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January 15, 2009

Is it wrong for bars to ask for credit cards when you start a tab?

beer time?A couple days ago, a colleague brought up an interesting point about bar tabs.

He was at a Mount Vernon bar/restaurant with a friend, and ordered two drinks. The place wasn't that full, but they still asked him for a credit card. He took offense.

My colleague felt that since the place wasn't full, the bartender should have just given him the drinks and started a tab -- without asking for a credit card.

He felt that in asking for a credit card, the bartender implied that he was going to skip out on his bill.

This raises an interesting point, methinks. Is it wrong for bars to ask for credit cards when you start a tab?

Personally, I think it depends on a few things ...

If the bar is slammed and they don't know you, they're probably going to ask for some insurance that you're not going to skip out on your tab. Some bars have permanent policies where they require a credit card to start a tab. I've even seen signs that say as much.

But I think that if you're in a corner bar, or even a more upscale spot, they shouldn't ask you for a credit card. Take a place like the Idle Hour (201 E. Fort Ave.), where the bartenders write down what everybody orders and give them a bill when they tab out. It's a small corner bar, but I've seen a lot of people in there from time to time, and it can be tough for them to remember everything correctly.

Still, they don't ask for a card, and I respect that.

One time back in college, I spent two nights at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. Both nights, I had a drink or two (and even a cigar once) in the hotel bar. The first night, I was leaving in a hurry/slightly tipsy and forgot to pay my tab. 

When I went back the second night, the bartender or manager on duty must have recognized me, because when I got my check at the end of the night, it included my previous night's expenses.

I understand why some city bars ask for a credit card before starting a tab. I'm kind of used to it by now. But I think the sign of a really good bartender is one who doesn't need to take your credit card.

What do you think?

(Photo from Sun archives)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 9:30 AM | | Comments (32)
Categories: Bars & Clubs


I don't really mind when on a crazy Friday night they take a card and authorize it, so they can keep track and make closing out faster. I'm not a huge fan of having to leave the card at the bar, because it makes me nervous that someone else will come along and take my card by mistake, but that's a risk I'll usually take after a few drinks.

On the other hand, if I'm sitting down for apps/dinner with three friends in a not-crowded bar on a random Tuesday, I kind of resent having to leave a credit card. But this is mainly because my friends are mooches and 9 times out of 10, I get stuck with the bill "since it's already on your card and we'll pay you cash", so maybe that's a personal problem, haha.

Jury's out.

Depends on the time of day. If you're sitting down for lunch or dinner, it's tacky, even if you're sitting at the bar. If it's after 8 PM and you're just drinking, it's standard practice.

It is the bartenders responsibility to cover their ass. My best friend could be drinking at the bar and if they leave in a drunken haze, it is my responsibility to then pay their tab. It happens. Most places have a poilcy that every tab needs a credit card, Some bars are so big that it is the only way to keep track. please dont take offense when the bartender asks for your credit card-they're just doing their job...
Its nothing personal!

People shouldn't be so quick to take offense to something like that and give folks the benefit of the doubt. My take is if you don't pony up the cash when the drinks are served in pay-as-you-go fashion, it's up to the bartender to request a card or not. Maybe it's the tavern's policy, and instead of disputing it with their boss they play along since it's not worth the trouble and they like being employed. The bartender may request one if they know they aren't the best at keeping track of who has had what. It's like when a server doesn't write down your order, and food different from your order arrives at the table. I like it when people accept their limitations and find ways around it. What's that Bud Ice doing on my tab?

From the bartender/business' perspective, you never know when it could get really busy. In my experience, it's common practice now to take a credit card to start a tab. If anything else it's a good way to build rapport with the guest because you can refer to them by name and if you're like me and have a bad short term memory, you have something to go back and reference. It should never be taken as an offense. It's just safe business practice.

I'm always surprised when they DON'T. Seems practical to me.

