32 Secrets for Better, Cheaper Meals at Your Favorite Chains

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Hands holding a McDonald's cheeseburger
Photo credit: McDonald's/facebook.com

FAST BREAKS

We all stop at fast food and chain restaurants now and again, especially if we're in a hurry. But the money you're spending on all those trips to the drive-thru can add up quickly, even if you don't feel like you're spending much on each individual meal. There are always ways to save money and enhance your meals at chain restaurants, you just have to know how to game the system and find the secret menu hacks. Here are 32 tips and tricks for saving the most money and having better meals at some of America's top chain restaurants.

Double cheeseburger from McDonald's
Photo credit: McDonald's/facebook.com

MCDONALD'S: MINI BIG MAC

Known as the poor man's Big Mac, you can turn a cheaper cheeseburger from the menu into one that tastes just like the Big Mac. Just order the McDouble and ask for no ketchup or mustard, and add lettuce and Big Mac sauce. You'll be missing that middle bun, but depending on your location, you'll save around $2.
Iced Latte with green straw
Photo credit: unalozmen/istockphoto

STARBUCKS: MAKE YOUR OWN ICED LATTE

You can make your own lattes on the cheap at Starbucks. Order a double or triple espresso and get it on ice in a larger cup. Then just add milk and any flavorings over top at the condiment area. You'll typically save about $2 and receive roughly the same beverage.
Stack of McDonald's cheeseburgers
Photo credit: McDonald's/facebook.com

MCDONALD'S: $1 $2 $3 DOLLAR MENU

Don't get fooled by the new Dollar Menu format. A triple cheeseburger is $3, but you can order 3 regular cheeseburgers for the same price. You'll be getting a lot more food and calories for the same price.
McDonald's cheeseburger and Big Mac
Photo credit: McDonald's/facebook.com

MCDONALD'S: TWO-FOR DEALS

Also pay close attention to the buy-two promotions at your local McDonald's. For instance, in one area, a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit is $3.39, but if you buy two of them, it's only $3 total. It actually costs less money to buy two than to buy one. But even if two are more expensive than one, chances are you'll still save money on both.
Taco Bell soft tacos
Photo credit: Taco Bell/facebook.com

TACO BELL: SPICY POTATO AND BEEF SOFT TACO

A beef soft taco at Taco Bell is $1.19, and at many locations it's more, even up to $1.49. If you're in an area with high prices, it makes sense to order the spicy potato soft taco and add beef for 60 cents. You'll get a heftier taco (300 calories) made with fried potatoes, ground beef, creamy chipotle sauce, lettuce, and cheese for $1.60.
Mexican pizza and tostada from Taco Bell
Photo credit: Paras V./yelp.com

TACO BELL: MINI MEXICAN PIZZA

The same trick can be used to make a dish similar to Taco Bell's Mexican pizza. Add beef for 60 cents to the $1 spicy tostada. You get one crispy tostada shell instead of two, but you still get beans, beef, sauces, and toppings, making it a steal for $1.60, less than half the price of a Mexican pizza.
Venti frappucino from Starbucks
Photo credit: payphoto/istockphoto

STARBUCKS: SPLIT A VENTI

A venti drink at Starbucks is 24 ounces, while a tall is half that at 12 ounces. Got a friend who drinks the same thing? Order a venti along with two tall cups. It'll undoubtedly be less money than order two talls separately.
Woman sipping a fast food soda
Photo credit: nicoletaionescu/istockphoto

EVERYWHERE: GO SMALL ON THE SODA

If you're eating somewhere they have self-service fountain drinks or offer free refills, then always order the smallest (read: cheapest) size. You can get as much soda as you want, just in a smaller cup.
Grilled burrito from Taco Bell
Photo credit: Taco Bell/facebook.com

TACO BELL: GET YOUR BURRITO GRILLED

You can ask for any of the burritos to be grilled at no cost. It gives them a nice golden, crunchy crust on two sides, just like the Crunchwraps, which cost more.
Friends sharing McDonald's Mcnuggets
Photo credit: McDonald's/facebook.com

