March 4, 2005 3:31 PM   Subscribe

TracFone. Anyone here have anything good/bad to say about TracFone? Google shows very mixed reviews, with the worst of them dating 2-7 years ago. To complicate things, a lot of the negative reviews are written poorly or involve ignorant customers. Amazon reviews are useless since everyone is spamming the reviews trying to do referrals ("why, sure the phones are great!").

Also I'm not understanding why they pare down cell phone models by ZIP code, like one set in Austin and another set in smaller towns. Does this mean when you roam from one area to the other, the phone stops working? This makes no sense. I am often in both service regions and have no idea what to do.

I'm also on guard because their cell phone coverage page does not work at all, for anywhere.

Right now I am not impressed and will probably nix the TracFone. But I thought I'd ask. I use cell phones very lightly. Contract service (Verizon, Cingular, etc) are not options as I've come to expect piss-poor service from the megacorp world, and certainly don't want them lording a contract over me for something I don't use regularly.
posted by rolypolyman to Technology (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also I don't mean to say that all of the Web reviews are written poorly or involve ignorant customers... but there is a pretty good chunk that are like that, enough to diminish the S/N ratio of what I'm finding, and others are rather nitpicky with very specific issues.
posted by rolypolyman at 3:38 PM on March 4, 2005

The quality of your cell phone calls will vary depending on (a) phone and (b) wireless carrier. It looks like TracFone uses a wide range of phones (and any review over a year or two old is pointless because of technology changes here), and a range of carriers. So I suspect that in the reviews, you should pay attention only to the prepaid aspects of TracFone, and you should search for reviews of the specific phone that you're interested in, separately.

My guess is that they offer a different set of specific phones in different areas because they have different deals with carriers for different geographic areas.

And their cell phone coverage page, that appears to be designed to zoom down to a zip code level, doesn't work for me either (at least, all it shows is a nationwide map that doesn't allow zooming down to a locality).

Finally, considering that "TracFone® Prepaid Wireless Phones and Prepaid Wireless Airtime cards are available at over 60,000 retailers nationwide", this still seems like a good option if you don't want an annual contract and plan minimal phone usage. At least it seems worth a trip to your nearest retailer(s), who can probably explain a lot more.
posted by WestCoaster at 4:22 PM on March 4, 2005

I've never had a single problem with mine and I've been able to use it absolutely everywhere, with a good clear signal in various places, from airports to the boonies. The 20+ digit codes you have to type in to add more minutes are kind of annoying, but really that's the only thing that irritates me about the service. Otherwise, I find it a great option- especially since I only use it to occasionally call out, and don't take incoming calls at all.

(The cards seem to only be available at Wal-Marts- however, you can buy more minutes from the website; it takes no time at all.)
posted by headspace at 4:27 PM on March 4, 2005

I've used their service for the past year and have been very pleased with it. The only reason to use Tracfone is if you place infrequent calls and don't want to be stuck with the $35/mo contract. We got our Nokia phone, 300 minutes, and 1 year card expiration for $99 at the website. Look under specials for the reconditioned items. The downside is keeping up with your expiration date (if you opt out of the 1 year card). If you forget about renewing, you have to tell all your friends that your cell phone number has changed. again.
posted by tfmm at 4:31 PM on March 4, 2005

I can't get the page to work either, and I know it did a couple of months ago when I signed up. :(

From what I understand, the provider can change if you leave your 'home area' to whichever provider they have leased lines from in the new area. The phone always works, but you will be charged 2 units instead of 1 per minute in roaming areas. You shouldn't have anything to worry about if you know other people get consistent cell access. I think the Zip code thing tries to pin down where you are so they can charge more if you roam, but any phone will work.

Since I use the phone so infrequently, I often need to renew the time limit before the minutes run out, but I live in a pretty remote area, so it's worth it to me to have the security. I have bought / seen cards all over the place - Target, Office Max, Walmart, grocery stores, etc. I'm really happy with the simplicity of it all.
posted by dual_action at 5:09 PM on March 4, 2005

Tracfone REALLY, really, really annoyed me.

-They send me spam. I've tried and tried to un-register for it, and still they keep sending it to me.

-I live in a smallish town, but from my apartment I can't get any coverage at all. Coverage is good if I walk about half a mile into town. I do seem to get a lot of dropped calls.

