Whether you’re at home or on the road, the best way to save money on food is to cook it yourself. But when you’re traveling, you’re not always going to have a kitchen in your hotel room or want to bust out a propane camp stove from the back of your van or RV.
Over the years, we’ve found it helpful to have a handful of restaurants where we know exactly how to order something we like as cheaply as possible, and that’s where menu hacking comes in.
To be clear, we’re very aware that most of these menu hacks will be viewed as ridiculous nonsense by normal people — but they really have saved us a ton of money over time. Try not to judge us too much, although you’ll probably laugh a little. We know we’re weird.
Special Orders and Secret Menu Items
The main way to hack a restaurant menu is to find something you like to eat, and then think about how you could order the same food in different ways. Every new Taco Bell item is just the same five ingredients in a different configuration, right? Well, as a menu hacker, it’s your job to figure out the single cheapest configuration of the ingredients you like, wherever you are.
The brute force method is to try ordering your item completely a la carte. Imagine if you wanted a burger and fries, but instead, you ordered an a la carte burger patty, plus a bun, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and onion all on the side, and a side of fries. Sometimes this can actually ring up cheaper than ordering the “burger and fries” entree you see on the regular menu. If it does, your cashier will probably be like, “woah you’re the smartest person in the solar system.” If it doesn’t (and it probably won’t), they’ll definitely look at you like you’re nuts. So be prepared for that.
Usually, it’s just not that easy. You gotta use some creativity. Try some substitutions. If the menu item you want is really similar to another one, try subbing out the necessary ingredients from the more expensive one into the cheaper one.
At fast food places, a good thing to study is the value menu. Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have a special section of the menu dedicated to the cheapest items. Sometimes these smaller items are actually less expensive per unit than their larger counterparts, which is pretty counterintuitive, since ordering in bulk normally comes with a discount overall.
Our Favorite Menu Hacks
The way you hack the menu is gonna be completely different than us, since we might not like the same food as you, but here are a few of our personal favorite fast food menu hacks to save money. Remember, menus change all the time, so these specific hacks might not work forever. The point is to get a grasp on the concept so that you can discover your own tricks in the future.
McDonald’s — When we order the Baked Apple Pie dessert at McDonald’s, we’re always getting (at least) two. But there are actually two different ways to ring that in. Buying two of the item “Baked Apple Pie” is just twice the price of one (as expected), but there’s a completely separate menu item in the computer system called “2x Baked Apple Pie” that has a quantity discount built in! Make sure your cashier uses the right button, or use the automated kiosk to avoid a frivolous argument.
Burger King — Ordering two 3-piece French Toast Sticks at Burger King is bizarrely cheaper than ordering a single 5-piece pack. You also get two syrup packets instead of one!
Taco Bell — Being our favorite fast food place in the universe, we get a lot of value over time out of even small reductions in our order cost at Taco Bell. There are a ton of hacks here, but our favorite one is the “Side of Beans.” If you just want some extra refried beans, the normal way to ring it in is to do “Pintos & Cheese” (which you can get with or without the cheese). But if you tell your cashier to ring in the secret menu item “Side of Beans,” it reduces the price of the item by somewhere between 50% and 90%, depending on the location. Unfortunately, there’s currently no way to order the Side of Beans at the automated kiosks or on the mobile app. Another helpful tip at the Bell is that you can order any burrito grilled at no extra charge, which can help you soup up some of the ordinary items, like the Bean Burrito, so that they resemble fancier stuff like the XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito (yeah, it’s really spelled like that). The sky’s honestly the limit: Taco Bell has one of the most hackable menus on the planet.
Carl’s Jr. — We’re pretty excited about the fact that you can get a Beyond Burger patty at Carl’s Jr. now, but we were way less excited about the price tag on the Beyond Famous Star sandwich that it comes in. Instead, we always order the Big Hamburger (which is the cheapest burger on the entire menu, usually in small print toward the bottom somewhere so you won’t see it), and we substitute a Beyond Meat patty into it. That adds a couple extra bucks to the Big Hamburger, but the total price comes out way lower than any of the actual Beyond Burger options on the menu.
