Ask LH: What Happens When A Restaurant Won’t Take My Card?

Ask LH: What Happens When A Restaurant Won’t Take My Card?

Hi Lifehacker, If I enter a restaurant because I’ve seen a sign saying they accept a particular credit card (such as American Express or Diners Club) but they then refuse to take the payment, what is my recourse? Agreeing to their requests to pay cash or use another card (both of which might be cheaper for them) reduces the value of the transaction to me, and this seems like bait-and-switch. On a related note, if I enter an establishment and then decide to cancel the transaction because at payment time they refuse my card, despite having advertised acceptance, is there any redress for my wasted time? Thanks, Card Carrier

Picture: Miki Yoshihito

Dear Card Carrier,

The #firstworldproblem here is that both involved parties are guilty of unpleasant conduct. The restaurant managers are acting like cheapskates by rejecting a payment method they have specifically advertised, and you’re acting like a jerk by assuming that spending even one minute discussing payment methods is such a huge personal affront that you immediately need to consider seeking compensation. A sense of proportion is always helpful.

If the restaurant is displaying a sign saying it accepts a specific card, then yes, it should accept that card, and not try to persuade you to do otherwise. If there’s a problem with using a specific payment method on the day (imagine the overall system is down), then that should be indicated before you order. So the first thing to do is politely insist on using your card of choice.

However, if you’ve already eaten the food and the staff aren’t budging, the reasonable and sensible thing to do is to pay by another means. Chances are you won’t visit that restaurant again, but this isn’t an issue that’s worth stressing over.

To describe this situation as ‘bait-and-switch’ is a massive over-reaction. Bait-and-switch would be promising you lobster and then selling you tinned tuna in a lobster shell.

If scoring frequent flyer points (or whatever card bonus you’re seeking) matters that much, then seek specific assurance that you’ll be able to pay via your chosen means as soon as you enter the establishment, no matter what the signage says. And if your time is so valuable that you can’t afford to spend the 30 seconds finding this out would take (which the tone of your question suggests), why do you care about credit card usage bonuses?


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  • I don’t like this transfer of responsibility. Where is the accountability for the store owner ? He/She advertised something that’s not available. You right in saying politely ask again to use the card, but beyond that, i’d refuse to pay until they accepted the payment method they advertised as available. What if that’s the only card you had and you didn’t have any cash ? Would they call the cops and say you tried to skip ?

    Whatever the reason for wanting to use the card, the customer first checked to see if it was advertised as accepting the card, which they did. Customer shouldn’t have to do any more than this. If the payment system in question is down, every store i’d ever used with this problem has told me so after attempting to use the card.

    Its this kind of attitude that’s making things more difficult. Allowing this kind of shifting of responsibility and accountability beyond a reasonable scope. The owner would have known that sign was there but most likely never did anything about it.

    • There’s a difference between shifting responsibility, and using this inconvenience as an excuse for a catch-all lottery win. “Oh, you can’t charge this $20 to my credit card? Well then I feel I’m entitled to have eaten for free, and reimbursed the the petrol it took to drive here, and $50/hr for wasting my time, and $250 for a first class meal at the most expensive restaurant in town because you’ve ruined my life!”

      Instead of being a spoiled brat, a more reasonable approach would be to pay in cash or another card (because paying by different means isn’t the end of the world), and maybe writing a letter to the restaurant in question, or if the restaurant is part of a larger building/complex contact management. If you go back there one day and the behaviour is continuing, then you can call Fair Traiding or the Restauruant Ombudsman or whoever. But don’t treat it like some cash grab bonanza.

      • Are you implying that its ok to advertise something and then refuse ? I’m not talking about legitimate reason such as that network being down etc. Its got nothing to do with a cash grab. He’s not disputing the amount to be paid. He’s also not disputing paying for what he has consumed using a method that the establishment has advertised to the public as available. How is that a cash grab or being spoilt. He’s agreed to all the terms of the transaction as advertised only to have those terms changed. Like I said, if he has no cash or another card, how should he be expected to pay ? While I can see you seem reasonable, I would dispute the spoilt brat comment as many people today don’t always carry cash or have multiple cards.

