Maximizing new job perks

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Just recently started a new job as a secret shopper with a company Iíve worked with in retail for 5 years through college. The secret shopper position is essentially an entry level marketing position in their corporate office that I plan to do until another position opens up in their office. Until then, Iím living the life of a shopper working 40 hours a week traveling around a few states shopping their stores and trying to maximize all the perks I can with this job (hoping there might be some more that can be pointed out to me??).

Current Perks of the job include:
ēCompany Car (100 miles a week of personal use free, 55 cents for every mile after that, all fuel costs put onto company card)
ē$25 a day for meals (put on company card, no incentive for spending less but expected to consume what I purchase that day)
ēHotel stays (usually 3 times a week) expected to stay in hotels $80 or less whenever possible(put on company card and I can keep hotel rewards)

As of right now, Iíve been booking my hotel stays using ebates for CashBack bonus and sticking with Choice Hotels whenever possible (Choice Hotels seems to have the best promotions from what Iíve seen that still fit the $80 budget. I guess Iím looking for any other deals I may be overlooking that I can take advantage of? Was looking for a big chain restaurant that may have a punch card or something but no luck yet.

To be clear, not looking to take advantage of the company I work for by finding loopholes in their policies, just looking for deals being offered by other stores that would benefit my current ďon the roadĒ lifestyle.

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So with dining rewards programs like idine or the best buy one I'd have to link the company credit card with the transac... (more)

jacksodw (Nov. 03, 2012 @ 1:09a) |

I spent the summer in Del Mar, ate oatmeal everyday for breakfast, got all kinds of free coffee/deserts/seems like soup ... (more)

watchtower7 (Nov. 03, 2012 @ 2:09a) |

The company would have no idea. Completely third party. All communications will goto your whatever contact info you prov... (more)

imbatman (Nov. 03, 2012 @ 7:36a) |

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go buy $25 gift cards at the grocery store. $25 of eating out is going to turn u into lard

Look up various hotel best rate guarantees.
Best Western and Hilton give you a gift card if you find a qualifying lower rate someplace else.
Starwood gives you 2,000 points.

Make sure to pay attention to hotel quarterly promos.
I.e. stay two nights at any Marriott get a free night cert. stay at a Radisson get a free night(too late to sign up for that one).
Hilton recently ran triple base points. I got around 4,000 points for nights at a $70 doubletree.

I would investigate 'extended stay' hotels. Even if you aren't staying 'extended' you still get good rates. Hilton Staybridge, Candlewood Suites, etc. I like their reward programs...

I bill my company .55 cents for mileage, and I make money off it. So don't go over that 100 miles unless you don't have your own car you pay for. (If you don't have your own car to pay maintenance, etc for then .55 is a good deal probably).

I completely agree with the poster who suggested grocery stores. You'll find that $25/day will get you quite a bit of groceries that you'll be happy to eat - and then get some extra cash as well. $25/week in giftcards is worth more than all those other rewards combined probably.

Also watch those reward program forums (flyertalk, etc) because many times they will have other bonus programs you can sign up for and get extra points on top of your regular points. I recently had one for like 500 points extra for every night, and I get to keep my hotel room even when I go home (30 days a month). That adds up really fast.

We just fired a guy who used his daily meal expense stipend to buy groceries. I suggest you do not buy groceries

Are you single? If so, get a roommate or rent out your place on VRBO
or Airbnb while you're gone. Or, if your rent/mortgage is high enough to make it worthwhile, consider moving out entirely and staying in cheap motels when you're in your hometown.

@Mike: why?

Hope the guy you fired didn't have any dietary restrictions (either health or religious), else you are inviting a discrimination suit. Sounds like a dumb policy to me.

Sell your car and limit your personal driving. This will be by far the best perk of the job.

Do they allow you to use YOUR own credit card and expense everything? You could get a 2-5% Cash Back card and earn $$ on it.

Also be honest with your company and ASK them if you can buy items at grocery store. If not and you HAVE to go to restaurants I'd find a restaurant with a rewards or points program that you can earn future free meals with. That and buy items like the $1 Halloween gift packs at McDonald's or if you have a little $$ left pick up a $5 gift card when dining at Olive Garden, etc..

