October 10, 2012
A reader contacted me recently asking how he can maximize points earned at semi fast food places like Panera, Chipotle, Subway, etc. He recognizes that restaurants like these aren’t available through point-earning dining programs, but he’d still like to earn more than 1 or 2 points per dollar. Overall, he averages about $130 per month at restaurants like these.
Of course, the first thing to do is to join whatever loyalty program each food place offers. Beyond that, let’s look at some options…
Simplest approach: Use a credit card that offers extra points for dining
Off the top of my head, here are a couple of good options:
- The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar at restaurants, plus a 7% annual dividend so it really returns 2.14 points per dollar.
- Even better, the Citi Forward card offers 5 ThankYou points per dollar at restaurants (including fast food). ThankYou points are not generally as valuable as Ultimate Rewards, but with an earning rate over twice as high as the Sapphire Preferred, it’s still worth considering.
With the Citi Forward card, $130 per month will become 7800 points per year. When you’re ready to redeem points, you can sign up for the Citi ThankYou Premier card to make your ThankYou points even more valuable. With the Premier card, 7800 points are worth over $103 in airfare.
Better approach: Buy gift cards strategically
Gift cards for places like Panera, Chipotle, and Subway tend to be readily available at grocery stores, drug stores, etc. Take advantage of your credit card bonus categories to buy gift cards for the places you visit the most. Here are some examples:
- Use a Hilton HHonors Amex to buy gift cards at a grocery store, drug store, or gas station. You’ll earn 6 Hilton points per dollar. If you buy from certain grocery stores, you’ll also earn fuel points for saving money on gas!
- Use a Chase Freedom card within its quarterly bonus categories to buy gift cards. For example, until December 31st 2012, the Freedom card offers 5 points per dollar at hotels, airlines, Best Buy, and Kohl’s (up to $1500 in spend per quarter). At Kohl’s you can buy gift cards and earn 5 points per dollar.
- Use a Chase Ink card to buy gift cards at an office supply store such as Staples, OfficeMax, or Office Depot. You’ll earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar.
- Use a Blue Cash Preferred card to buy gift cards at a grocery store. You’ll earn 6% cash back. At certain grocery stores, you’ll also earn fuel points for saving money on gas.
My preference among these options is to earn Ultimate Rewards points with the Chase Chase Freedom or Ink card. With either card, $130 per month will become 7800 points per year. With the Ink Bold, Ink Plus, or Freedom (when paired with one of these Ink cards or with a Sapphire Preferred card), your Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to high value loyalty programs such as Hyatt, United, Amtrak, or British Airways. With these programs, you can easily get at least 2 cents per point value for travel. So, those 7800 points could be worth $156 or more in travel. Note that you can expand this idea well beyond dining options via the “One card to rule them all” trick.
Advanced approach: Buy and upgrade
Every now and then there is an opportunity to buy gift cards at a heavy discount or to get lots of points. One recent example is when Sears offered 10 points per dollar through the Ultimate Rewards Mall. Not all stores do so, but Sears is known to award points for gift card purchases. Here’s how to take advantage of a deal like this:
- Go through the Ultimate Rewards Mall to Sears and order gift cards in order to get 10 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar (during 10X promotions)
- Pay with the best credit card option. For example, you could setup the US Bank Cash+ card to give 6.25% back at department stores. That would be a great way to boost your savings!
- With gift cards in-hand, go to Sears or Kmart and find the gift card racks. Use your Sears gift card to buy the gift cards you really want. Note that at Sears it can be very hard to find a gift card rack that sells anything but Sears cards, but once found I’ve never had trouble buying them. At Kmart, on the other hand, the gift cards are easy to find, but not all cashiers will allow you to buy gift cards with gift cards. I’d recommend filling up the cart with other stuff (groceries, etc.) to increase your odds for success.
By going through this admittedly convoluted process, $130 per month in semi fast food dining can become 15,600 Ultimate Rewards points and $97.50 cash back! Of course, that’s contingent upon 1) Sears repeating its 10X promotion; 2) Sears or Kmart carrying the gift cards you need; and 3) Sears or Kmart allowing you to buy gift cards with gift cards…
A variation on this approach is to use an American Express business card with OPEN Savings. Use that card to buy over $250 worth of OfficeMax gift cards at a time at OfficeMax.com and you’ll automatically get 10% cash back. Then, go to OfficeMax and use those gift cards to buy the gift cards you really want. Caution: many OfficeMax stores do not permit buying gift cards with gift cards.
Do you have other ideas for maximizing points and savings when eating out at places like Panera, Chipotle, and Subway? Comment below.