        • Wow, this thread has exploded, and I don’t want to drag it on much longer, but you asked some specific questions I’ll answer and try not to be inflammatory
          “Are you implying that its ok to advertise something and then refuse?” No, actually quite the opposite. I said complain, hold them accountable, contact authorities. My point was: this snafu doesn’t entitle you to a free meal. Now you and I have interpreted the original letter differently. I read the that part of original letter written to LH that said “is there any redress for my wasted time?” and my impression is that this guy is after a cash bonanza. He was happy with the meal itself, he consumed it. He should still have to pay for it, somehow – and that may mean the restauranteur needs to find a way to accept amex if there’s absolutely no other way – but he’s not entitled to a free meal because of it (imo)

          • Agreed and well said. I apologise if my comment led to some confusion, I didn’t mean to imply that he shouldn’t pay at all.

      • Instead of being a spoiled brat, a more reasonable approach would be to pay in cash or another card (because paying by different means isn’t the end of the world)

        Here’s the catch though, what if I wouldn’t have eaten the meal if I knew they wouldn’t take my Amex? There are times when I shop at places specifically because I’ll be able to throw it on the Amex. I literally wouldn’t have set foot in the door otherwise. It’s not a matter of saving a few cents or earning reward points, it’s that I need the transaction to take place on my Amex.
        If it was just a matter of simply switching cards at the checkout I wouldn’t be paying the Amex surcharge fee everyone slaps me with. I’ve been in situations where I’ve wasted half a days work on something only to get to the end and have my Amex refused, even after asking multiple times at the start if they take Amex. There have been times when it’s seriously cost me thousands by delaying work all because some jerk assumed after triple checking they accept Amex I’d be happy to just magically pull out a Mastercard when it came time to pay.

        Really I shouldn’t have to justify any of that to the store owner. If they’re advertising they take Amex and I just feel like paying on Amex that day because it’s sort of shiny then that’s all the justification I need. If they don’t want to take Amex then that’s fine, I totally understand, just be up front about it. Instead you get people who figure they can claim to take it then hassle you out of using it in order to save a insignificant amount of money.
        There are people who take advantage of the fact most people aren’t going to argue it in the middle of a crowded restaurant.

        • Here’s the catch though, what if I wouldn’t have eaten the meal if I knew they wouldn’t take my Amex? There are times when I shop at places specifically because I’ll be able to throw it on the Amex

          That is entirely your problem.
          The vendor has no way of divining your payment preferences, and yes, if they advertise a payment method that is not available, they should advise you at the beginning, but they not obligated to accept it ever, and they don’t have to justify it to customers either.
          There are many reasons they might decline it because of a recent spate of fraud from that card, or because they may just not like the look of you – at the end of the day, it’s still their call, and you can argue about it until the cops turn up.

          You are still responsible for paying for the goods bought/consumed, and as far as I am aware the only official currency in this country is still cash.
          Everything else is simply a convenient promise of payment, and does not have to be accepted by any vendor, at any time, for any reason… irrespective of signs that say otherwise.

          • The vendor has no way of divining your payment preferences

            Which is precisely why we agree to it before the exchange. They have 100% control over their advertised accepted payments. Don’t take Amex? Don’t advertise that you do. Decide on a whim not to accept Amex, tape a note over the ‘we accept’ sign, notify customers you seat of the change for the rest of the night and be willing to live with the fact that you may have to make an exception for some people who legitimately sat down to eat before you changed the sign.
            You will have people who sit down, hear of the change and get right back up and leave. That’s a good thing because it means nobody has to stand around arguing.

            My original point was that I’m not doing this to get out of paying. If the power goes out or the system is down I’ll do my best to pay the bill even if they’re willing to let me walk (especially if they’re willing to let me walk). Those are totally understandable accidents. In any situation I’d feel the need to pay them for what I ate. However if you claim to accept Amex you had better accept it when I pull it out. If you don’t accept Amex save us all the hassle and don’t say you do. I’m not the person lying here. I’ve done nothing wrong. I haven’t tried to trick anybody.
            If they’re declining because of fraud from the account or something like that fair enough. Although in that situation it’s actually American Express telling them not to accept the card. In that situation then yeah, that is as much my problem as realising I forgot to go to the ATM or reaching into my pocket and finding my wallet was stolen.