Buy $25 GC @ restaurants you frequently eat? while doing that take advantage of either http://aa.rewardsnetwork.com/howitworks.htm or http://www.upromise.com/welcome ?

Red Robin offers a rewards card that is buy 9 meals get one free. We use it for our office, and it works out when 4-6 people are eating there 2-3x a month, but wouldn't really add up that quickly for one person...

mikef07 said:   We just fired a guy who used his daily meal expense stipend to buy groceries. I suggest you do not buy groceries

It's an IRS compliance thing.

$25 meal per diem is really low, and so is $80 for hotel. What part of the country are you doing this in?

many companies will not like to see that you're buying gift cards with their per diem. it's too obvious that you're cheating the system as opposed to just buying what you actually need for the day. That being said, don't waste money buying $1.50 bottles of water here and there. Buy a $4 case and keep it in the car. If they give you grief, explain that you're saving them money in the long run.

Restaurants I frequented that offer points:
Qdoba
TGIFridays
Subway (if you load gift cards)

sign up for all chain restaurant email promos. you can get some decent coupons there which will cut down your cost of dining.

$25/day may seem fine and dandy, but that's not really enough to enjoy many sit down meals. I worked on $22.00, $24.00 and $32.00 per diem. < $25.00 and I found myself eating a lot of Subway, Panera, Chipotle, Qdoba, etc. Avoid fast food.

If you're trying to eat healthy, look for asian and thai restaurants. Most offer meals with a decent amount of vegetables for a fair price.

If you use restaurant.com correctly, your purchased certificate can cover any cocktails/appetizers you'd like to splurge on while traveling, while the per diem can cover entree + gratuity.

I did groceries for a while, but it felt ethically wrong after I accumulated a pantry's worth of half-eaten packages of food in a few weeks. Use grocery stores for their hot kitchens, cheaper beverage prices, and fresh fruit/veggies. Some days, a bag of carrots and dip really hits the spot and is much better for you than applebee's.

beatnik28 said:   $25 meal per diem is really low, and so is $80 for hotel. What part of the country are you doing this in?

I'd guess the South, since he drives to multiple states (NC/SC/GA/TN area, for example)

You're playing with fire buying gift cards with your company card. Stick with choice like you said and don't try to milk the system.

Also, Choice Hotels has some decent rewards, but here's a few things to watch out for:
1) when they say "free night", they mean 8,000 points. That's enough for a free night at their lowest tiered locations ... which you WONT want to stay at. Most decent hotels range from 16k to 30k per night, with most being around 16k.
2) if you don't do much traveling, look for the gift card exchange rate. normally 32,000 choice points = $50 gift card to Amazon. sometimes they do promos where you can get a $50 "gas card" for 16k points. the "gas cards" are just branded visa gift cards. you can use them anywhere.
3) Choice Hotels vary GREATLY in quality from location to location. look carefully at pictures online before you book, or ask to see rooms before you commit to staying. I've had spider bites and bed bugs from staying at some quality inns and comfort inns ... even some that were $140/night.
4) you'll get the most "status" and reward bonuses if you check in/out each day. that means, stay at a different place every night even if you're in the same town.
5) Choice Hotels "status" levels are kind of a joke. besides the points bonuses, don't expect to ever be upgraded. they aren't obligated to give you the jacuzzi suite.

If you know where you're traveling in advance, it may be worth it to sign up for Priority Club and Hilton Honors. I've found Holiday Inn Expresses and Hampton Inns from time to time for $59-79/night. The quality of those is exponentially higher than Choice Hotels. Plus, your breakfast will be a lot better.

Whoever mentioned looking at extended stay places, you're correct. It's a great way to build status and points at a higher tier hotel chain without paying the higher prices. Staybridge Suites are quite nice and often under $80. They also provide hot dinner (and in some places free draft beer!) on weeknights, so you could use your whole per diem for lunch. Other places aren't bad, just look at pictures beforehand. The biggest thing you'll notice is a difference in quality of the bed and sheets in the extended stay locations.

