Points for simple eats

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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 Honors Amex to buy gift cards at a US Supermarket, drug store, or US 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! (This offer has expired)
  • 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 US Supermarket. You’ll earn 6% cash back on up to $6,000 in purchases at US Supermarkets (then 1%). At certain US Supermarket, 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.

Other ideas?

Do you have other ideas for maximizing points and savings when eating out at places like Panera, Chipotle, and Subway?  Comment below.

 

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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  1. Great tips, as always! I value UR points and will check out Kohls to see what cards they offer.

    For those busy collecting HH points with AMEX and with a Kroger nearby, just a reminder to check out your previous post on fuel points as these points are stackable.

    I am getting ready for a week long road trip, and will be stocking up on some chain restaurant gift cards to use on the trip. I am traveling with family who prefer chain restaurants anyway, so might as well stock up on cards! 5xUR for gift cards bought at Kohls or 6xHH at Kroger (plus 2X fuel points) will beat the 2x dining out points on the CSP for me.

  2. Since you mentioned the Citi Forward, I’ll add that ThankYou are not as straightforward as UR points, but can be more valuable in certain situations. You can redeem as cash (.625 cents per point), gift cards (.8-1.0 cents per point) or, with the Thankyou Premier card, airfare at 1.33 cents per point. At 5 points per dollar, that you gives a 3.1% cash return, 4-5% return for giftcards, and 6.7% return if spent on airfare. If you plan to do coach and domestic travel, this card can make sense vs accruing hard-to-redeem airline miles.

  3. I usually order subway at least once a week or so. To improve subway savings you can include the points they give you. They make it very easy to consolidate points and gift cards. Once you have the subway gift cards using one of the tricks from above you can easily transfer all points and money to one card using their website. Ive been buying gift cards with my Blue Cash Preferred card and transferring them to the same subway card that has been in my wallet for years now.
    Subway gives you 1 point per dollar. The best redemption option i find is 75 points for a free foot long. Usually use that on one of the more expensive subs which are $7.50 + tax in most places. So depending on your tax rate your getting over 10 cents per point toward subway on top of everything mentioned above!
    Curious if anyone has any similar info on other chain loyalty programs.

  4. Thank You points are worthless (in my opinion) unless you have a Citi Thank You Premiere card. I always redeems TYP for airfare and get 1.33 cents per point. The only downside is that the Citi Thank You Premiere has a really steep annual fee of $125.
    .
    There are other benefits like up to 15% discounts on flights through their Thank You Companion website (https://www.thankyoucompanion.com/ssl/travel/gateway.rvlx) and free companion pass each year, but I have not taken advantage of either of these options yet.

  5. Had no problem with the last variation using Amex OPEN Savings and OfficeMax. I bought $300 in GC online and went into the store in Willowbrook, outside of Houston. Bought $300 of Amazon GC and a box of thumbtacks. Paid with the GC and the $1.69 (for the thumbtacks) on an Ink Bold card for 5X points. Not a perfect example of converting to semi-fast food, but it worked.

  6. I searched high and low at my local Sears to find other gift cards but have not found them. Do some Sears carry them and some don’t? Any clues from anybody on where they might be located?

  7. I roll with the Citi Forward. Simple counts for me.

    Worth keeping an eye out for sales on GC where you can at times redeem at 1.1 to 1.25 cents per point. The GC offers change monthly and vary based on which types of TYP products you have (Forward, Pref, Premier, checking, etc).

    Not as good as 1.33 cpp for airfare, but worth considering at times. At this point my miles on hand are > burn rate, so the GC’s can make sense.

  8. @Grant $125 is waived for Citigold. I was recently told that program has been eliminated now. But if you got the TY Premier card last year you should be grandfathered into NOT paying the $125 fee going forward.

    Needless to say not many people realize benefits of TY Premier.
    -You get 1 companion ticket free every year.
    -You redeem for 1.33 for airfare using points. On top of that you get Flight points. Flight points can be only redeemed if you have that much spend.
    -Bonus points on anniversary every year is a nice thing. If you keep the card past 4th year, you are basically getting 5%+ back.
    -1.2 ThankYou Points for every dollar you spend on purchases at supermarkets, gas stations, drugstores and commuter transportation/parking merchants
    -If your spouse has TY account. The points can be transferred into TY Premier account and basically they can be redeemed now for 1.33 for airfare.

  9. TY points are not that great, IMHO:
    — I can get much higher average point earning on Chase cards, and can redeem for flights directly the same way, but at 1.25 cents per point. They even use the same booking interface and vendor.
    — On some fares, the underlying price seems to be a lot higher than what I can book directly. I’ve had several instances of having to call them and force them to honor the official price, otherwise my points became worth much less than 1.33 cents.
    — The Spirit incentives program that gives out the 15% discounts or free passes has an extremely limited selection of fares. You can’t just get a discount on any itinerary you want.
    — I never had my flight points posted, on several occasions, even after calling Citi several times. I finally gave up.

    Once I burn through my stash of the 100k bonus, I’m done with this card…until maybe 2 years later when the bonus is available again.

  10. My officemax gals try everything first. I’ve never had a problem buying gift cards or visa gift cards from them. I had one lady say, “it [the computer] may not let me do this…” but she tried anyway and it went through.

  11. Go slower to explain how spending $130 can net you $156 (15,600 in UR) and $97.50 in cash?

    If so, I’ll throw the GCs away and just make a roughly 100% profit from the money and points.

  12. I’m pretty sure he means spending $130 each month for a year nets the 15,600 UR (only when there is a bonus for giftcards via UR shopping portal) and $97.50 cashback.

  13. I have found the best and certainly easiest for fast food or other places like Subway is just to use the Chase Freedom card but to be in the 10/10 Exclusives program. Usually my Subway meals only come out around $5 which gives me 15 UR points which comes out to 3 points per dollar. This is only during the quarters where no bonus exists. If a bonus category exists, it goes up to 35 points or 7 UR/dollar.

  14. Hi! I recently purchased something from Brookstone using Ultimate Rewards portal (10x points), totaling $60.00. I used a $50.00 Groupon voucher, and put $10.00 on my Ink Bold. I was expecting 100 UR points, but imagine my surprise when e-mail from Chase said I earned 600 UR points. I was always under the impression that I only earned points on what I put on the credit card. Is this just a fluke, or have I misunderstood the rules all along?

  15. @SP, in my 3-4 experiences using Groupon gift cards/vouchers via the UR mall, you will get the full bonus (5x for CSP currently) even if you pay with GC. I tried it first by paying part of the purchase with GC, and remainder with Chase card, then I made the entire purchase with GC. All points have posted. Makes a great deal even better.

  16. @Dave. Thank you! Do you know if this is good only for Groupon? It would be great be able to use another credit card while going through UR mall. I recently got the Citi American Visa and trying to complete required spending. Would be great if I can use Citi Visa on the UR mall!

  17. Buy.com is currently 5x UR points. According to the laboratory, purchases of merchant gift cards earn points. Not sure if using buy.com gift cards to purchase merchant gift cards is allowable though?

    • marathon man: It’s been a long time since I looked. I don’t think Kohl’s carries bank gift cards, but I could be wrong. Note that they definitely do not allow buying gift cards with gift cards.

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