            Flip it the other way around. Imagine you have a big honking sign that says ‘we don’t take Amex – no exceptions’. You’ve had a real problem recently with people just assuming you do. I sit down for a meal and you say ‘sir, before you order you understand that we don’t accept American Express cards here, would you like to continue?’ and I reply ‘yeah buddy, don’t worry about it, I’ve got a Visa just bring the food out’. After the meal is eaten I don’t get to turn around and say ‘money is money, I’ll pay with my Amex, take it or leave it’.
            They don’t get to change the terms of payment, they don’t get to change the prices, they don’t get to alter the deal anymore than I do.

          • Which is precisely why we agree to it before the exchange.
            This, right here, summarises both our points.
            If you have spoken with the store owner before the transaction, and qualified that they will accept your payment method, then yes, you have a good reason to be miffed.

            Simply walking in, ordering food and then assuming that a) they accept Card x and b) will accept it from you is not an agreement. The transactional agreement is that you will pay for goods, nothing more.
            As I said before, credit/debit card is not a payment, it is still only a promise to pay, and if the store owner is feeling touchy about payment, they have every right to insist on cash. They have that right.
            We, as customers, do not have the right to insist on using a particular method of payment, unless it is by cash.

            In fact, Australia is a sterling example of this attitude -how many times have you seen a cardboard sign saying that a transaction is a $10 minimum on EFTPOS ? This is in sharp contract to say, NZ where you can buy chewing gum with your EFTPOS card without hassle.
            The fact of the matter is, the $10 minimum is a bullshit excuse by the merchant to dissuade small payments. The part they don’t tell you, is that you can actually choose to pay the transaction fee (25c-50c) and then use your EFTPOS card as payment.

            Your point is entirely reasonable, and to be honest, I’m playing Devils Advocate here, but the theme I’m reading in the thread, is that people feel they can dictate the manner of the transaction. That has never been the case,
            Happily for all concerned, they want our money as much as we want to give it to them, so the compromise is usually that the merchant provides a variety of payment methods to encourage a greater range of clients.

          • “This, right here, summarises both our points.
            If you have spoken with the store owner before the transaction, and qualified that they will accept your payment method, then yes, you have a good reason to be miffed.”

            And yet, you ignored that this was brought up in the original argument by the original emailer. Having a sticker on the door with the amex logo signifies they do in fact accept amex so such an oral conversation need not take place a few dozen times a day. This is the whole reason Dogman was arguing the point with you.

          • OK, if you’ve got this far, and have missed/ignored the main points of the argument, then there’s probably not much more I can do to make_it_very_simple_for_you, but here goes.

            The retailer can choose to accept alternative payments to cash, but is not obligated to.

            I don’t care if there’s a hologram of the entire Cirrus network on the wall, it simply indicates that those facilities are available, and infers no obligation whatsoever.
            By your logic, the image at the top of the article does not have a symbol for cash – does that mean they will not accept cash ? Of course not, thus the argument that is a binding agreement is flawed, because it is no such thing.


          • “The retailer can choose to accept alternative payments to cash, but is not obligated to.”

            Nobody is disputing that. Try reading what people are actually saying. Your strawman of my argument couldn’t be more incorrect. You’re purposefully not reading my response and the words I am using. There’s no other way to explain it.

            “I don’t care if there’s a hologram of the entire Cirrus network on the wall, it simply indicates that those facilities are available”

            If they’re available then why can the customer not use them?

            If they’ve put a sign up saying they accept one method (in the case originally discussed, American Express), it’s the same as having a verbal conversation and saying “yes we accept American Express”. The sign is there to save that conversation being had ten times a day. The original emailer saw that sign and took it to mean just as stated – he saw the sign to mean they accept it and are saving themselves the verbal conversation. The store then turned around and said no. If they can’t, they shouldn’t have the sign up. That is what we are talking about, the situations where it’s advertised, where they say they do actually accept it!

        • What is this “I need the transaction to take place on my Amex” thing? Is there some higher power that is enforcing this requirement upon you?

          I fail to understand the rationale here.

