Maximize your rewards with dining rewards programs

Friends sitting around a table at a restaurant, sharing appetizers and using their dining rewards program to maximize points Image: Friends sitting around a table at a restaurant, sharing appetizers and using their dining rewards program to maximize points

In a Nutshell

Dining rewards programs offer points, miles or cash back rewards for purchases made at eligible restaurants — and sometimes other retailers. And you can maximize your rewards-earning potential by using a credit card that adds its own bonus rewards to dining rewards programs.

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There’s little downside to signing up for a dining rewards program.

Whether dining out is a rare treat or the norm in your household, you can benefit from signing up for a dining rewards program. These programs offer rewards when you link an eligible credit card or debit card and then make a purchase at an in-network restaurant. You’d also still be able earn whatever rewards come with your credit card. And occasionally, you can find restaurants that are part of multiple dining-rewards programs.


How do dining rewards programs work?

Dining rewards programs all work in a similar way. You create an account and link eligible credit or debit cards to your account. Then, when you use the linked card at an eligible restaurant, you’ll earn rewards through the program based on how much you spend.

Some programs may work only with cards that are part of a certain network, but some are open to credit cards from any major network. Gift cards, prepaid cards, FSA accounts and EBT cards might not work, even if they have the appropriate credit card network logo on them.

Some of these programs may offer introductory bonuses with minimum spend requirements for new members. But it’s often for a reasonable amount, such as spending $25 within 30 days.

Bonuses aside, you may want to focus on the one program that you’re most likely to use — and benefit from — rather than bounce around. With some rewards network programs, your earnings rate increases after you dine out a certain number of times in a year (and opt in for emails).

Limited competition means few stacking opportunities

The reason many of these programs work the same way is because two companies run most of them — Rewards Network and Empyr. Rewards Network powers most of the travel-loyalty dining rewards programs, while financial technology companies seem to prefer Empyr’s program. The duopoly means you often can’t stack rewards from multiple dining rewards programs.

For example, you can link up to 12 different cards to a Rewards Network dining program, but each card can only be part of one dining program at a time. If you add a credit card to TrueBlue Dining, and then try to add it to Hilton Honors Dining, it gets removed from your TrueBlue Dining account. Similarly, Empyr lets you link only one card to one program at a time.

Earn miles, points, rewards or cash back

Here’s an overview of the many dining rewards programs that are available and which company powers each of them.

Frequent-flyer programs

You can earn frequent flyer miles from dining out through one of these programs.

Hotel loyalty programs

Hotel loyalty programs offer points which you can redeem for free hotel nights.

Other loyalty programs

These loyalty programs may offer you options to redeem your rewards for travel, merchandise or discounts.

Cash back programs

There are also programs that offer rewards that you can redeem for cash back or gift cards. Often, these get added to your account, and you’ll need to earn enough rewards to meet a specified threshold before cashing out.

How you redeem the rewards you earn can vary. If you use a bank or investment app, the money may be deposited into your account. Some other rewards sites, such as eScrip Dining, send your rewards to a charity or school of your choice.

Here are some other rewards programs we think are worth mentioning.

Use your favorite dining card

While you can link debit cards to a dining rewards program, you should consider using a dining rewards credit card. If you regularly eat out (or order in), these cards offer bonus rewards on dining that can quickly add up, especially when you stack them on top of a separate dining rewards program.

For example, with the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card, you’ll earn 4% cash back on dining and qualifying entertainment purchases, plus 2% cash back on purchases at qualifying grocery stores and 1% cash back on all other purchases. The card does have a $95 annual fee, but it’s waived the first year.

Another option is the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card, which forgoes the annual fee in exchange for a lower 3% cash back rate on eligible dining and entertainment purchases.

The American Express® Gold Card could be another good pick, particularly if you like to travel. Using the card, you’ll earn four Membership Rewards® per $1 on dining purchases worldwide, and four points on the first $25,000 you spend on purchases at U.S. supermarkets each calendar year. Plus, you’ll earn three points per $1 spent on airfare purchases from an airline or on amextravel.com, and one point per dollar spent on all other purchases.

The American Express® Gold Card’s $250 annual fee is somewhat offset by $100 incidental airline fee credit and the monthly statement credit of up to $10 for purchases at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations. You can also redeem your points in a variety of ways (travel being one of the best options), or transfer them to a partner airline or hotel loyalty program.


What’s next?

As with all rewards programs, the difficult part is often balancing the desire to earn rewards with the temptation to buy things you otherwise wouldn’t.

It can be easy to justify eating out — everyone has to eat — but it’s also often more expensive than cooking at home. One of the reasons the above-mentioned cards stand out is that they reward grocery store purchases as well.

When it comes to the dining rewards programs, you can look to see if there are eligible restaurants that you already frequent or have wanted to try. There’s no harm in earning extra rewards — just try not to eat out (or go to restaurants you don’t like) simply to get a few points or miles.