MCDONALD'S: ORDER MORE MCNUGGETS

It doesn't make financial sense to order McNuggets in small quantities anymore. A 10-piece is usually over $4, while a 20-piece is only $5 almost everywhere. You get double the McNuggets for less than a dollar more. It's even worse to order a 6-piece, which is around $3.59.
Culver's custard
Photo credit: Culver's/facebook.com

CULVER'S: GET A KIDS MEAL

Ordering a kids meal is almost always a good way to save money, even if it's an adult eating it. It's an especially good deal at Culver's, where you can get a single cheeseburger, fries, small drink and a scoop of custard for $4.99. That's at least $8 worth of food.
Chipotle kitchen line prepping tacos
Photo credit: Chipotle Mexican Grill/facebook.com

CHIPOTLE: EXTRA FREEBIES

You can always ask for extra burrito fillings because most are free. Extra rice, beans, salsas, cheese and lettuce are all free, so if you're looking to make two (or more!) meals out of one Chipotle bowl, ask for extra of whatever freebies you can.
Qdoba tacos and sides
Photo credit: Tim C./yelp.com

QDOBA: ORDER ON THE SIDE

Qdoba changed their menu so that everything — even guacamole — is included in the price of your burrito. You can also get tortillas or chips on the side of your bowl, so order your bowl's queso and guacamole on the side. They'll put it in little cups, and you can dip chips or tortillas like an appetizer.
Arby's Sliders
Photo credit: Arby's/facebook.com

ARBY'S: GET THE SLIDERS

Instead of the classic roast beef sandwich, order two roast beef sliders. The sliders are around $1.50, while the classic roast beef is around $3.29. You'll get more food and more calories in two sliders than you would a classic roast beef, all for less money.
Subway footlong and a 6-inch sub
Photo credit: Subway/facebook.com

SUBWAY: SHARE A FOOTLONG

Got a friend who wants to eat with you? You can order one footlong sub and customize the toppings on each half. So as long as you're happy to eat the same meats and cheeses, you can handle this trick.
Chick-Fil-A chicken tenders
Photo credit: Courtesy of chick-fil-a.com

CHICK-FIL-A: FORGO THE SANDWICH

Instead of ordering two classic chicken sandwiches at Chick-fil-A for a bit over $6, order the 4-piece chicken strips along with two toasted buns. You'll still get two sandwiches out of the deal, but it'll be about $1.50 less.
KFC $5 Fill Up Combo
Photo credit: KFC/yelp.com

KFC: STICK WITH THE COMBOS

While this is a rule that's true at most fast food places, sticking to combos is especially important at KFC. The $5 Fill Ups boxes, for example, are one of the best deals on the menu. A side, medium drink, biscuit, and cookie comes to almost $4.50 as it is, plus then you get chicken too, of course.
Chipotle tacos
Photo credit: Chipotle Mexican Grill/facebook.com

CHIPOTLE: TORTILLA ON THE SIDE

When you order a bowl, or even tacos, you can get a large tortilla or taco-sized tortillas on the side for free. You can make your own tacos, or get crispy taco shells and break them apart like tortilla chips.
Couple holding Chipotle burritos
Photo credit: Chipotle Mexican Grill/facebook.com

CHIPOTLE AND QDOBA: DOUBLE WRAP

Getting a burrito? Ask for a tortilla double wrap. They do it on their own sometimes anyway if your burrito is especially unwieldy or sprung a leak, so you might as well get the extra tortilla anyway.
Chipotle bowl
Photo credit: Chipotle Mexican Grill/facebook.com

CHIPOTLE: GO HALF-AND-HALF

It may not work all the time, but you can sometimes get more meat by asking for half-and-half. It's harder to portion out a half serving of meat, so usually you get a bit more than you would have if you just order one type. The same goes for beans.
Hands grabbing McDonald's fries
Photo credit: McDonald's/facebook.com

EVERYWHERE: DOWNLOAD THE APP

Most restaurant chains have apps now, and there's usually a reward for downloading them. Some restaurant, like McDonald's, have coupons and deals everyday. Some give you something for free just for downloading their app. It's always a good idea to check the app out before you go to a restaurant.
Woman checking her receipt
Photo credit: recep-bg/istockphoto

