Many of the great conveniences of modern technology involve financial transactions: Pay your bills online without mailing checks, trade stocks without a broker, do your taxes yourself with TurboTax. The LevelUp mobile payment app makes it easy to pay at participating shops and restaurants, saving you from juggling cash or even dealing with credit card swiping and signing. It also lets you place food orders ahead of time and can earn you loyalty dollars at many participating vendors, tripling its appeal. Unlike many payment apps, however, you can only use LevelUp to pay real-world businesses, not web stores or individuals.
Starting Up With LevelUp
I installed the app on both an Android Galaxy S6 and an iPhone X. It requires permission to use your location, camera, and Bluetooth connection info. Of course, you need to create an account with the service, requiring an email address, phone number, and password. As with any mobile payment app, you need to authorize a payment source for your payments. In this case, you can use any credit card or debit card, but not a bank account or PayPal account. At setup you also have the option to enter your age and gender.
LevelUp’s interface has three main views you switch between with big buttons along the bottom of the screen. Quick Order, Browse Places, and Pay in Store. The last is simply your QR code for paying at the register. The Quick Order screen explains how you can order food ahead of time and have it ready for you when you arrive at the shop. To be honest, this is not how I use the app in general, since I usually decide what to eat when I arrive.
The Browse Places page has two tabs, for Order Ahead and Pay in Store. The Order Ahead option, however, offers more venues than Pay In Store, since any shop that uses a major online ordering system (such as Delivery.com, EatStreet, MenuDrive, Menufy, or Placebag) can be listed in the LevelUp app. With this option, you see the location’s full menu, and you can easily reorder past orders from the restaurant’s Past Orders tab. Once you’ve ordered something ahead, it appears on the app’s Quick Order page.
Using LevelUp to Pay
The thing that hooked me on LevelUp to begin with was that I could save money at local eateries I frequently visited—from the first time I used the app. You can browse local deals using the In Store tab under Browse Places. The discounts don’t work with the Order Ahead option, however. In some cases, you can save $5 on your very first visit; Argo Tea, Gregory’s Coffee, and Sushi Star in NYC are examples of this initial reward, but Bareburger takes the cake, with a $12 first-visit reward.
After the first purchase, most merchants on LevelUp let you accrue credit that usually amounts to 9 or 10 percent. For example, for every $50 I spend at the Doughnut Plant, I get $5 credit toward my next purchase. Your payment is deducted immediately from your payment source at the time of purchase. That’s different from how LevelUp originally worked: It used to charge you at the beginning of the month for all the previous month’s charges, which I appreciated, but I can understand why merchants would want their money right away.
To pay, you simply hold the QR code the app generates up to the cube-shaped machine in a supporting store. It doesn’t support NFC payments the way Android Pay and Apple Pay Cash do. The device changes color to let you know whether the payment went through. While researching for this review, I discovered that there’s a setting that lets you can change the color that the LevelUp machines display when you pay in-store. Once your payment goes through, you get a notification with its details, and an offer to send someone a virtual gift card for the establishment you just patronized.
If you’re looking to pay friends as you can with Google Wallet, Square Cash, and Venmo, LevelUp isn’t your app. Nor does it work on the web or in apps. And as mentioned, it doesn’t yet support NFC payments; you can only pay at establishments with LevelUp point-of-sale devices. That leads to the biggest drawback to the app, which is that it’s honored at a limited number of locations.
The places that do use LevelUp tend to be high quality in my experience, however. I always feel superior when I pay by simply showing my code to the reader, while other shoppers have to fish for cards and cash—which won’t get them any discount! The same can be said for Apple Pay, PayPal, and other mobile payment apps. Though I really like the convenience of using a thumbprint to pay at a Walgreens, LevelUp’s addition of rewards is even sweeter.
I’ve been using the app a few times a week for about two and a half years now, and I’ve already saved more than $300. How do I know that? Right on the Profile page of the app, you see exactly what you’ve saved. From that page you can also look back through your entire transaction history, change your payment method, or request a refund if things didn’t go well. Unfortunately, the service’s website doesn’t include much information, though it does let you change basic account info, change your payment source, or deactivate your account.
Level Up to LevelUp
LevelUp is more limited than mobile payment apps like Apple Pay or Venmo in that it only lets you pay at select shops, and doesn’t let you pay peers or web stores. But what it does, it does very well, making paying at restaurants and coffee shops easy, while saving you a respectable amount of money in the process. Its order-ahead feature can save you time too. For a more full-featured mobile payment app, however, check out our Editors’ Choice, Venmo.