          • I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to take clients out for dinner and drinks. Not everyone agrees with the idea but personally I don’t think it’s right to have someone come interstate on business and not give them at least one night to relax so yes, I must take them out. It gets costly fast but that’s fine because I’ve got my American Express card. I can’t afford to pay it out of my personal every day account with no notice because I keep anything more than $150 in my savings account which doesn’t have a card linked to it.
            So we go somewhere that accepts Amex. It can be a bit of a hassle finding somewhere good that accepts it but that’s the price I pay for going with American Express. As long as people are honest about whether they accept Amex everything works out great.
            There are also plenty of other times where payment has to go through the Amex or not at all. I don’t like doing it but part of it’s job is to let you spend money when you don’t have any. If you’ve got no money and need to do the shopping you need to throw the shopping on the Amex.

            Here’s a more universally relateable example. You have joint account with your partner. There’s limited funds in there and you know they’re out doing the shopping which is likely to eat into the bulk of the funds. In your wallet you’ve also got your American Express card with unlimited funds. You’ve done the budget and then money to pay the Amex is there, and you’re really hungry, so you decide to eat somewhere. Odds are you’re going to look around for a place that takes Amex just to avoid the slight risk of screwing up the shopping.

            Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should just blindly pick a place and assume they’ll take Amex. You shouldn’t argue with a store that doesn’t claim to take Amex that they have some sort of responsibility to accept your card. They don’t have to. I’m also perfectly fine with them charging a reasonable (even slightly unreasonable) fee for it. My business doesn’t accept a whole heap of payment methods, but we’re very clear about which ones we do and don’t accept.

            At the end of the day I don’t feel I have to justify my choice in payment to anyone. If the reason I need it to go through on my Amex is so that taking the last digit on each item on the monthly statement results in 1234567890 that’s as good a reason as any.

          • In my case I do require certain credit cards to be used. My work will only reimburse onto their supplied Mastercard or supplied diners card. Since it is a personal liability I make damn sure they accept either of those cards

  • Wow, this must be at the top of the ‘first world problem’ list surely? Are there really people out there like this…

  • Technically they _are_ in breach of the Australian Consumer Law by advertising that they take the payment method and then not.

      • Even so, in court you’re awarded damages only. He ordered the $20 steak, he got the steak, he consumed the steak – it was a damn good steak. Instead of paying $20 on his card and getting 5 reward points, he had to pay $20 in cash. His damages are 5 reward points not $20. And when it takes 5000 reward points for a $50 gift voucher, a court would award him 5c if they were generous. At least, that’s what Judge Judy and Judge Marylin Milian have taught me 😛

        You can’t eat the steak, and then also be reimbursed the steak. That’s not how damages works

      • Agreed, it does seem like massive overkill, but is it still within his rights ? You made it sound like the poor guy who had every intention of paying was being difficult for no reason. Had he known they didn’t take it, he would have had the option of picking another restaurant or accepting that he had to use another card prior to having consumed the food which really could not be returned with a refusal to purchase.

      • wow, the initial email was probably a touch full on, especially the charging for wasted time, but your response was a bit out of line.

        What about scenarios such as not having another card on you or even having the cash? While it is not ideal to carry only amx/dinners it is conceivable someone might. For me i used to have an Amx at one work place, dinners is again common in this space, i would actually ask in advance if they accepted amx because getting reimbursed was difficult compared to paying and it coming via the auto claim system.

  • I went out to a bar once and asked to start a tab with my Amex.

    In a group of 4 i put the entire lunch and drinks on the tab , total $240.

    When I went to settle it they said they didnt accept Amex , despite me handing them an Amex at the start with my license and them holding it while i drunk.

    The bar manager said the barman shouldnt have accepted it in the first place. I didnt want to spend cash that day so said it is all i had. the manager asked how much cash I had on me , which was $60 , then he said he would just take that amount.

    Great outcome i think.

  • “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole”. – J. Lebowski

  • The more interesting question, though, is what happens when you _can’t_ pay by other means. I’ve regularly gone to eat with one card and less than the cash cost of the meal on me and I’ve never really thought through what would happen if the Visa system was down.