EVERYWHERE: CHECK YOUR RECEIPT

Make sure you get your receipt at every restaurant you go to. Not because they might screw things up, but because often there's an offer on the bottom for free or discounted items on a later visit. Panda Express, for example, often gives you a free individual entree on your next visit if you take their online survey.
Jimmy John's sub sandwich
Photo credit: Jimmy John's/facebook.com

JIMMY JOHN'S: TELL THEM TO "LBI"

If you order a sub at Jimmy John's, you'll notice that they pull out most of the bread's insides to make room for the fillings. But to a carb lover, that's practically a sin. Order your sandwich "LBI," meaning leave bread in, and you'll get all the bread.
Panera bagel
Photo credit: Panera Bread/facebook.com

PANERA: SKIP THE SPREAD

At least, have the employees skip the cream cheese spread on your bagel. Instead, buy a plain bagel along with a $2.99 8-ounce tub of cream cheese. It's only $1.74 more than that schmear would have cost, and now you have the whole rest of the tub to leave in the work fridge for next time.
Panera Mac and Cheese Bread Bowl
Photo credit: Panera Bread/facebook.com

PANERA: MAC AND CHEESE BREAD BOWL

If you're looking to really carbo load, you can get Panera's mac and cheese in a bread bowl. It only costs a dollar more, and you're adding tons of calories and carbs.
DQ Blizzards
Photo credit: Dairy Queen TX/facebook.com

DAIRY QUEEN: CUSTOMIZE YOUR BLIZZARD

If Dairy Queen has the ingredients, chances are employees will be willing to put it in a Blizzard for you. Just ask for whatever you like — within reason, of course. Some popular secret menu Blizzards include banana split and chocolate cherry.
Dunkin Donuts Coolattas
Photo credit: Dunkin' Donuts/facebook.com

DUNKIN' DONUTS: FRUIT AND CREAM COOLATTA

At Dunkin' Donuts, order a vanilla Coolatta, and customize it with a shot of fruit syrup. Raspberry and blueberry are almost always available, and sometimes peach is too. Even coconut would make for a delicious treat at the same price. And don't forget to ask to have it topped with whipped cream for free, as well.
Freshly French fries in a metal basket
Photo credit: nito100/istockphoto

EVERYWHERE: GET YOUR FRIES UNSALTED

Some people need to order their fries unsalted for health reasons, but anyone who orders them unsalted will get a fresh batch. Grab a packet of salt from the condiment area and salt those fresh babies yourself.
Preparing burgers in a restaurant kitchen
Photo credit: pencilfinger/istockphoto

EVERYWHERE: MAKE A SPECIAL ORDER

Most fast food places will have sandwiches premade and ready to go. So if you want to ensure that you're getting one that hasn't been sitting there for too long, order it any way but the way it's served by default. That usually means adding or removing a topping. You'll be sure to get a freshly made sandwich.
Burger King Fries and Onion Rings
Photo credit: Burger King/facebook.com

BURGER KING: GET RINGS AND FRIES TOGETHER

Can't decide between fries or onion rings? Get both. Just ask for half-and-half, and the employees are usually happy to do it. They're the same price, so you shouldn't be charged extra.
McDonald's round eggs
Photo credit: McDonald's/facebook.com

MCDONALD'S: ORDER THE ROUND EGG

There's an easy way to get a real egg on your breakfast sandwich at McDonald's: order it with a "round egg." Most sandwiches come with the folded omelet-like egg. But if you want a fresh egg cracked onto the griddle, just substitute a round egg instead. It's the same egg that comes in Egg McMuffins.
Sonic soft drinks and tater tots
Photo credit: Sonic Drive-In/facebook.com

SONIC: ORDER THE PURPLE SPRITE

Though it goes by a few different names, one of the most popular non-menu drinks at Sonic is a purple Sprite. It's Sprite mixed with Powerade, cranberry juice, and lemonade, and it's supposedly quite refreshing during summer.

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