The 5 Best Credit Cards for Dining Out
Updated May 2013
At first glance, dining out would seem be the opposite of frugality, as it is easy to spend enough in one meal at a restaurant as you could buying a week’s worth of groceries. Yet frugal people like me have been able to turn this equation on its head by using every trick in the book. On a recent night out, I made my reservation with Open Table just before departing in order to receive points worth future dining credits. When I arrived, I presented a coupon from Restaurant.com that took $25 off my $35 bill. Finally, I paid for our meal with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which earns double points at restaurants. On other occasions I have use coupons from the Entertainment Book and participated in many of the dining miles programs offered by the airlines. By dining out frugally, I cannot claim to be saving money over the price of home-cooked meals, but I can come pretty close to the price I would have paid for just the ingredients I would have used to prepare a similar meal. (See also: Credit Cards for Groceries)
There are other situations where dining out makes sense or is essential, too. Every day that I go to my office, I am presented with three options for eating lunch. I can prepare my own meal at home, bring a store-bought frozen meal, or eat out. Preparing my own meals is the least expensive option, but it requires me to spend time and energy each evening putting it all together and cleaning up; time I would rather spend with my family. The next least expensive option is to bring a store-bought frozen meal, which I tend to do once or twice a week. While I have found frozen meals for under $2, the decent quality entrées actually to cost at least 3$ - $4. Alternatively, I can find healthy lunch specials for as little as $5 when I eat out. At the end of the day, the extra $1 for a healthy, freshly prepared meal is worth it to me.
Another time I always have to dine out is when traveling. Those who travel for pleasure will visit restaurants for convenience, or if only to enjoy the local cuisine. On the other hand, those who travel on company-reimbursed business trips are usually granted a per-diem allowance and save nothing by economizing.
Restaurant Rewards Credit Cards
No matter what your situation, anyone can save money by using the ideal credit card to maximize the rewards they receive from their dining expenses. Just as with any reward credit card, cardholders must always pay their balances in full and on time in order to assure that interest payments do not overwhelm any rewards received.
1. Citi Forward® Card
Citi’s cards are not normally considered to be at the forefront of the reward card market, but their Forward card is the clear leader when it comes to dining rewards. This card (and their Student Forward card) offers cardholders an industry-leading 5x rewards for spending on dining and on entertainment. Rewards come in the form of ThankYou points that can be redeemed for one cent each towards travel expenses and some gift cards. Unfortunately, redeeming ThankYou points for cash back or statement credits returns less than one cent in value. But at five points received per dollar spent at restaurants (and on entertainment), even a .7 cents per point in cash back will still yield 3.5% rewards worth of your dining dollar, which is a very strong return. There is no annual fee for this card.
2. Blue Sky from American Express®
This card offers one point per dollar spent on most purchases, with double points on dining, hotels, and car rentals. In contrast with Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Program and their own Membership Rewards program, the points offered by this card simply return 1.33 cents cash back as a statement credit. Therefore, each dollar spent at restaurants returns 2.66 cents in cash back. And although in-flight meals cannot really be considered dining, this card does offer a $100 annual statement credit to cover buy on board meals or checked baggage fees. This statement credit is also a great way to justify the $75 annual fee.
3. Chase Sapphire Preferred
Chase offers several different cards that earn points in its Ultimate Rewards program, but their Sapphire cards earn double points for charges at restaurants. Those with the standard card can redeem points for gift cards or cash back at a rate of one cent in value per point. While there is no annual fee for the standard Sapphire card, I carry the Sapphire Preferred for several reasons. Despite its $95 annual fee (waived the first year), Preferred card holders receive a 7% bonus on their points each year, making each meal worth 2.14 points. Additionally, Preferred cardholders receive double points all travel expenses, and triple points when travel is booked through Chase’s web site. Finally, the Preferred card has no foreign transaction fees and cardmembers have the option to redeem points for miles with some airlines or points with hotel chains.
4. Discover Open Road
The Discover cards are known for their simplicity and excellent customer service. Their Open Road card offers 2% cash back on dining and gas purchases, with other purchases receiving the standard 1% cash back. Another outstanding feature of this card is the 0% promotional financing on both new purchases and balance transfers for 15 months. There is no annual fee for this card.
5. Marriott Rewards Premier From Chase
This is the wildcard of the bunch. It offers one point per dollar spent on most purchases with double points for dining at restaurants, as well as airline and rental card charges. Five points per dollar are earned at Marriott properties. You get 50,000 bonus points after spending $1000 in your first three months, enough for 7 free nights at a Category 1 hotel. There is an $85 annual fee that is waived the first year, and cardholders receive a free night each year when they renew.
Without a doubt, most consumers will save money when they prepare their meals at home. Nevertheless, I find a frugal night out to be a needed respite from our family’s normal routine of cooking and cleaning. By using all available coupons and discounts, and by choosing the best credit card to pay for your dining expenses, you can have affordable meals that ultimately lead to valuable rewards.