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Enjoying a meal at a restaurant can be a luxury for the frugal while it is a necessity for those who travel for business or pleasure. And while many profess the need to save money on dining by skipping appetizers, drinks, or desert, there are ways to order whatever you want while saving money by using your credit cards strategically.

First, choose the best credit card for eating out. Currently, the top rewards card for dining is the Citi Forward Visa. It offers five ThankYou points for each dollar spent at restaurants and on entertainment. Points can then be redeemed for one cent each towards gift cards or flights booked through Citi. The American Express Blue Sky Preferred returns 2.66 cents back in statement credits for each dollar spent at restaurants, hotels, and on car rentals. Other contenders are the Sapphire and Sapphire Preferred cards from Chase which offer two Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel and dining.

Next, be sure to register your cards with your favorite airline’s dining program. United, American, US Airways, Southwest and others all offer similar dining programs that feature up to five miles per dollar spent at eligible restaurants. Many of these programs also include valuable bonus offers. For example, the Delta SkyMiles program currently offers an additional 1,200 bonus miles after spending $25 in dining within your first 30 days of enrollment.

Another way to leverage your credit card rewards is to purchase gift cards through your credit card’s online shopping portal. For example, the Chase Ultimate Rewards website offers an additional 12 points per dollar when you purchase discount certificates at Restaurant.com.

But what you probably do not want to do is to redeem points and miles for gift cards valid at restaurants. For instance, the Membership Rewards program from American Express offers gift cards for many restaurant chains at a rate of one cent per point. At that rate, you might as well redeem your points for cash back and earn more points when you purchase dinner. Even its special deals, such as 4,250 points for a $50 gift certificate at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, only equates to about 1.18 cents in value per point. In contrast, 100,000 Membership Rewards points could be transferred to miles with one of 16 different airline partners in order to earn a business class award ticket to Europe, easily worth 4-8 cents per point.

There are many ways to use your credit card to earn points, miles, and cash back when visiting restaurants. So feel free to splurge on drinks and deserts, but just be sure not to waste your precious credit card rewards on low value gift cards.

Image: TaxCredits, via Flickr

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