Help a cellular phone newbie
May 17, 2008 9:08 AM   Subscribe

U.S. cell phone question: Is Tracfone or a major cellular carrier (Alltel is what I am interested in) more economical for a light duty user?

The plans are pretty straightforward on the various websites, but I have no idea what kind of fees I'd get hit up for walking into an Alltel store, and it's not clear to me whether I will have to purchase a phone, if they're free, or if they'll pull a shenanigan like making it free but then hitting me up for a leasing fee. I am a total newbie about dealing with the major carriers and I don't know where their nickel & diming kicks in, and I'm not naive enough to think that the $39.95/mo plan will be $39.95 when it reaches my mailbox.

Tracfone has worked for me and I don't feel like I've paid very much having service with them, but they have screwed the pooch with my recent move; they deactivated my phone because it stopped working on the network in my area, and they made arrangements to send me a new one 10 days ago which hasn't come. I guess they're so cheap I could just go to town and get a new Tracfone.

Overall description of my habits: I use about 200 minutes of talk time a month, at best, and about half of that is on the road in neighboring states. I hate talking on the phone and don't use it to chat very much. I do like text messaging though and probably send about 200 a month.
posted by crapmatic to Shopping (6 answers total)
Generally, the only "extra" fees you'll see from a carrier like Alltel is the numerous taxes and surcharges that get added on.

With only 200 minutes a month, I don't know that you'd save much money going out of the pre-paid market. It might be worthwhile to check out Alltel's prepaid service, Alltel U. Tracfone also shows a double minutes special on their site, which for one payment of $49 means you get twice as many minutes as you buy for the life of the phone you're using (every time you buy a 100 minute card, you get 200 minutes). So for not much more than one month of Alltel's regular service, you can get double the purchased minutes through Tracfone.

There is also a lot to be said for not being tied into a two-year contract for $40+ a month with a $150 or more cancellation fee.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:55 AM on May 17, 2008

The last time I compared cellphone providers, the bottom-line cheapest regular (non-prepaid) option was T-Mobile. They have a $29/mo plan, while most other carriers start their non-trivial/non-"emergency" plans at $39. (At least AT&T and Verizon's both do, when I checked in my area.) Their coverage can be spotty in rural areas, though.

In terms of fees ... I pay about $58/mo for my line of service with T-Mobile, and that's for a $39 plan, plus $6 for data and another $3 for unlimited evenings. So that's around $10/mo in charges, taxes, and other crap. I think that's pretty typical.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:24 PM on May 17, 2008

Yes, T-Mobile has a $29 a month plan but you will have to do a messaging add-on or else pay for each text message (I think it's $0.15 per message). 500 messages a month (that's total for incoming and outgoing) is another $4.99, or $9.99 for unlimited text.

I don't have any immediate recommendations but in weighing plans, I'd look more carefully at the texting side rather than minutes.
posted by cabingirl at 12:50 PM on May 17, 2008

Sprint SERO. That is all.
posted by kickingtheground at 2:39 PM on May 17, 2008 has a great deal of information on pre-paid options. Pre-paid is probably your cheapest bet for low usage. Most pre-paid providers (tracfone especially) seem to make their money from confusing people on actual costs, so doing the research is a bit difficult but completely essential.

Page Plus Cellular is one of the cheapest MNVOs (mobile network virtual operator, they buy time on other carrier's physical networks). They have 4 rate tiers, depending on what denomination you add. At $80 every 120 days (~$20/month) talk is about $0.06/minute and text messages are $0.04 each. That gives you about 200 minutes and 200 text messages each month for $20 and no contract. If you roam off Verizon's network you get shafted though, $0.28/minute to talk. There is also a $0.24/month fee. No other extra fees or taxes. You can use any Verizon branded phone, including the cheap InPulse phones they sell at Wal-Mart.

I believe T-Mobile just changed their pre-paid program to $1/day plus $0.10/min w/ free nights and weekends. But roaming is free, and you can use a GSM phone. It used to be just $0.10/min, $0.10/text after you spent $100.

Good luck.
posted by ChrisHartley at 4:12 PM on May 17, 2008

As mentioned above, try asking carriers for the 'emergency plan.' That's as rock bottom as it gets. I've sold tracphones before and they are ok if you don't mind keeping minutes on it and not letting the minutes expire and all those fun fine print things.
posted by CwgrlUp at 7:19 PM on May 17, 2008

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