Boost rewards with airlines' dining programs

Join, register a card, dine at selected restaurants, earn extra points

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I got a flier in the mail yesterday for an American Airlines dining program that gives frequent flier miles for going out to restaurants. I go out to eat several times a week and am trying to save frequent flier miles, so it sounds like a good deal. Should I do it? – Christina

Answer Dear Christina,
There are so many different ways to earn and redeem points out there that it can sometimes be difficult to keep up. The two major ways to earn airline miles are by flying – and the big airlines have modified those rules in the last few years – and by using credit cards affiliated with airline programs.

But in addition to those two big ways, there are a lot of smaller ways that you don’t often hear about. Participation in dining programs is one of those.

American has a dining plan. So do Delta, United, Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska and Spirit. Hilton has one, too. These programs have slight differences, but they run pretty much in the same way. That’s probably because they are all administered by the same company, Chicago-based Rewards Network. See chart, “Airline and hotel dining rewards programs,” for details.

The programs work like this: You sign up for the program online – in your case, American’s program. You register a credit or debit card. Then, when you go out to eat, you can look online for participating restaurants. If you use a registered card at one of those restaurants, you automatically receive bonus miles for dining at that restaurant. Usually, the bonus is between 2 miles per $1 and 5 miles per $1. 

Most of the time, it makes sense to earn extra rewards by spending money on something you were going to spend money on anyway. If you dine out a lot, these extra points can add up.

Double-dipping is OK
Another neat feature of these dining programs is that the points you earn are in addition to any that come with your credit card. For instance, if you have a Citi American AAdvantage card that earns 1 mile per $1 spent, and you participate in the dining program and earn the maximum 5 miles per $1, then you are earning a total of 6 AAdvantage miles per $1. Or if you are using a Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which earns 3 Chase points per $1 at restaurants, you’ll earn that in addition to the AAdvantage miles through the dining program. 

One small downside is that the number of participating restaurants is limited. For instance, of the several dozen restaurants near where I live, only 19 within five miles participate in AAdvantage Dining. In the past six months, I have been to maybe four of those. Unless you dine at a participating restaurant all the time, you probably won’t see a major boost from these dining programs.

To see if these programs are worth your time, it probably makes sense to at least check what restaurants around you participate. Because the airlines’ different dining programs are run by the same company, the same restaurants tend to appear in each one. If you decided in three months that you wanted to start earning United miles instead of American miles, you can easily switch. You can’t sign up for all of the airlines’ dining programs at once – you have to choose, so you can’t earn miles in multiple programs with a single visit. 

The bottom line: You can earn more miles with these dining programs. But unless you eat out often at one of the restaurants affiliated with the program, they are probably not going to be a major source of additional frequent flier miles.

AIRLINE AND HOTEL DINING REWARDS PROGRAMS
Airline Program name Features
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Dining

5 miles/$1 for “VIP members” (agree to receive emails and dine at least 12 times/year at participating restaurants)
3 miles/$1 for “online members” (agreeing to receive emails)
1 mile/$2 spent for all others

American Airlines AAdvantage Dining

5 miles/$1 for “VIP members” (agree to receive emails and dine at least 12 times/year at participating restaurants)
3 miles/$1 for “online members” (agreeing to receive emails)
1 mile/$2 spent for all others

Delta Air Lines SkyMiles Dining

5 miles/$1 for “VIP members” (agree to receive emails and dine at least 12 times/year at participating restaurants)
3 miles/$1 for “online members” (agreeing to receive emails)
1 mile/$2 spent for all others

JetBlue Airlines True Blue Dining

2 points/$1 for members of JetBlue’s TrueBlue Mosaic program (elite level frequent fliers)
1 point/$1 for all others

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Dining

3 points/$1 for agreeing to receive emails
1 point/$2 if you don’t sign up for emails

Spirit Airlines Free Spirit Dining

5 miles/$1 for “VIP members” (agree to receive emails and dine at least 12 times/year at participating restaurants)
3 miles/$1 for “online members” (agreeing to receive emails)
1 mile/$2 spent for all others

United Airlines MileagePlus Dining

5 miles/$1 for “VIP members” (agree to receive emails and dine at least 12 times/year at participating restaurants)
3 miles/$1 for “online members” (agreeing to receive emails)
1 mile/$2 spent for all others

Hotel Program name Features
Hilton HHonors Dining

8 points/dollar for “elite members” (agree to receive emails and dine at least 12 times/year at participating restaurants)
5 points/dollar for “online members” (agreeing to receive emails)
2 points/dollar spent for all others

IHG IHG Rewards Club Dining

8 points/dollar for “elite members” (agree to receive emails and dine at least 12 times/year at participating restaurants)
5 points/dollar for “online members” (agreeing to receive emails)
2 points/dollar spent for all others

Source: CreditCards.com research, February 2017.

See related: In which categories can I get bonus points?

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Updated: 11-17-2017