I was at The Cat's Eye Pub a few months back when a young couple ran up a tab to about 40-45 dollars. They did not leave a credit card. The young man said he was going to his car to get his wallet, and the young lady went out back to smoke. The bartender got suspicious and followed the guy. Well, the girl slipped out the back gate and had taken her heels off, and met the guy around the corner and were rapidly walking away when the bartender caught them. Oh, and there was no car. Sometimes even a good bartender can't watch everybody. I think that a bartender asking for a credit card is looking out for the bar owner, and is just doing his/her job.

The sign of a good bartender is someone who follows the rules of the establishment they work in. If the boss says take a credit card with every tab then that is what they should do. I take cards with every tab. Even people that you would expect to be good customers will stiff you. Case and point, I am sure you are a good customer but when you went back to the Four Seasons that following night you didn't run to the bar to pay your tab. You paid it at the end of the night when they added it because they recognized you. Not because you were attempting to make it right. Great bartenders are great bartenders because they are skilled at their job. Not taking credit cards and "trusting" your customer does not count as a skill in my book.

Very interesting post.
This practice is also very common at airport bars. As someone who writes about credit cards and personal finance issues, I have a problem with having an item that could lead to identity theft leave my hands.
Your card could be swiped by a skimmer, and there goes both your credit line and your good credit score.
I'll reluctantly agree to it if I can keep the card in sight at all times -- and I don't plan to stay long. If not, I'll pay cash or by the drink.

I think bars have the right to ask you for a credit card, you are getting a service from them, i.e drinks, they want to make sure they get fairly compensated for them. If you have a problem with the credit card policy just pay cash.

I hope the bars would never ask me for a credit card...why? Because i dont even have one! Usually instead of asking for a beer tab..i just ask for a whole pitcher!

It might not be crowded at the time, but who's to say it won't later? I think bars should give patrons the option of leaving a credit card or driver's license...when patrons leave neither, what do bartenders usually do to remember who's bill is who's? And if you're offended to be asked to leave your credit card, pay for your damn tricks now.

i think that your friend has never been stiffed by a drunk person. those charges often come out a bartender's pocket. this seems like a really silly thing to be "offended" by.

I think if you don't like going out of business, you take credit cards for tabs. Too many shady drunk folks in this town to be nice, especially with the roller coaster world of bar/restaurant biz.

For as long as I've been old enough to go to bars (just the last few years), "start a tab" has been shorthand for giving the bartender your credit card, at least in most of the places I go to in Baltimore. I prefer to just pay for each drink, since I usually have cash and am not a heavy drinker, but if they want the card I'll give it to 'em. Your colleague is being way too sensitive about this if he thinks any bartender that asks this is being paranoid, lazy, or implying he'd skip out on the bill. It never even occurred to me that bartenders would only do this when particularly busy.

If you're seated at the bar or table, then no credit should be needed. It's like a restaurant and you get your bill at the end. If you're wandering around (usually because the place is too busy to even get a seat), then it's at the bartender's discretion. If he or she knows you and doesn't think you'd walk out, then they can not ask to hold a card and it's usually appreciated. If they don't know you and you're wandering around, they should ask to hold onto it and the customer shouldn't take offense. If it's busy, even if they know you, it's okay to ask because things can get a little crazy and it helps keep track. Usually at that point, I hand it over without having to be asked.

I think its a case by case basis. This may have been force of habit on the bartenders part or just that they try and stay consistent so they don't forget. I know certain bars I drink at no longer ask me for a card because I'm a regular but used to whenever I went in.

Some bars thats just the procedure...busy or slow. Many bar computer systems use credit cards as a way of opening tabs under the persons name.

I don't have a problem with it. It makes sense to me. And then when I have been to a bar enough times that the bartender doesn't need to get my card right away, I feel flattered. :)

The only problem I have had is when I hand over my card to start a tab, and then don't get an itemized bill at the end of the night. Usually, in those cases, when I press for one, I find extra drinks on my tab, which is so uncool. I mostly try to pay cash as I go now, unless I am at a regular spot.