Everything I buy must be put on the company card and itemized receipts of my purchases need to be turned in so grocery store/gift card would not work, they expect that $25 to go towards a meal for myself for that day, grocery shopping would very likely lead to be being fired.

I haven't looked into Best Western/Hilton hotels much (didn't think many would fall in the >80 range) but I believe Choice and Wyndham both have that lower rate guarantee. Is that a difficult process to go through to get them to pay up? When I last looked choice seemed pretty competitive with points value, they've always had a stay two times get 8,000 points promo (unlimited amount of times you can get the bonus) going which I intend on saving until a gift card promo comes up to redeem for 8,000 points ($50 GC). Should I be exploring other hotel rewards for better deals than that?

I've also liked Choice Hotels because of their teir status, I am now a platinum member which would allow be to book through any site (like Hotels.com) and still receive my reward points. This means I could book through Hotels.com (through ebates) and receive my Cash Back through ebates, rewards through choice, and the Hotels.com rewards. Only reason I haven't done this yet is because I'm required to use aaa whenever possible (haven't found a way to do this yet).

I've also already sold my car after realizing I'd hardly ever drive it now and then bought an old junker truck for back up and to help around the house. My girlfriend and I just purchased a house so renting out the place or selling it is not an option.

I think the rewards for restaurants is my best bet to get the most out of them, I heard panera has something like this (never ate there but I'd be willing to give it a try).

I'm located in the Midwest and keep in mind my routes are usually just one night routes so the $25 a day is really just to cover either lunch/dinner or breakfast/lunch I'd be home prior to my route for breakfast or home for dinner typically.

I should also mention the stores I shop sell food/drinks and its acceptable to snack and grab a drink whenever needed using the company card. This is kind of a grey area because they don't keep track of any of that but it's something that could easily lead to termination if I abuse it. So occasionally ill grab a bag of beef jerky and a water or powerade (started saving caps but just too lazy to enter those codes in!) but just like the restaurants what I buy I'm expected to consume and not take home.

Oh and I also forgot to mention, I get taxed on the personal miles I use so if I use 50 miles I'd have an extra $27.50 show up on my gross income but not to my net (actually less for the taxes taken from the 27.50). Considering I never pay for gas anymore and my year end bonus (which should be about 8% of my yearly income) is calculated by my gross income I don't think its that big of a deal but never really looked into it that much...

jacksodw said:   I've also already sold my car after realizing I'd hardly ever drive it now and then bought an old junker truck for back up and to help around the house. My girlfriend and I just purchased a house so renting out the place or selling it is not an option.

I think the rewards for restaurants is my best bet to get the most out of them, I heard panera has something like this (never ate there but I'd be willing to give it a try).

I'm located in the Midwest and keep in mind my routes are usually just one night routes so the $25 a day is really just to cover either lunch/dinner or breakfast/lunch I'd be home prior to my route for breakfast or home for dinner typically.

I should also mention the stores I shop sell food/drinks and its acceptable to snack and grab a drink whenever needed using the company card. This is kind of a grey area because they don't keep track of any of that but it's something that could easily lead to termination if I abuse it. So occasionally ill grab a bag of beef jerky and a water or powerade (started saving caps but just too lazy to enter those codes in!) but just like the restaurants what I buy I'm expected to consume and not take home.

Panera gives quite a bit back on their program. I highly recommend it.
Get a rewards gas card/supermarket program going and be sure to use the following-
1. Get a chase ink bold card
2. google bluebird from AMEX
u get 5x rewards buying the gift card which can be loaded onto the bluebird card which u can use for all your purchases. I would estimate between this and the correct booking/hotel chain you can make at least 10% back on all your expenses.

Thanks! I'll have to give Panera a try. But all my expenses must go on the company card, so no go on any rewards through credit cards.

i understand them not wanting people to buy gift cards
but if he has to submit receipts and spends 25 dollars on food at a supermarket not allowing it would be pretty rediculous

Hotels:

Do you have to pay the hotel directly? Using Priceline to name your own price could get you a much better room for the same amount of money. (But without the rewards.)

