Fast food chains offer pre-ordering. Does it really save time?

Several chains are taking steps to make fast food even faster by allowing customers to order and pay via mobile apps, then skip the line and snag their order when they arrive at the restaurant. But does it actually work?

Stephan Savoia/AP/File
A customer leaves a Taco Bell, a Yum Brands restaurant, in Pembroke, Mass. Taco Bell is one of a growing number of fast food chains that offer app-based preordering.

Getting fast food is already quick compared to eating at a sit-down restaurant, but it can still seem irritatingly slow compared to the one-click digital shopping so many of us do daily.

Several chains are taking steps to cut down on the wait by allowing customers to order and pay via mobile apps, then skip the line and snag their order when they arrive at the restaurant. But does it actually work well enough to save you time?

Preordering is a Major Draw

Starbucks drew attention in 2014 when it announced an app that would allow iPhone users in Portland to order and pay for their coffee before arriving at the store. (They've since expanded to almost 10,000 other locations.) Taco BellWendy's, and Burger King have also launched apps that allow mobile ordering, and Subway joined the crowd this July. Some local chains are launching their own apps, too.

Why use these apps? Well, the convenience factor may be enough to win over some: Having your passenger punch in your order as you approach the restaurant could save you a wait, but there are other benefits too.

Exclusive Coupons, Secret Menus, and More

Some chains, such as Taco Bell and Burger King, offer mobile-exclusive deals or coupons. Starbucks allows app-users to accumulate and spend reward points.

Others have taken advantage of the flexibility mobile orders offer to allow customers some extra options. Burger King and Wendy's provide nutrition information about each menu item, and Wendy's allows you to set a calorie "budget" and browse only menu items that don't exceed that level.

Wendy's, Subway, Taco Bell, and others allow users to re-order past orders, cutting down on the tedium if you have a complicated usual.

Taco Bell seems to be leading the way with digital perks. For example, it allows mobile users to craft custom orders from available ingredients; you don't simply have to choose off the menu. Even if you can talk cashiers into making a custom order in-store, complicated verbal orders can too easily turn into a game of "Broken Telephone." You can also make an order at any time, scheduled for later pickup.

For a complete list of reviews of the top fast food apps, click here.

Preordering Still Has Some Glitches and Inefficiencies

It's still the early days for fast food preorders, however, so be aware that you may not be able to place orders for every franchise location. Plus, most apps we saw featured mixed reviews, with some users offering glowing praise about time saved and others complaining about glitches, poor user interfaces, or incomplete menus.

Reviews also indicate there can be problems on the human part of the app experience — even in stores that accept app orders, under-trained employees may keep the experience from being as smooth as it ought to be.

This article first appeared in DealNews. 

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