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Ten tips

How to choose the right cellular calling plan

By Times staff writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2002

Whether you're a cell phone novice or a cell phone connoisseur, choosing a calling plan can be a daunting task. The plan will make up the most expensive chunk of your cellular budget, and it's easy to fall into the trap of paying more than necessary. Consider the following tips.

1. WHAT KIND OF CELL PHONE USER ARE YOU? Are you a casual user who spends about five hours a month on the phone? A frequent user (20 hours a month)? A traveler who spends a lot of time "roaming" outside your home area?

2. CHOOSE A PLAN THAT FITS YOUR NEEDS. Once you determine your calling pattern, examine a variety of service plans. Pay careful attention to each plan's home coverage area, calling periods and number of free any time minutes, which are very valuable. Many people end up paying for minutes they never use, so consider underestimating your usage a bit.

3. IS A LOCAL PLAN RIGHT FOR YOU? Such plans cover the most limited service area -- usually a single metropolitan area.

4. REFLECT ON REGIONAL PLANS. Regional plans cover a broader multistate area. If you make calls outside of that area, you'll be hit with roaming charges of up to 50 or 60 cents a minute on top of airtime.

5. CONSIDER A NATIONAL PLAN. National plans cost the most money and are geared toward people who spend a lot of time traveling. They allow you to call from any place to any place in the United States. If you exceed your monthly airtime allotment, you typically must pay 20 to 60 cents a minute.

6. FAMILY PLANS FOR FAMILY GROUPS. Such plans are ideal for households with more than one cell phone. They provide a discount on two or more phones, a "bucket" of shared minutes and a single, convenient bill. One catch, though: You must monitor each family member's phone use to know whether you're nearing or exceeding your quota of minutes.

7. PREPAID PLANS CAN HAVE ADVANTAGES: A pay-as-you-go plan can be a good option if you have credit problems, don't want a monthly commitment, use your cell phone for emergencies only or simply want to give cellular a try. Prepaid plans also allow you to find a carrier you like before committing to a contract.

8. PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION TO "FREE MINUTE" ADS. In many cases, free minutes are limited to calls made on weekends and before 8 a.m. and after 6 p.m. or so on weekdays. Those off peak minutes could be valuable if you truly make most of your calls at night or on weekends. If not, look for a plan with the most free any time minutes, which can be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

9. PICK OUT A PHONE LAST. The carrier you select will affect the phones you can select. Because of that, don't buy a phone until you've chosen the carrier and calling plan that are best for you.

10. THINK ABOUT THE LENGTH OF YOUR CONTRACT. Most service plans require at least a one-year contract, but if you opt for a two-year contract, you may get a free or discounted phone or have significant fees waived.

-- Compiled by Laura T. Coffey. Sources: Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org); TeleBright (www.telebright.com)

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