Blaze Pizza — Blaze is a build-your-own pizza place where you tell the employees exactly how much of every ingredient to add to a personal pie, and there’s no real limit on anything. Normally, each person would order their own, but there’s an option called a High Rise Crust that doubles the thickness of the pizza crust for a couple bucks extra, enabling it to safely support way more toppings. When you upgrade to the High Rise, and you’re nice to the person helping you, it’s pretty easy to get them to stack twice as much food as usual on the pizza, meaning you’ve essentially gotten two for (just over) the price of one, letting you split with a friend or take home leftovers. The worst thing you can possibly do at Blaze is order online, because you won’t be able to supervise and make sure you get hella toppings.
Starbucks — Paying $3-7 for a single beverage is on the list of things we always try to avoid in life. That’s why whenever we go to Starbucks, we hang out a little while and take advantage of the free refill policy. According to Starbucks, “When you use your registered Starbucks Card or Mobile app…you can get free refills of brewed coffee (hot, Iced Coffee or Cold Brew), and tea (hot, or iced) during the same store visit regardless of the original beverage.” There are two important things to realize here: First, because of the “regardless of the original beverage” clause, you can get a free Cold Brew refill after having originally ordered a latte (for example). And secondly, you should never leave Starbucks empty handed. After you finish your drink, grab a free iced coffee or Cold Brew (hold the ice) to stick in your fridge at home for later.
Chipotle — Similar to the Blaze deal, Chipotle lets you get as much food as you want (meat, Sofritas, and guac excluded) when you order a bowl. So the obvious strategy is to just get one bowl stacked to heaven and split with a friend. But there are two other hacks at Chipotle worth knowing about: First of all, extra tortillas on the side are free, meaning that even if you want a burrito, you should still order a bowl (which is the same price for more food) and just get a tortilla on the side. Secondly, you can order a secret menu item called a “3-pointer” at Chipotle for less money than any bowl or burrito. Every ingredient on the line is worth 1 point, with the exception of meat, Sofritas, and guac, which are 2 points each. Mix and match whatever you want without going over 3 points, and you’ll walk out with a cheaper meal.
Denny’s — If you’re hitting up Denny’s with a friend, and you both want burgers, just order one. Add an extra patty (it’s like $1.50 or so, depending on the location), plus extra lettuce, tomato, etc., on the side. Ask for an extra bun (which they may charge you a little for), and boom! You have the ingredients for two burgers. This probably works at a lot of other burger places, too.
Aside from menu ninjitsu, there are a few other tricks we use to save money at restaurants. The main ways include manipulating gift cards, receipts, and rewards programs. Basically all of these methods are stackable, so you might be able to hit them all in one transaction — if you’re up to the challenge.
There are two main ways to hack restaurant gift cards. The first is pretty simple, and it’s actually advertised by restaurants, sorta. A lot of places run deals around the holidays where you get bonus money for yourself when you buy a gift card for someone else. For example, you might be able to buy a $25 gift card and get a $5 coupon for free. Whenever we see these deals, we snap up one of the gift cards as soon as we walk in the door and use that same gift card to pay for our own dinner that night, netting us a free coupon for next time.
The other way to hack gift cards is available any time of year, but it’s a little less profitable on average. If you go to one particular place regularly, it might be worthwhile to try and find gift cards at a small discount to face value on eBay.
Another thing to look at when dining out is your receipt. A lot of restaurants put coupons for next time on the back or bottom of the receipt. Others ask you to take a survey in exchange for free food or a discount on your next visit. We never eat at Moe’s Southwest Grill without a “$2 off” survey code in our pocket. Consider checking out separately so each person in your party can cash in.
When you’re looking at your receipt, you might also notice a bar code at some places. Typically, you can scan this code with a mobile app and earn loyalty points toward free food in the future. Almost every major restaurant chain has a loyalty program of some kind, so check out our article about evaluating rewards programs for more info on making the most out of those.
At the end of the day, none of these tips are probably worth your time when you’re going somewhere for a one-off meal. But if you already eat somewhere really often, you should make every effort to reduce your bill there. Optimizing your order and saving 25% or more on something you eat once a week can add up to real money over time.
Just make sure you’re following the most important rules: 1) Be nice to food service employees. They have a tough job. If your menu hack doesn’t work as planned, don’t get angry about it. And leave a good tip for your servers. 2) Remember that if menu hacking is giving you an excuse to eat out more often than you would have without it, it’s not really saving you any money overall!
Cutting back on small expenses one by one can add up to a life-changing effect. Check out Step 2 of our Financial Roadmap for more money-saving tips.