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Sign-up bonuses juice up dining miles cards

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012
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Courtesy United

To whet your appetite for earning miles (without flying!), several major airlines are offering sign-up bonuses this fall for their mileage dining programs.

Your favorite restaurant might offer from 1 to 10 miles for every dollar you spend. But are those miles enough to justify the logistical hassle of signing up and dining at designated restaurants?

The value of these programs depends on 1) taking advantage of some of the current sign-up bonuses; 2) having at least one participating restaurant near where you live and that you might dine at every other month; and 3) using the mile activity as a way to keep your frequent flier accounts active.

One of the biggest things to change in the past year for these programs has been the development of smartphone apps. Now, instead of having to bring along a clunky, quickly outdated paper directory of participating restaurants, you can get a real-time list of what spots will earn you miles.

Another change in recent years has been consolidation in the industry, with only one company Rewards Network, running all of the major programs. This change has allowed programs to become simplified and standardized. If a restaurant participates in the program for United, it probably also does for Delta, too, and you can use the same downloadable app for your smart phone to figure it out. If you have more than one dining card, you can double up on your rewards.

Here's the lowdown on how these programs work: It's free to sign up for a dining card that gives airline credit every time you use it. Rewards Network, for instance, will (typically) give you three United miles for every mile you spend at a restaurant. At a value of about a penny a mile, that credit amounts to a 5 percent rebate on a family of four's typical restaurant check. Compared with some charge-cards, that's a decent mileage payoff. No wonder more than 3 million travelers are enrolled in these programs.

All the dining programs work in a similar way. You sign up online for free at the sites (see the list, below), punching in your frequent flier number and registering a debit or credit card (American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa.) Use the card to pay your bill (including food, beverage, tax and tip) at a participating restaurant, and then miles will be automatically credited to your frequent flier account. No need to tell the waiter.

As I mentioned, sign-up bonuses can juice up your earnings. To use United as an example again because it's so large, its dining program currently offers 1,000 mile bonus for signing up and spending at least $50 at a participating restaurant by the end of the year.

These are the sweetest bonuses being offered now:

Alaska Airlines

Bonus: Earn an additional 500 miles if you spend $25 at a participating restaurant within a month of signing up.

Delta

Bonus: Earn 1,000 miles if you spend $25 at a participating restaurants within a month of signing up.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining

Bonus: Spend $25 at participating restaurants within two months of signing up and you'll receive 300 points

United

Bonus: Earn 1,000 miles extra for signing up and spending at least $50 at a participating restaurant by the end of the year.

US Airways

Bonus: Earn 1,000 points if you spend $25 or more on two different occasions between now and the end of the year at participating restaurants.

Another perk of dining cards: It's a no-sweat way to keep your frequent flier mileage accounts active and prevent the qualifying miles you earn by actually flying from expiring after the typical 18-month span. (Miles will usually be deleted if an account is stagnant for 18 months.)

The first step in deciding if the programs are worth it to you is to see if local restaurants that you love participate. It's understandable to be suspicious that restaurants must be bad to have to throw 5 miles per dollar at you to eat at them. But because of the recession many eateries are becoming more competitive.

You can always ask a waiter, of course, to see if the restaurant participates. Or you can download a free app to find participating restaurants. The largest dining club program, Rewards Network is a good example to use, as the major airlines United/Continental, American, Delta, Southwest, and US Airways all belong.

Find a participating restaurant by downloading one of these free apps, Blackberry, iPhone/iPad, Android

There are some annoying downsides to the programs, though: One is that you can often only earn credit once per month (or a similar limit) at any one restaurant. The other is that, if you're not careful in the e-mail preferences you fill out, you could be blitzed with messages from participating restaurants. If you block the e-mails, however, you could get only one mile per $1 spent—or worse, maybe even nothing, as my colleague Brad Tuttle reported a while ago. The things a budget-conscious traveler has to put up with these days!

Have these dining cards worked for you? Share your thoughts in the comments!

MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL:

Southwest Waters Down Its Rapid Rewards Program

Ads on Boarding Passes: Are Airlines Sharing Your Info?

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