Get the Most Cell Phone for Your Money

If you're not one of the 94 million Americans who have a cell phone, the incessant barrage of attractive wireless offers may make you wonder why you're still searching for that pay phone on the corner.

Cellular ads everywhere tout thousands of free minutes, free options such as call waiting, and even free phones. Wireless deals and promotional offers get more plentiful every day. BellSouth now lets customers roll over unused minutes. AT&T is throwing in 200 extra minutes free with certain plans.

But don't be fooled: Cell phone plans are still pricey. "Overall rates are tumbling, but only for people who need a large bucket of minutes," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America.

Most cellular plans are no bargain compared with conventional phone service, which typically offers free local calling and long distance rates for less than 10 cents a minute. Consumers have to sign up for high-end plans, more than $80 a month, to get per-minute rates for 10 cents or less. For plans in the $25 to $35 range a month, expect to dish out 30 cents or more on average per minute, according to Point.com (www.point.com), a Website that offers consumers comparisons of all the cell plans throughout the United States.

Cell Phone Savings Checklist

How much do you plan to use the phone? If you're planning to keep the cell phone in the glove compartment for emergencies, the best plan is one with the lowest monthly rate -- $20 or less -- with no minutes free.

But if you plan on using the phone more than that, keep track of your calling pattern for several months to see how many minutes you might need, as well as where and when you'll be using the cell phone. Moderate cell phone users typically make less than 100 minutes of calls a month, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm.

When comparing plans, calculate how much you'll be charged by each carrier for every minute you are on the phone. Each minute of airtime can include long distance, or local calling, and in some cases "roaming" charges -- calls you make outside your designated home calling area.

For example, if you live in Los Angeles and make a call on your cell when visiting San Francisco, you may be charged up to 60 cents a minute. That's on top of long-distance charges. Some so-called one-rate plans eliminate these roaming fees but can cost more than $60 a month.

Map It Out. Get a detailed map of the cellular provider's coverage area in order to pinpoint your home calling region and whether the phone will work on roads and in towns you most frequently travel.

Don't Sign on the Dotted Line. Look for companies that do not require contracts. However, if the plan that fits your price range requires a contract, make sure you can switch to a lower- or higher-end plan with the same carrier without being charged. Also, it is up to the customer to keep an eye out for better deals offered by their existing cellular company. The wireless providers are not required to notify you.

Waive. Try to get the company to waive the activation fee. Some providers charge $25 just to turn on the phone, but the fee is sometimes negotiable.

Now is the time to look for cell phone bargains. In many cases, cellular companies are beginning to offer phone deals -- from free up to $80 -- because many companies are introducing new Internet access phones and want to get rid of old inventory.

Resources: The Wireless Advisor is a free consumer Website offering advice and information for the cell phone consumer.

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