Soft drinks, coffees, and teas are key money makers for most restaurants. Marked up significantly to maximize revenues, beverages manage to drain customers' wallets at the same time. Most cheap guides to dining out recommend that you stick to tap water, but if you're at an establishment that offers free refills, a relatively pricey order instantly turns into a value buy.
12 Chains Where Drink Refills Are Free
In the 1970s Taco Bell was bought by PepsiCo, and by the 1980s the chain had announced it would offer free soda refills, making it, according to some sources, the first eatery to declare an official bottomless beverage policy. Today, diners can refill fountain drinks an unlimited number of times while inside one of the chain's outlets. Drive-through customers are not eligible for no-charge refills, and once dine-in customers leave, they forfeit the right to more.
To many people's dismay, Chipotle's prices rose in 2014 and there are rumors another price hike may be on the horizon. Not surprisingly, the blogosphere is awash in musings about how to get the best value for the money. One idea: Buy a fountain drink and refill at the self-serve stations to your heart's content.
This is a bit of a secret perk: If you join (for free) the Starbucks loyalty program, refills of hot coffee, iced coffee, or tea are free as long as you're in the store. One catch: The loyalty card must be used five times within 12 months at any Starbucks or Teavana, thereby reaching "green level" status, to be eligible. To join the rewards program, pick up a Starbucks card in a store or download the Starbucks app, free for iPhone and Android.
This fast-food chain has mushroomed during the past few years and now boasts almost a cult following and more than 1,000 locations across 47 states. Go there for the food, which consistently ranks among the best in its class, but stay for the unlimited beverage refills from the Coca-Cola Freestyle Soda Fountain, which offers more than 100 options, including many hard-to-find Coke, Sprite, Fanta, Dasani, Minute Maid, and Powerade flavors.
This national chain offers bakery items as well as salads, soups, and sandwiches, and garners high praise from Zagat and other critics. Dining in (free Wi-Fi makes Panera a popular place to do work) means just one size drink option, but refills at the fountain are unlimited. Some franchises also offer unlimited coffee and tea refills while sitting at a table.
For years many McDonald's stores were known for unlimited free fountain drink refills, even after leaving but presenting a McDonald's cup on a return visit. Now, free refills seem limited to that first visit. There's plenty of online chatter about this, but the policy on freebies is always up to the discretion of the franchise owner. Ditto for coffee, and some customers are reporting bans on breakfast hour refills.
This casual, sit-down restaurant is generous with the freebies, such as "endless appetizers" and a free burger for a friend (accessible through a code on social media) when one is ordered in the restaurant. Fountain drinks are no exception: Expect free fill-ups for soft drinks, iced tea, and coffee throughout the meal. Sometimes TGI Fridays runs promotions for refills on other beverages, too, such as fruit slushes.
A chain of family-friendly diners, famous for ice cream and ice cream concoctions, is suffering a bit financially but still operates more than 350 locations throughout the East Coast. The menu promises free refills on Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Fanta, Barq's Root Beer, Minute Maid Lemonade, and iced tea.
Another dine-in chain that boasts about never-ending appetizers and even pasta entrées, Olive Garden servers offer complimentary refills on soft drinks, raspberry lemonade, teas, fruit juices, and "Caffè la Toscana" when requested.
Chili's casual dining restaurants advertise bottomless drinks on the house, including fountain drinks, brewed tea, flavored teas, regular and flavored lemonades, Arnold Palmers (virgin), and coffee. No dice on complimentary refills on alcoholic beverages, though.
Diners at this custom-burger chain enjoy unlimited refills on a fountain drink or tea. The policy doesn't apply to coffee, milk, or beer. All-you-can-eat fries are sometimes on offer, depending on the franchise owner and individual store policies.
Here is another under-the-radar freebie: Buy a large fountain drink (or a large popcorn) at an AMC movie theater and get one free refill at the concession stand. The official limit is one.