-When I first signed up with them, they gave me a number that was already in service with someone else, and I had to go through their terrible customer support to get anything done about it.

-TERRIBLE customer support.

Which is not to say that it doesn't have its good points. It's the cheapest you can get cell phone service for infrequent calls, and I only have a cell phone in the first place because my paranoid family made me get one. But if I had to do it over again, I definitely would have bought a pre-paid cell phone from one of the other companies. I may yet do so in a year or two.
posted by Jeanne at 5:36 PM on March 4, 2005

My grandparents have TracFones and they love them. I don't know much about them beyond that (the phones, not my grandparents).

However, when I finally ditched my Cingular service last year (and the phone from 1996 that was attached to it) I went with Virgin Mobile which has a similar pay-as-you-go plan but with better customer service and technology behind it. I paid $50 for the phone at Best Buy and a minimum of $20 every three months for the service. I went with this because I didn't want a $40+ per month bill on a contract for a phone I'd hardly use outside of emergencies or urgent matters. Refilling the phone can be done online, through the phone itself (tied to your credit card), or with those little cards sold at retail.

So I'd say if you're looking at a TracFone just for the no-contract feature, take a look at Virgin Mobile. It's working well for me.
posted by Servo5678 at 5:48 PM on March 4, 2005

admitted-luddites, we were resistant to the whole cell phone thing. but, upon buying my wife a crappy old vw convertible inclined toward malfunction, i felt compelled to get her a phone to use during those occasional inconveniences when she needed to call for a ride. the contract-free tracfone was the perfect solution. we've had it for about 2 years now, spent an average of about $10 per month on the deal (including the initial cost of purchasing phone), and while she's never actually used it to get outta a jam with the car (go figure), it's been a great deal and a reliable (and, i must admit) convenient tool. if you're looking for a phone without strings attached, i think tracfone's a pretty good one.
posted by RockyChrysler at 5:56 PM on March 4, 2005

I have a tracfone which I like in my particular circumstances:

1. It's expensive per minute, but I use it very little -- just to answer pages, basically, 3 or 4 short calls a day. Never roam, never call long distance. I keep it turned off except when I need to call out. I use up one $10 card per month.

2. The one I got is plain, black, unsexy, and cheap, just exactly what a telephone should be.

3. No plan, no bill, so no ugly surprises at bill time.

4. I happen to get good strong signal in my neighborhood, and that's about all that matters.

5. I hear customer service sucks, so I've been careful not to need service.

Under those or similar circumstances, recommended. Otherwise probably not.
posted by jfuller at 6:50 PM on March 4, 2005

We've had three or four of them. They are great for teenagers, because they can pay for the minutes and if the phone is lost you only lose the minutes you bought.

There are a couple of highlights:

1) If you don't keep buying minutes or buy yearly coverage, you will lose service and the minutes you bought.

2) There are very few advanced functions on them.

3) The cards are available anywhere and work instantly.
posted by zymurgy at 7:43 PM on March 4, 2005

I can backup Servo's recommendation of Virgin Mobile USA. They don't care where in the country you make calls and the customer service was excellent. They use Sprint's physical network.
posted by cillit bang at 8:30 PM on March 4, 2005

Tracfone's phones operate on TDMA and GSM standards, and they lease coverage from different nationwide and regional cell phone providers, usually Cingular. Generally, they'll offer GSM for urban areas, and TDMA for less-populated areas that haven't migrated to GSM fully. TDMA is an aging standard, and GSM is constantly being rolled out. I'm kind of surprised they're still offering TDMA, as the towers are going to have to go down some day. For now, the TDMA phones will probably give you ok coverage everywhere, and the GSM phones will give you excellent coverage in populated areas, and ok coverage where it's sparse.
posted by zsazsa at 8:37 PM on March 4, 2005

Response by poster: Sounds like I may have to buy two Tracfones: TDMA and GSM, as (I am assuming) the GSM phones can't do TDMA. I looked at Virgin Mobile but the coverage appears to be nil in many rural areas.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:39 PM on March 4, 2005

i agree with Jeanne about the terrible customer service and the annoying spam. i bought one a year ago for someone else, and i only hope that i'll finally be dropped off of the mailing lists now that the one-year expiration on the minutes has passed. i was afraid to call the customer service line to get taken off of the mailing list because of all of the trouble i've had with them in the past. customer service may not be important to some, but since we did have quite a few issues when i first got the phone, it was important to me. and i hated having to call multiple times to resolve issues. i'd go with the GoPhone by ATT/Cingular instead.
posted by lnicole at 9:45 PM on March 4, 2005

When I was in tight financial circumstances, I went with Virgin Mobile USA and loved it. I don't know anyone who's had them who didn't. You do have to re-up ($20) every 3 months, so if you really, really almost never use your phone it may not be economical, but if you're a light user it's perfect.

