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Terrible Experience: Airline Dining Programs (and How I Beat Them)

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Chances are, you’ve received or seen ads for airline dining programs offering miles in return for dining at participating restaurants. For many ‘frequent fliers’ out there, most miles are actually earned on the ground. Between credit card bonuses, shopping portals, targeted ads, and dining rewards, tens (or hundreds) of thousands of miles are available for very little financial investment.


Dining programs are, in theory, very lucrative ways to earn miles by behaving as you would anyway: eating out. They work like this: airlines register with the umbrella program, Rewards Network. That program offers them a customized homepage, marketing materials, and the ability to create their own offers. Delta, American, and United are all registered with Rewards Network.


Each of these three airlines is currently offering a 3,000-mile sign-up bonus. That sounds like a lot, and truly is. Not necessarily on its own, but if it tips you over a threshold and gives you enough miles to, say, fly to Europe for free, it’s definitely high-value. United and American each require that you initially spend $25, and then a minimum of $1 three more times. In total, that’s four restaurants, a minimum of $29 spent, in 30 days. This will earn you 1,500 points, followed by three installments of 500 points.


Delta is different. They require three visits of a minimum $30 each (minimum $90 total) in 30 days. You’ll receive 500 points first, then 1,000 points, then 1,500. Each visit becomes more lucrative, which is great incentive to follow through! If you add up the criteria for all three programs, you’ll spend a minimum of $148 and receive 9,000 miles (minimum) in return. That’s an effective rate of $0.016/mile. Miles are usually worth between $0.01 and $0.02. Dining programs are only worthwhile because you also receive food and 3,000 miles can lift you over an airline’s threshold, allowing you to redeem miles for a free international flight.


In order to successfully use these programs, you need to register a different credit or debit card with each airline. This avoids double- or triple-dipping. When you pay at a participating restaurant with that card, the system automatically recognizes you and deposits the appropriate number of miles into your affiliated frequent flier account. The cards don’t have to be affiliated with the airline, but using United’s Chase card, for example, allows you to even further increase the points you earn with United on any each purchase.


The issue with these programs, sadly, is that they seem to be pretty blatantly set up to cheat customers. I feel confident writing that sentence because I spent a recent month simultaneously earning the sign-up bonuses with each airline in what should have been an easy (and enjoyable) way to earn 9,000 miles in just 30 days. But a whopping five of the nine restaurants I visited were not ‘captured by the system,’ as their customer service teams phrase it.


Mistakes are understandable, but a success rate of less than 50% is dishonest and, frankly, criminal. Luckily, I had the foresight to photograph and save all receipts, document each restaurant I visited, and keep a careful eye on all of my frequent flier accounts (and all Rewards Network accounts, for a miserable total of six sites). I was quick to catch errors and submitted receipts/credit card statements five times across two airlines. Though the Delta system captured my purchases, it neglected to award the bonus miles.


All in all, I was mentally prepared to be cheated out of these miles. Something just told me that it couldn’t be as easy as advertised. But I ultimately received everything that I earned. I lost, however, precious time: as finite a resource as there could be. Furthermore, I visited restaurants I absolutely would never step foot in again for the sole purpose of earning miles.


The difficulties of this program nearly outweigh the benefits. I was left unhappy with the time it took to remedy the situation, the poor customer service (except Delta, actually), and the generally poor quality of the restaurants.


I highly recommend doing this program if you are ready for a fight, carefully meet all criteria, and know you’ll use the miles.


Written by Louis

*Disclamer– the feature photo is stolen from a United Airlines email ad. 

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