Most hotels have a best price guarantee. If you find a lower price elsewhere you may get a better room (Plus get rewards for booking directly with the hotel.)

Speaking of Best Price Guarantee: If you are allowed to use Expedia, you could use their guarantee and get a $50 voucher to use at a later time. (Not too hard to find in most major cities)

Best Western will give you a $100 voucher if you find a better price. (Not sure how easy this will be, I've never looked into their Guarantee)

Gas:

The rewards are almost nothing, but may add up. But make sure to use a rewards card for buying gas. You might eventually get enough points for a free drink or 10 cents / gallon discount. (Speedway, Thornton's, Shell)


Restaurants / meals:

I Ching has a rewards card. If I had your deal I would be eating at TGI fridays frequently. (Rewards program called: Give me more stripes)

You said No grocery, so buy some fruits at the unreasonable convenience store prices to be healthy.

Not sure you could get away with Olive Garden with as much as they've promoted the "free meal for tomorrow". You might try it and see what prints out on the receipt. You could always claim you turned down the free meal for later.

I don't see any reason you shouldn't be allowed to buy from Papa Johns (Provided you order reasonably) . They have a decent rewards structure, and frequently offer free pizzas for later with purchase. - I just saw this deal advertised again the other day.

I would still use coupons when you go to restaurants that offer them. If you go to Olive Garden or Red Lobster and save $2, that's $2 you can use during the other meal of your trip. - It's pretty easy to go through $25 for 2 meals especially if you are eating at places that you might leave a tip.

(Update: only applies to Op if girlfriend meets him there. She can't ride in car with him.)
BTW: Is there ever any trips your gf is able/ wants to go with you? It should be pretty easy to structure paying for her without being evident. - Using a split check, leaving any tip on your bill would be easy. If you have any coupons or discounts use them with her bill. An appetizer and entree is enough for 2 people if they want it to be, so it may be possible for her to order nothing at all. (Just make sure the receipt doesn't mention the other guest.) Unfortunately most BOGO free or BOGO 1/2 price coupons wouldn't work well. Could use separate orders though if one of you had a free birthday meal.


Car:

The car is a fair deal for around town. But for personal use, you should rent a car for any trips. - If both girlfriend and you have car, you should sell yours. No reason to have 3 cars for 2 people.

If you have any errands to run, try to do them while you are on the companies dime. (I am NOT suggesting faking mileage. I'm talking about stuff that's on the way.)

I'm guessing you are responsible for miles from home, to work and back?

I don't think getting food at a grocery store would be so bad just the gift card idea (though most of the things I'd buy at a grocery store are sold at the store I shop so really no need to go to a grocery store).

I have done pizza places occasionally and have left over food which is not a problem. I think the general idea is that I shouldn't be spending any more than what I need for that day, i.e. if a meal only costs $17 I shouldn't be looking for something worth $8 to max my budget out. I rarely even go over the $20 for food and I'm ok with that (gaining enough weight from sitting in the car all day the way it is!) but if I can get some deals on future purchases for my personal use I'm all up for that.

I'm not allowed to have anyone else in the company car except for other shoppers/boss so my girlfriend would not be allowed to come on the routes with me though. She would be allowed to meet me where ever I stay for the night but would have to take her own car and pay for her own expenses (same hotel room would be fine of course).

TGI Fridays has a loyalty program?

The whole gift card thing just depends on company policy.

For instance, if it was a true per diem where you got to keep everything under $25, then we wouldn't even be having this discussion Sounds like you're talking about a limit, though.

My company also fired people for buying gift cards at restaurants.

Is your limit an average for a trip, or stricly per day? For instance, if you've got a multi day trip, and buy groceries for a few days, and go over $25 on one day but under on others, is that cool?

I'll confess that maybe I've found myself with a little too much beef jerky or mixed nuts or something else that just gets thrown into my luggage and taken home after a business trip. But that's as ambitious as I get.

Panera's rewards program isn't a big deal. sometimes you get a free dessert.

sign your company card up for idine, upromise, and any other passive CashBack plan you can think of in case you eat at one of the covered restaurants.