VM uses the Sprint network, so if you know anybody with Sprint you may want to ask how their coverage is in your area.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:47 AM on March 5, 2005

I'm not sure you need both phones - I found the cheapest clearance Tracfone on the WalMart website and it has worked wonderfully. That model wasn't available on the website for my zip code, I just picked it out of the blue. I have no idea what the coverage is in my area, but I can't imagine it's very up-to-date (rural Wyoming). The only place I have lost reception is while driving across the state, and everyone else in the car lost reception, too. These phones pick up on whatever network is available in the area.
posted by dual_action at 7:11 AM on March 5, 2005

I've had Tracfone, and found myself using $40/month on it just making typical "I'm stuck in traffic" or "Do you want me to pick up anything on the way home" calls after work. Coverage was good and the phone was cheap, I just didn't like the rates.

Most cell companies now offer prepaid phones on their GSM network - I work for Cingular, so I can tell you that right now your rates on a new GSM prepaid are about $.20/min ($.10/min if you talk to any other cingular/AT&T wireless) and if you're just using it lightly and not messing with the wireless net and texting people like crazy, you can get away with just a $20 card every 3 months.
posted by chickygrrl at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2005

As a former Tracfone user who is quite lazy (buying more minutes every 60 days? no!) I found the company to be a large turnoff. Their rates are also pretty bad (2 units/minute) if you roam. In addition, their phone models are several years old, if that's something you particularly care about.

I switched to Virgin Mobile a year ago and love it — I can talk and text a fair amount of time and get by on $20 every 90 days.
posted by Hot Like Your 12V Wire at 6:08 PM on March 5, 2005

My husband and I have lived in four different cities in the past year and have been traveling by car extensively around the country. We bought our Tracfone about two years ago, mostly choosing it because it was the only prepaid phone that covered the road from Oklahoma City to Abilene. The first year, we only used about 800 minutes (which works out to $6/month) and used it when we were on the road and occaisional "do you need me to get you anything from the store?" calls. On our cross-country trips, it has worked very well- if we are on an interstate we almost always have coverage and are rarely roaming. I remember one trip in rural Missouri where our phone was the only phone that worked (among several monthly plans). We even have had good coverage in Canada.
Since we've been more nomadic in the past year, we've used a lot more minutes. It's been nice though, because we never have to worry about tracking down a bill. We buy a cheap long-distance card at WalMart and use it to call friends and family. When they want to call us, they know they can always call the cell, regardless of where we're living.
Recently, we found ourselves in a small town for several weeks that was outside of our calling area. That burned minutes like mad. We considered changing our # (for the first time ever), but when we checked out the calling area for the zip code we were in, it was a tiny pocket, a very specific region. Nothing like the vast calling area we had enjoyed.
So if you travel much, try to get your number in a region that will give you a huge calling area. If not, make sure your calls will not be roaming. But I would heartily recommend Tracfone for the occaisional cell phone user.
posted by wallaby at 7:56 PM on March 5, 2005

I know I'm late to the party here, but I've been using TracFone for about four years and am pretty happy with it. I talk maybe 10 min./month, if that, so the prepaid option makes sense for me--even given that I'm more likely to use it when roaming, where it uses 2 units/minute, than I am in my "home" area. I haven't had any problems with reception, including very rural areas.

I haven't had any--well, much of a problem with spam. I occasionally get unwanted "offers" in the email from them, but I only get them once every two or three months, it seems. I don't know if people who have signed up more recently get more, and granted, even a few spams a year will annoy some people more than others.

buying more minutes every 60 days? no!

They also have an option that keeps the phone active for a year after the minutes are activated, IIRC. The per-minute rate is even more expensive than most of the 30- or 60-day options, I think, but for me that's the one that makes sense. And the phone (at least my model) displays right on the main screen when you have to buy more minutes by, so you're not likely to simply forget to renew.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:20 AM on March 7, 2005

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