    • Any company that can accept credit cards can also accept manual credit card processing. It’s only companies that only do debit, or don’t do credit for amounts below what you intend to pay that really have any excuse. In that case, I’m yet to experience a business that doesn’t make it clear upon entry that EFTPOS and/or credit was down either by signs or by letting people know orally.

      I have no idea what the appropriate thing to do would be if they didn’t let people know upon entry, though. I’d be just as confused as everyone else.

    • Places are generally happy to wait while you go to the nearest ATM as long as at least one person in your party stays at the restaurant while you’re gone.

  • Most businesses I’ve worked at use Amex or some other non-VISA/Mastercard company for their business credit cards. This is quite common. It’s possible this person is on business and doesn’t want to use their personal cards or cash because then they have to get expense claims and a lot of companies make that an EXTREMELY painful and slow process. One place I worked at was taking over 9 months (and 5+ reminders) at one stage. A few colleagues actually refused numerous all expenses paid business trips because most of it would be done on expense claims.

    • Yeah – I assumed the ‘compensation’ was probably in reference to work cards. Believe me, it is not a simple thing to pay cash or use another card when I’m on the companies expense account. By forcing me to use the wrong card, they are consigning me to hours of paper work, or to just eat the loss. I refused to pay a cab driver cash once for that reason. Suddenly his machine was working again.

  • If I were in this situation and they were unable to take payment by my card (or at least claimed to be unable to do so) and I didn’t have another card or cash on me, I would simply say “okay, that’s fine. I’ll need to go withdraw some cash due to this inconvenience.”
    I’d leave them my details and leave them something of value that I would return for (my license, car keys, etc), go to a nearby ATM, take out the appropriate amount, return to the restaurant, and pay.
    I’ve had to do this in the past when a restaurant’s EFTPOS had stopping working during service.

  • Instead of restaurants, i have been running into this problem quite often with cabs in Sydney. When requesting to pay by card (mastercard), and more specifically, paypass on the cab charge machines, i get told their machine is out of order, and will need to use their other non cabcharge machine. I prefer to use paypass because i want to be in and out of the cab, and i dont trust non cab charge machines and them holding onto my signiture. Either cabcharge are maintaing a really poor network of machines (very unlikely since its a large part of what they do), or cabbies are getting a better deal on their other machines. Now i ask if their cabcharge works before i get in, and surprise surprise, everyones machines are working.

    • The cab industry in Sydney is a joke. Years ago it used to be that the whole machine was broken, only cash would work (when I lived in Brisbane around the same time, taxis there never had problems with their machines). The NSW taxi council sucks – they hate Uber, but they refuse to fix the reasons why people prefer alternative taxi services. Any cab with a broken machine shouldn’t even leave the depot – and if they do they should fine the living crap out of the taxi owner for breaching taxi standards. Cabbies just lie when they say the machine doesn’t work – they have several machines – they’ll process the card on the one that charges them the least.

  • A similar thing happened to a friend. They advertised they accepted AMEX, but then wouldn’t accept it when the bill came. Problem is his partner had his other credit card. He had no way of paying with another method. So the restaurant offered to him that he could leave some form of photo ID with them, and return within 24 hours to pay the bill with his other card. He declined that offer, as it was a $25 cab fare away, and said he’ll drop in and pay next time he’s in the area (he told them around 4-5 days). The restaurant declined that offer. So the restaurant called the police, they came. Then the restaurant offered him the meal for free after discussions with police.

  • Any business should not advertise that they accept “something” or that a particular product “does something” and then refuse it / deny it later. I would of thought that it was false advertising.

    If I go somewhere that says that they accept a card of some form or another, then that is what they should do. I understand if there is a system issue then so be it not their fault.

    I have a credit card, luckily for me its a common one, MasterCard. I don’t really use it, it’s for emergencies. The main times I use my credit card is those last few days before the next pay day when funds are low and the bank card / cash is not an option.

    Don’t accept cards? Don’t advertise it.

    P.S Card Carrier, “redress for my wasted time” – Suck it up!

  • Hi guys,

    I just wanna remind you that spending your life being picky about your payment methods and making your life and the merchant miserable is definitely not clever, and DEFINITELY does not tie in with the theme of lifehacker.

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