It's per day but I don't think they would have a problem with me going over one day at night if I made up for it the next day but I don't think I'll push that. And you are correct, the $25 is a limit so they expect me to spend that amount or less. Like I said earlier, all of my drinks/snacks are purchased at the stores I shop and not technically included in the $25 a day (though I try to keep in mind how much just to cover myself) so really the only thing I'm using that $25 for is my end of the day meal and occasionally a sub or something in between.

See if you can set up some special rates at hotels on your routes, ones that will give you upgrades or other perks like a free meal voucher. There are some "local" type hotels that are willing to do this and even some chains, especially ones that are franchised like Best Western. The corporate sites and the "hotels dot com" type sites don't give them the freedom or allowance to make side or private deals for loyalty customers like yourself.

This type of thing can work, because I have done it. You just need a nice smile and the cajones to ask and sell the idea to the hotels on your routes, if necessary.

You might want to sign up for OpenTable as well. If you make a reservation for any meal you eat out, you get points for that (usually 100 points per reservation), and once you hit 2,000 points you get a $20 gift card that can be used at any OpenTable restaurant.

They have an app that you can reserve a table with, and you can reserve a table even right before you go to eat there.

SPG has a pretty decent hotel rewards program, and they are often reasonably priced in the Midwest and other low cost areas. I would check that program out before committing entirely to Choice, because their hotels tend to be much nicer.

You may also want to ask your employer to get you a Costco membership to save $$ on gas. Then, you could use that card for personal purchases as well for the things that are good deals at Costco.

I would also ask about whether it is ok to shop at grocery stores for food, but not because I think you should buy gift cards (you shouldn't). However, if you are eating out a lot, grocery stores often have some great healthier options- pre-packaged salads, hot food bars, etc. For example, although Whole Foods is a pricey grocery store, it can be a great and competitively-priced place to eat out healthily while on the go for work. It also may save them in the long run if you buy certain things in bulk (i.e. jerky, Powerade, etc.), so they may be happy to allow you to do it .

Like you, before my professorial days - I had a traveling mystery shopping company job - although it seemed to be more flexible than yours. Mine was for a major mexican food chain with thousands of locations - and we were given a route (300-400 shops a month) and given a laptop, thermometer, some thingie to test the acidity of the drink, a scale and pretty much were given complete freedom. We were also 1099 employees - which was fantastic because I don't think there was a year I made more than 10k after the mileage deduction.

What I would look for are hotels that have - buy 2 rooms, get a free night promotion. These are rare - but Hawthorn
Suites had one about 10 years ago that was - after two stays in different hotels, each one after the third got a free night attached to it. I stayed at 40-50 hotels that quarter - and racked up 30+ free nights with that promo. Flyertalk has really good forums about that.

I got tired of eating the free food I had - it made me run to the border a little too much - after awhile - so I ended up at Subways and the like as well.

I'm not sure if it's acceptable/doable (it was with a 1099 - not sure since you're more a traditional employee) - but pick up other mystery shops while you're out there - especially if you're in far flung places. For instance, when I was doing West Texas - Pecos had a travel center that was almost always available that paid up to $100 for the restaurant/shop - because they had to pay someone from Midland or Odessa to do it all the time - and it was right on my way. Also - see if you can pick up some hotel secret shops. One of my favorite hotel secret shop gigs was a Holiday Inn Express compliance shop - where the whole point of the shop was to go take pictures of the bathrooms to make sure they had the curved rack, new towels and new shower head in a random room. I got points a plenty on that gig, as well...

Not to hi-jack your thread, but Horseymen - where do you find those 1099 opportunities? Is there a particular company you'd recommend?

In the Midwest too, you could obtain Speedway's frequent program that can ear you rewards.

