The Early Show Saturday Edition's "Bargainista" is all about finding you the best buys, so we asked Consumer Reports Electronics Editor Paul Reynolds to lend a hand in looking at such plans:
WHEN IT COMES TO PRICING, ARE ALL CARRIERS PRETTY MUCH CREATED EQUAL?
For the most part. But there may be a few that offer less expensive plans. T-Mobile, for example, is considered among the least expensive carriers. But it's very likely that what you can save by staying with your carrier and adjusting your plan will exceed what you might save by moving from one carrier to another. You should always explore the plans available from your own carrier before you consider switching to save.
It's more important that you look at what kind of plan you have, and whether you're planning for minutes you don't use. You can change your plans fairly easily, and it's become easier because, in most cases, changing your plan no longer ties you to a longer contract.
WAYS TO SAVE:
REVIEW YOUR PLAN MINUTES
Consider that the national average for cell subscribers is 700 minutes per month. If that's what you use, you might want to look at AT&T's 900-minute nationwide plan, for $60 per month. But it also offers free unlimited night, weekend and in-network minutes.
If most of your calls take place at night and on weekends, you can drop to the company's 450-minute nationwide plan, which offers 5,000 free night and weekend minutes and unlimited in-network minutes for $40 per month, saving you $240 per year. So study what your family uses, then find the appropriate plan.
CONSIDER GOING PRE-PAID RATHER THAN GOING WITH A PLAN
Prepaid cell phone service used to be for people with bad credit. Now, they're the choice of about 15 percent of cell phone users, and overwhelmingly they say it's because of the cost. You should consider prepaid if you find you're using many fewer than the minutes offered under plans. The major carriers all have them, as do smaller carriers that use major carriers' networks. Virgin uses Sprint's network, TracFone uses AT&T.
If you find you use 100 minutes per month, you can get a prepaid plan from Alltel or T-Mobile for $10-$15 per month. If your family uses 700-minutes per month, you would pay about $53 on Virgin as opposed to a minimum of $60-$70 on major carriers' contract family plans. Virgin also has an unlimited prepaid plan for $80 per month that could save you $240 per year.
YOU DON'T GET PERKS LIKE A FREE PHONE WITH PREPAID, AS YOU WOULD WITH A CONTRACT PLAN
A lot of people go for the "free," or deeply discounted, phones, but the truth is, the phones aren't free. We talked to all the major carriers and discovered that somewhere between $2.39 and $5.00 of the service charges paid by customers go to pay for the so-called "free" phone. You pay every cent for that phone, and if you renew your contract and don't get a new phone, that service fee is not removed, so you keep paying for your phone. We are fighting to force them to stop using the term "free," as the phones are never free, nor are they discounted.
THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR PHONE BESIDES JUST TALK ON IT, SO TAKE ALL THOSE MULTI-MEDIA OPTIONS, AND BUNDLE THEM TO SAVE MONEY
Make sure you're looking beyond your voice minutes and looking at text messaging. Those costs can really add up on an a la carte basis. And the rates for texting have gone up significantly, and in lockstep for all the big carriers, which is very suspicious. You can pay 15 to 25 cents per text message.
Right now, T-Mobile has the lowest bundling rates for texts, $5 for 400 minutes. That's what really runs up phone bills for families: kids texting all the time. And you have to remember, they are charging you for incoming and outgoing text messages.
AS FOR "SMART PHONES":
There's a great allure to the "smart" phones. Everyone wants an iPhone or a Google Phone. But to maximize your multi-media options, you'll have to get data access, which can add a lot of money to your bill. Right now, T-Mobile, Alltel and Sprint have the best prices for add-on mobile Web access, $6 for unlimited access. But that access can run $70 per month for a media plan for the iPhone.
CONSIDER GOING LOCAL WITH YOUR CELL PHONE PLAN
If you find that all or almost all of your calls are local, to and from the area in which you live, you might want to ditch the nationwide plan for a local one, with no long distance. You can get a local plan from Alltel for $50 a month for 1,000 local minutes per month. That's $120 cheaper per year than their 900-minute national plan.
If you use a computer-based phone service at home, you may find you have unlimited long-distance calling for free. It would benefit you to use your home phone for long distance calls, and stick to local calling only on your cell.