Many consumers are so unhappy with their cell phone service, they'd like to switch plans. But most don't bother to cancel their existing contracts because of the prospect of being hit with early-termination fees ranging from $150 to $200. To avoid getting stuck in this mess, consider these tips.
1. STEER CLEAR OF THE TERRIBLE TWOS. It's common these days for carriers to shuffle consumers off into two-year contracts. But what if you can barely stand the service you're getting after just a few weeks? It happens, so seek out any trial periods and the shortest contract you can get - often one year - even if it costs a bit more.
2. IF YOU'RE HAPPY AND YOU KNOW IT, CLAP YOUR HANDS. Make the two-year commitment only if you're renewing service with a carrier that has been working well for you.
3. PLAY HARD TO GET. If your contract is close to expiring, you're in luck: You can continue service with your current carrier on a month-to-month basis until you decide what you want to do next.
4. LOOK INTO SUBLEASING. If your contract is nowhere near expiring and you're miserable, CellTradeUSA.com allows you to find someone to assume the remaining time on your plan. Why would anyone do that? They may not want a two-year commitment, your carrier may provide decent service where they live, and they stand to get your phone, car adapter and other accessories for free.
5. COUNT THE COSTS. The subleasing option may sound a little crazy, but it can cost much less than that $200 termination fee. You pay $19.99 to read e-mail messages from interested people. If you find a taker, both of you must settle up with the carrier separately. (The person assuming your plan must have his or her credit checked, but typically won't be subject to any signup or activation fees.)
6. CONSIDER CARRIERS' REPUTATIONS. A recent Consumer Reports survey of 18 metro areas revealed that Verizon generally offers high-quality service in many parts of the country. T-Mobile also performed well in many cities. (The Tampa Bay area was not included in the survey.)
7. BEWARE OF DEAD ZONES AND DROPPED CALLS. To determine which carrier is likely to provide the best service where you live, ask people in your neighborhood and your building at work about their cell phone experiences. Check carriers' Web sites for maps of their coverage areas and dead zones, and check DeadCellZones.com for tips from consumers and links to coverage maps.
8. COMPARE PLANS' PRICES. When you have an idea which carrier is best, check its Web site for details about specific plans and promotions. Next step: Call the carrier and ask whether any additional plans or special deals are available.
9. KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT. Verizon plans tend to cost a bit more than others, Sprint tends to be the most forgiving for people who exceed their monthly allotment of minutes, and Cingular allows people to roll over unused minutes.
10. FACTOR IN NONVOICE SERVICES. There's an abundance of nonvoice options out there: text messaging, digital photography and e-mail, to name a few. If any of these matter to you, be sure to compare prices for them, as well.