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Restaurant discount deals work, but read the terms carefully

The Web is a bountiful resource for restaurant deals. But you have to keep your wits about you, read the fine print and — extra points here! — use multiple resources to magnify your savings with restaurant discounts. Here are a handful of the most popular sites on the Web:

Groupon.com

Every day Groupon.com features a deal for a restaurant meal, operating by collective buying power. Get enough people to sign up and click "buy" before midnight, then the deal is valid and your credit card is charged. If the minimum number of people don't sign up, no one gets it and the deal is canceled (no charge to you). Once you're charged, you'll receive an e-mail with a link to sign in and print your coupon, which comes with a map and redemption instructions.

You don't have to use your Groupon coupon the same day you've bought it, but many have expiration dates, so examine carefully. You must use the coupon in one visit — no cash back. And there's a gift option at checkout if you want to share the love. Then, if you sign up friends who make a purchase within 72 hours of signup, you get $10 of credit in your account. Sounding good, eh?

The jury is out. At the beginning of March a class-action suit was filed in Chicago, with allegations that Groupon engaged in deceptive business practices. The charge alleges that Groupon "systematically deceives its customers" by imposing "post-contractual terms on the consumer containing illegal expiration dates." Groupon insists it doesn't impose any "gotchas" on consumers, but the suit is a good reminder to read all the fine print, and definitely any fine print that crops up after you sign.

Restaurant.com

This is another site with deep discounts on restaurants, offering $25 gift certificates for $10, sometimes even less during special promotions. Customers buy restaurant gift certificates for specific restaurants (print out and redeem) or wallet-sized gift cards that entitle the holder to redeem the face value for that amount of gift certificates, which are generally good for a year from the date of purchase. There's also a dinner of the month club that entitles the recipient to automatically receive a $25 coupon each month via email, available in three-month, six-month or 12-month options.

So, are these restaurants anyone is interested in? There were 202 restaurants listed within 30 miles of the St. Petersburg Times' downtown St. Petersburg office, many of them familiar names and several of them restaurants I've reviewed very favorably. Be advised that each restaurant sets its own terms. For instance, often a $25 gift certificate can only be used with a minimum food purchase of $50 (excluding alcohol), and often an 18 percent gratuity is added before the discount (so that the server doesn't lose out on the transaction).

Half Off Depot

Go to HalfOffDepot.com, select your city, pick from a list of half-off gift certificates and buy them with credit card or PayPal. They arrive via U.S. Postal Service within five to seven days, with an additional packaging and handling fee of 59 cents, plus 40 cents per item ordered. There is a limited number of each certificate, so when they have all been purchased the sale is closed for that item. There are currently 35 restaurant offerings in the Tampa Bay area, many of them familiar and affordable. Expiration dates vary, so check carefully; if a restaurant closes before you've used the certificate, within 60 days of purchase, Half Off Depot will offer an exchange for another certificate.

Each offer gives a brief description of the restaurant, location and Web site and the option of e-mailing the information to a friend or posting it on Facebook or Twitter.

Twitter, Open Table and others

If Twitter is your bag, check out CheapTweet.com. The idea is that the site searches Twitter for all the best deals and displays them in one place. Restaurant coupons are just a fraction of the deals on offer. RetailMeNot.com is another coupon aggregator organized to show special deals in your immediate geographic area.

If you have a restaurant you frequent, especially if it's a chain or franchise, the restaurant's Web site is another good resource for coupons and discounts. Often these deals cannot be combined with other offers, so if you have multiple coupons, do the math on which way yields the best deal.

Making reservations through Open Table, opentable.com, also pays dividends. Create an account, make reservations through the service and Dining Rewards points are automatically awarded to your account (no points for no-shows or cancellations). Standard reservations earn 100 points, but sometimes there are 1,000-point "bonus" reservations. You'll get an alert when you have enough points to redeem for a "dining cheque": 2,000 points get you a $20 coupon, 5,000 points $50, 10,000 points $100, which can be redeemed at any restaurant that uses Open Table. Go to "My Profile" and click on "Redeem Points." It takes a couple of weeks to receive the coupons in the mail.

Many credit and debit cards and frequent-flier programs also offer special points and dining clubs. If you dine out often it behooves you to call and ask. For instance, one of my credit cards is associated with United Airlines' "Mileage Plus" program, which in turn offers a "Mileage Plus Dining" program. When you dine at participating restaurants (of which there are many in the Tampa Bay area), you earn up to 5 Mileage Plus miles per dollar spent, the miles automatically credited to you with no membership fee. Another example: American Express cardholders who dine out frequently should look into their dining rewards cards, which award points but also allow cardholders preferred access to red-hot restaurants.

Bottom line, there are lots of ways to make your dining dollars work for you. Mostly it's about being a diligent collector of information and being committed to doing the math. There may still be no such thing as a free lunch, but there are some decent discounts to be had.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.

Restaurant discount deals work, but read the terms carefully 03/23/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 22, 2010 10:59pm]

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