I'm thinking that some of these limits might be tied to your admission that its an entry-level postion, so they may have a tendency to be more strict given that some try to game the system. As some have said, some other business related travel pay per-diem rates that vary considerably - A year ago, my work sent me to New Orleans, and paid a food per-diem of $93/day. I couldn't eat that much if I tried

Rather than going the gift card/points route, you might consider thinking outside the box, and spend it in such a way that you have left overs, which you could consume the next day; We're talking minor gains here, but at least its something and you're within the rules. At minimum, the entire last day's 'receipts' could be for food you consume on the following day, your 'day off'. Granted, fresh produce wont work, but things like BBQ and Take-n-Bake pizza might be on the short list.

I'm guessing you are responsible for miles from home, to work and back?

I'm only about 6 miles away from the office which is covered by company miles but I usually only make 1 or 2 trips a week to the office to drop off the time sheets, mileage log, and shops

I rarely stay in hotels outside of work so redeeming points for gift cards is all I'm really interested in. I'm all for staying in nice hotels but if I have the choice of a $50 gift card or nicer sheets I'm picking the $50 gift card. That said, I can get a $50 WalMart gift card for 16,000 points on choice (which can be achieved after 4 stays under their current promotion of "stay two nights and get 8,000 points")and in the past they had a promotion for a $50 Sears gift cards for 8,000 points which i'm currently saving up for again. Anyone know if this would be achievable with Hilton, Extended stay, or Best Western hotels?

I agree, Choice Hotels are really hit or miss but its all about the reward points for me, do any of these hotels compare to this redemption rate?

walt99 said:   Not to hi-jack your thread, but Horseymen - where do you find those 1099 opportunities? Is there a particular company you'd recommend?

Walt - not to be vague - but those types of opportunities are generally only available when you've been shopping 5-7 years and have some done some admin work as well (i.e. scheduling or project development)

Volition.com is the Fatwallet of Mystery Shopping - so they have every major shopping company with reviews and vague comments about what they do - like Fast Food Mexican Food - you can't say Taco Bueno or In N Out Burger gets shopped by XYZ company - but you can say "A popular fast food hamburger chain with a limited menu in 8 states is shopped by XYZ company.."

Another vote for idine. If you go to cities where a lot of restaurants participate, you can rack it up. Up to 15% CashBack at participating restaurants (once you eat $750+ worth over all combined restaurants within a year). I think that idine is the most generous of all the rewards network dining options, especially at the highest tier (ie other Rewards Network dining programs include AAdvantage dining, United mileageplus dining, BBuy reward zone dining, HHonors dining etc). They do not stack, so just choose one.

Oh, Club Carlson had a b1g1 free for Radisson hotels, but the promo just ended. I've seen Radissons for under $80, albeit very rarely. Marriott has a b2g1 free promo. Not sure how easy it is to get Marriotts (including their brands such as Courtyard
) for under $80.

watchtower7 said:   
Panera gives quite a bit back on their program. I highly recommend it.


Can you elaborate on this one? I am signed up for their card but I hardly get anything. When companies have this program where they kind of say, "use our rewards card - we will throw you a bone when we feel like it", you know that you are probably not getting much unless you eat there everyday.

jacksodw said:   

As of right now, Iíve been booking my hotel stays using ebates for CashBack bonus and sticking with Choice Hotels whenever possible (Choice Hotels seems to have the best promotions from what Iíve seen that still fit the $80 budget. I guess Iím looking for any other deals I may be overlooking that I can take advantage of? Was looking for a big chain restaurant that may have a punch card or something but no luck yet.


If you can graduate to Hilton/Marriott within your budget, I highly recommend those programs - not for the ebates CashBack but for the points that you accrue. I believe it is true for Hilton but Marriott definitely has a lot of promotion programs on the points for frequent guests. And once you accumulate enough points to redeem for a week of vacation in Hawaii at a prime resort, all the travel woes will be forgotten! Whichever you adopt, get their credit card - really accelerates your point earnings.

Edit: Ignore the piece about the credit card. Looks like you have to use the company card

Skipping 18 Messages...
jacksodw said:   So with dining rewards programs like idine or the best buy one I'd have to link the company credit card with the transaction correct? Not 100% the company would be ok with linking the card to something like that but I think I'll look into it. I assume there wouldn't be any changes to the billing statement or anything?

The company would have no idea. Completely third party. All communications will goto your whatever contact info you provide.



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