Visa for Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards, you’ll need to use your Ohio State MasterCard for Delta Airlines’ Skymiles Dining.

Un-registering a card from a program is nearly impossible. There is no clear option for this on the website, so a phone call is required (though a live operator is available immediately).

You can’t take clients out every night and get points; $1,000 is usually the monthly ceiling, though restaurant visits are unlimited. 

But in the end, joining for free should be enough to persuade you to register. And once you combine restaurant points with the miles you earn from other credit card purchases, you could be tanning in no time.

About the Author

Laura Boswell is a Washington, DC-based journalist and essayist covering travel, sports, careers and relationships for outlets including ESPN.com, The Washington Post, AARP The Magazine and The Bob Edwards Show.

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