Why savvy points earners always pick up the check

Rack up credit card rewards by charging meals with friends, co-workers or a big party

Stephanie Zito
Travel and cards writer
Travel expert who writes the "Have Cards, Will Travel" column for CreditCards.com

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We’ve all been in this situation: We’ve just finished a lovely dinner out with friends, colleagues or perhaps even a date. The server arrives and places the dinner bill awkwardly in the center of the table. 

What happens next? 

In most scenarios, social or cultural norms dictate who reaches into the awkward space and picks up the check.  But in the world of people who collect travel rewards points, the person who pays the bill is normally the quickest and savviest points earner. 

What do smart points-earning diners know? There are many, many credit card rewards points to be earned in the world of dining out. 

Whether dining solo, with a partner or with a full-blown party, here are four things smart points earners know about eating out, that you, too, can put into practice. 

1. You can be earning points whenever you eat out.

In the world of credit card rewards, there are literally hundreds of points on the table every single time you dine out. Order a $20 entree, for example, and your rewards balance should gain at least 20 points from your meal when you pay with your credit card. 

Choose to pay your restaurant bill with cash or debit, and it’s as if the busboy is tossing these points in the bin with your dirty dishes and leftovers. 

Don’t leave points on the table. 

If you are not earning some points whenever you eat out, it’s a waste. If you aren’t earning more than one point per dollar on your meals, you may not be maximizing your spending power. 

Smart diners pay with the credit card in their wallet that earns the most points for dining. If you dine out frequently it’s definitely worth looking into a card that earns a category bonus for dining. 

My personal favorite card that I always use to pay my dinner bill is the Chase Sapphire Reserve which earns a 3x points on dining. Even as someone who eats out infrequently, I often earn an extra 1,000 points a month. 

2. Pick up the points when others won’t bother.

I’m not sure why any of my friends are still not convinced that credit card points earning is worth the small amount of effort, but inevitably I’ll always have a friend  or two who wants to pay with cash or debit when we grab a bite out. 

Rather than try to convince my friend to sign up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve for the millionth time so they can earn their own dining points, I use these occasions to take control of the check. 

Points-hungry diners put down their credit card for the full balance and pocket their friend’s cash (and then put it in the bank to pay off the credit card bill when it’s due). 

If your friend doesn’t have cash, getting paid back is easier than it ever with mobile quick pay services like Venmo and Zelle. 

Results may vary, of course. While I used to have a lot of luck paying for friends’ dinners and getting reimbursed, I’ve now converted most of my friends into points collectors. 

Now if I try to pick up the check, my friends accuse me of trying to steal their points. Sometimes I let them buy me lunch and call it even. 

3. Charging the meal for a large party equals a big points haul.

Once you’ve mastered getting reimbursed by friends, you’re ready to go larger scale. 

We’ve all had that moment at a friend or colleague’s birthday lunch or dinner where there’s 11 people at the table, someone who isn’t paying because it’s their birthday, and a server who won’t do more than two separate checks. There’s one bill, a lot of uncertainty about who should pay what, and no one is technically in charge. 

In this situation, one person usually rises to the occasion with a smartphone calculator, tells everyone what to pay, collects the credit cards and the cash, and totals it all up to make sure everything evens out – tip and tax included. 

Normally no one likes this job and it falls to the defacto accountant or administrator in the group – but it doesn’t have to be this way. Credit card rewards collectors who are willing to pick up the check on these occasions can bank a lot of points.  

With tax and tip, a big birthday party dinner can easily run $300-$600 with drinks. For a group dinner, more people who think ahead will be prone to bring cash to keep it simple. Put the dollars in your pocket and put those points on your card. 

With the 2x dining bonus on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, that’s 600-1,200 bonus Ultimate Rewards points for a little calculator work. If you’ve got the Sapphire Reserve, you can bank an extra 900-1,800 points. 

If you are looking for a haul of cash back instead of points, the Uber Card from Barclays gives 4 points per dollar for dining, or the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card and AARP Credit Card from Chase, each with 3 percent cash back for dining, are good bets. 

4. Choose to dine where you can double dip on rewards.

Another way to max out your dining rewards is to be knowledgeable about restaurants where you can double dip – earning points more than one way for a single transaction. 

In the case of dining, this is often about choosing a restaurant where you’ll score points from a credit card category bonus plus additional points because the restaurant belongs to another awards program. 

When I was living and working in Washington, D.C., double-dipping on dining was a key part of of my happy hour points-earning strategy. 

On Wednesdays after work, there was always a group of people ready to celebrate finishing hump day with a cocktail, but the group always had decision paralysis about where to go. 

As a savvy points diner, I studied up on the list of restaurants near my office that participated in the American Airlines AAdvantage Dining rewards program. 

When the group couldn’t decide, I always had a suggestion up my sleeve. 

The Argonaut on H street (which has sadly closed) was my favorite destination for a long while. Not necessarily because their beer was top notch – but because I racked up 5x extra points for every dollar I spent there when I paid with a credit card that was registered in the free American Airlines dining rewards program. 

How this works: If I had one $5 beer and paid my own bill, I’d earn 40 points (15 points for my 3x Chase Sapphire Reserve dining bonus and 25 points from AAdvantage Dining). If I managed to get 10 friends to come and they each tossed some cash my way for their one or two beers before they departed, I could earn nearly 1,000 points a night and even more if people came hungry. 

As an added bonus, all the people in my office thought I was really friendly to sort out the location and the bill! That’s a win-win. 

How to win friends – and earn points over meals and drinks

Put the four strategies above into practice and you’ll quickly learn that dining miles add up. 

But be warned. When you come back to work with a tan and start showing your vacation pictures from the free trip you took to Tahiti, you may start getting some competition for paying the bill. 

Don’t worry, there’s always an opportunity to organize a birthday party of happy hour for some new and unsuspecting people at the office. 

See related: How dining out can help you earn more rewards, 4 ways to stack rewards at restaurants, Boost rewards with airlines dining programs


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Updated: 08-15-2018