Tuesday, January 8, 2008

4 Easy Steps to Choosing the Right Cell Phone Plan

There’s a mind-boggling amount of cell phone plans and services available these days. Cell phone ads promising bigger, bolder and better features blare at us every day. The question then becomes, “Which plan is right for me?” In this article, I’ll give you tips on what to look for in a plan, what to ask your service provider and how to avoid common mistakes that new subscribers often make!

First, ask yourself “What do I want in a plan?” Finding the right cellular plan is just a matter of deciding what, when, where and how you plan to use your phone:

- Will you be using it only for emergencies, or to chat with friends or family often?

- Will you make most of your calls during the day, evening, or on weekends?

- Will your calls be coming from your local area, or will you phone while traveling?

- What is your monthly budget for telephone services?

Getting the Most Minutes for your Money

Cell phone plans often come with a pre-allotted set of minutes per month (which may or may not correspond with an actual “minute” of time depending on factors such as where you are when you make the call, calling a long distance number and so on).

When you use up your minutes, you may be faced with paying an overage fee or paying a higher amount for the extra minutes. With many plans, the minutes you don’t use do not automatically roll over to the next month. So if you only used 30 minutes out of your 90 minute monthly allotment, you don’t get to keep the 60 minutes you didn’t use that month. You simply start over at 90 again.

Some other important differences to note in cell phone plans (as versus traditional telephone service) that you’ll want to keep in mind when comparison shopping include:

- You may find that your minutes are used up for both incoming and outgoing calls

- Calling a toll free number can cost you minutes

- The actual amount of time you’ve spent on a call is usually rounded up. So if you spent 3 minutes and 5 seconds on a call, you may find that 4 minutes have been used.

- The clock starts ticking on your minute usage the minute you press the “Call” or “Send” button, not the moment the other person picks up.

Most cellular service providers have a special phone number or web site address where you can login to check the number of minutes you have remaining each month. Keep in mind though, depending on how often the accounts or web site is updated, the numbers may not always be current.

Long Distance, Dropped Calls and Roaming – Oh My!

When choosing a wireless plan, keep in mind where you’ll be using your phone most often. Some service providers have nationwide coverage, while others target a specific “home area”. If you make or receive a call outside of this area, you’re “Roaming”, and your minutes may run out faster or you may face an extra charge. Know the boundaries of your calling area – you could be charged for long distance and roaming on top of the minutes that are spent during the call!

If you have a set of numbers that you dial frequently (such as friends, family, doctors and so on), ask the wireless provider if the cell phone plan you’re interested in will work in those locations without accruing long distance or roaming charges.

What To Ask Your Service Provider

If you’ve got a handful of good plans you’re considering, these questions may help narrow down the field of choices:

- Can I use my minutes anytime? Can they be used during “peak times” or am I charged more during those hours? (peak times usually occur on weekends). When do “peak hours” start and end?

- How much extra am I charged if I go over my monthly allotment of minutes?

- How much will I be charged for long distance and/or roaming? (Some nationwide carriers do not charge for these services unless you call out of the country)

- What is your cancellation policy? What happens if I cancel early? Will I be charged a cancellation fee after my plan has been activated?

- Can I make any changes to my plan (such as increasing or decreasing the number of minutes) after my service has been activated?

- What other features are included on my plan? (such as voice mail, caller ID) and if not included, how much would they cost to add to my service?

Remember, get all of these answers in writing. That way, if you suddenly find a $100 Early Cancellation charge on your bill, and you have a written document that states that there is no early cancellation fee, you’ll have an easier time of disputing the charge.

If you have several plans you’d like to try out, ask the service provider if there is a grace period where you can cancel your service without being charged (or being charged only a small amount) if the service doesn’t meet your expectations. Chances are, many wireless providers will be eager and happy to help you compare plans. Just remember to read the fine print before you sign!

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