I don't have a problem leaving a credit card to start a tab at a bar. But I was extremely annoyed when I went to a certain bistro in Federal Hill with 3 friends, sat at a table (not at the bar), and was asked for a credit card by our waitress before we could order food and drinks.

I'm OK with the practice. What bothers me is that some places now put a "hold amount" on your card. Case in point: I went to Mother's a while back and my date and I ordered a beer and a soda. I started a tab thinking we'd be there a while. Our friend called and said that plans had changed and we were meeting elsewhere. So I paid my tab and left. Imagine my surprise the next day when I looked at my bank statement (used visa debit card) and saw my $6.50 bar bill and a $38 fee. I called the bar to complain and was told that this was "standard procedure for bars to run an additional amount on the card." I told him (which didn't help my case, as I probably came off as some sort of raging alcoholic) "I was at 5 bars last night and you're the only one that charged me a fee."
It took 4 days for that money to disappear. I was pissed!

I understand why places do this, and I don't mind it at a crowded club or bar (especially if I am going back and forth to the bar). However, if I am sitting on a stool and not going anywhere, then I think it can be annoying.

I couldn't care less if bartender asks me for my credit card. I'm fine either way and I wouldn't get offended by something as little as that. The only thing I want the bartender to bring me is a good drink in a timely fashion....on the house!!
RayRay....when you mention this young couple at Cat's Eye, how young were they? In my experience there I would say 50 would be young for that place.
wisegirl.....I have NEVER heard of any bar putting an additional amount on a card unless they had a minimum bar tab amount. Those are usually $10 or $15 though. Mother's is bogus.

The fee at Mother's isn't an additional fee. When we start tabs and we swipe your card it pre-authorizes it for $36. It's to ensure the credit card is valid and has funds. Why it's such an arbitrary number I don't know. I do however apologize for amy inconvenience this has caused anyone in the past. If you don't want to start a tab and you just want to run your card for one round your card will not get charged the $36. We appreciate your business at Mother's. For real!

Queen Colleen: Mother's is violating their credit card merchant agreements by putting a temporary hold for an estimated amount on your patron's accounts. Mother's is arbitrarily lowering the available funds in the accounts in question - risky business. The fix is to authorize for the known amount of the first round that opened the tab.

Bob UU,

Then how do gas stations do it? They now do it for $100. Meanwhile, I drive a Prius and never need more than $20 at a time. The $100 stays in the "pending" for 3-4 days, then gets taken off and the correct amount is chaged. But they have to it to cover for people filling up their SUVs.

I'm usually at Thh Cat's Eye for happy hour. I like it because there is such a varied mix of people. I'm in my 40s so I fall pretty much in the middle of the demographic. BTW The couple I mentioned Were late 20s early 30s.

Carey - You need a new gas station! I have never been to one that does this, but maybe I have just lucked out. They don't want you estimating amounts in relation to holds for any merchant. Merchants violate their agreements left and right though...

they only do the holds if you use your card as a debit card. it works like a credit card (no holds) if you use it like a credit card.

hotels and car rental places sometimes do it too


That's completely false. I have a credit card that is ONLY a credit card and it happens every time.

It does not happen if you use a debit card because it is coming out immediately. When you use your debit/credit card as credit, the charge is pending and held out of your account for 2-3 days. Then it comes out for good when the transaction is verified. With gas stations, the "pending" stage is holding $100. When the transaction clears, it is for the correct amount. This is the exact reason I use a regular credit and NOT my debit/credit card linked to my checking account.

Bob UU,

They only do it if you use the credit card machine at the pump. If you go to the cashier or pay first, they don't do it. And it's not one gas station. It's every one I've ever been to in Baltimore County, Baltimore City, and up and down 95 between NY and SC. They do it so people can't run a card with no $ left on it, pump $75 worth of gas, and drive away.

Now way! two words "Identity Theft"

There must be a better way to start a tab. i am willing to give my Drivers License but nothing more!

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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