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On the menu: Steak, potatoes, and miles

SmarterTravel

If you’re reading this column, it’s probably safe to make two assumptions: (1) You have an interest (possibly obsessive) in earning frequent flyer miles; and (2) You occasionally (possibly frequently) eat out. This article addresses the intersection of those two activities: miles for dining.

Eating for Miles

Miles-for-dining programs are just what they sound like. Participating restaurants award diners with airline miles for dollars spent. Making the proposition even more compelling is the programs’ ease of use. In most cases, you simply register up to three credit cards. After that, miles are automatically tracked and posted to your account when using a registered card at participating restaurants.

Dining miles can be a lucrative source of extra miles for those who eat out regularly. The standard payout is 10 miles per dollar spent at restaurants in the network, including tax and tip. That adds up quickly. If you spend $50 a week, you’d earn 26,000 miles in 12 months?enough for a free domestic round-trip ticket in most programs. (And don’t forget that if the registered card is one that earns miles for charges, you’re actually earning 11 miles for every dollar spent.)

Miles for dining are offered by most major airline programs, with the exceptions of Southwest and Midwest Express. It so happens that the dining programs for the largest three airlines (American, United, and Delta), as well as those for America West, British Airways, Continental, Northwest, TWA and US Airways, are operated by the same company, Transmedia, as branded versions of its iDine program.

iDine Program Summary

The iDine network includes more than 7,000 restaurants, and features a search engine for locating participating restaurants by area or type of cuisine. No matter which of the nine airline-branded versions you participate in, the basic program is the same and works as follows:

  • To earn miles, pay the bill with a registered Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover credit card, or a Visa or MasterCard debit card.
  • Most network restaurants award 10 miles per $1 spent, including meals, beverages, tax, and tip.
  • Generally, miles are awarded only for first-time visits each month. So, up to 12 visits per establishment, per year, qualify for miles.
  • The maximum earning is 6,000 miles per visit. Even if your total check exceeds $600.00, the mileage posted to your account will be 6,000 miles.
  • Parties are limited to six people.
  • Miles are not available in conjunction with other special offers such as coupons or discount cards.
  • Members must have a U.S. mailing address to participate.

“I could not believe the simplicity of the system. Unless you live in the sticks, you’re bound to find places to eat and earn miles.

– A self-described coupon-driven nut case

DineAir

Alaska Air’s program, DineAir, is the odd man out?the single program not operated by iDine. And it suffers by comparison.

To participate, you must present your Mileage Plan card or number when paying your bill. So earning miles is neither seamless nor discreet. And instead of the industry-standard 10 miles per dollar, Alaska’s program only awards three, and not on the tax or tip.

The program is also somewhat limited in scope. iDine offers 7,000 restaurants nationally, while the DineAir network comprises only 275 restaurants, in Alaska, Arizona, British Columbia, California, Idaho, Mexico, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

Limits to a Good Thing

There are two practical constraints to dining-for-miles programs, related to the “where” and “which” of your dining patterns.

1) Geographic Limits

The 7,000-plus restaurants in the iDine network are clustered in major metropolitan areas, because those areas have both substantial resident populations and attract business travelers from elsewhere.

Result: If you live in a smaller community, and don’t travel to larger cities on business (or vacation, for that matter), you won’t have the opportunity to patronize network restaurants.

2) Restaurant Network Limits

Even in large cities, not every restaurant participates in a miles-for-dining program. There are good reasons for this. The most popular restaurants don’t need the extra business. And the value-priced fast-food restaurants can’t afford the additional marketing expense associated with mileage programs.

What’s left, generally, are the middle-range establishments.

iDine, it should be noted, is attempting to extend its reach by allowing restaurants to participate on non-standard terms.

For example, the Wolfgang Puck and Chart House restaurant chains have recently been added to the iDine network on a “day of the week” basis (i.e., miles are only available on off-peak days, say Sunday through Thursday). While increased options are a plus in theory, the added complexity of keeping current with the Babel of differing participation terms can be burdensome for consumers.

Luckily, the overwhelming majority of restaurants keep it simple: 10 miles per dollar, any day, any time; no reservations or other special notification required.

Tactical Dining

The iDine programs make registering and de-registering cards easy. All that’s required is a phone call, and the change takes effect immediately. So you can use your preferred credit card to earn United dining miles today, and re-register the same card to earn Delta dining miles tomorrow. The trick is to leave one card registered with each program you use, thereby keeping your membership file active. Then move your primary card among programs.

Why change from one program to another, when they’re essentially identical? For two reasons:

  1. To take advantage of special promotions: For example, FlightFund Dining members who eat at any three participating restaurants through August 31, 2001, earn an additional 500 bonus miles. And AAdvantage Dining transactions count toward American’s 20th anniversary promotion.

  2. To top off an account: At 10 miles per dollar, dining miles are often the quickest way of overcoming a mileage shortfall and reaching an award threshold.

Prefer Cash to Miles?

While our focus is on earning miles, iDine also offers a dining-for-discounts option called iDine Prime. Instead of airline miles, restaurants rebate 20 percent of the check total. Members pay $49 a year to participate in iDine Prime, which means that the enrollment fee is recovered after $245 in spending, and all subsequent rebates can be considered “profit.”

For obvious reasons, you can’t expect to receive both miles and a rebate for the same meal. But it might make sense to register one or more cards for miles and another for the rebate, and use mile or rebate cards depending on the needs of the moment.

Where to Dine for Miles

If you’re not already familiar with the Zagat restaurant guides, you should be. There are Zagat guides for most larger cities, and the online versions feature restaurant databases searchable by neighborhood, type of cuisine, and price.

Use Zagat’s reviews to choose among restaurants in a dining-for-miles network. If a restaurant isn’t mentioned in Zagat, it’s because enough Zagat readers listing haven?t suggested it. That’s not necessarily an indictment of the restaurant though. My favorite Thai restaurant isn’t listed in the Los Angeles Zagat, but the better restaurants do tend eventually to find their way into the guides.

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