Smartphone Plans: 5 Ways To Avoid Trouble

AT&T and Verizon rolled out ugly smartphone plans this week. Before you choose any new plan, consider this advice.
Wireless service plans these days are almost as innumerable as the vast selection of smartphones available. Just as people choose different smartphones to suit their professional or personal needs, people should also choose their smartphone service plan to meet their individual requirements.

The carriers don't make it easy. In the U.S., there are four major wireless network operators (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless) and dozens of smaller, regional carriers (C Spire, U.S. Cellular, Consumer Cellular, Cricket Wireless, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile USA, etc.). Each carrier offers its own series of plans for smartphones, and matching the right phone with the right carrier and right plan is often a daunting task. Here are a few pointers to help get you started.

1. Know Your Usage

It will be much easier to choose an effective plan if you already know how you use your device. Most carriers offer online tools that let you see usage trends as far back as 12 months or so. Are you really using that unlimited voice plan, or have you stopped making as many phone calls in recent months? Are you still sending tons of text messages, or have you switched to over-the-top messaging services, such as Skype or WhatsApp? Last, do you really need 8 GB of data per month, or is 2 GB or 3 GB enough? Look at how you've used your device for the last few months in order to choose a plan that better suits your monthly needs moving forward.

[ The two largest U.S. carriers let you switch phones more frequently, but there's a catch. See AT&T, Verizon's Upgrade Plans: Insane Choices. ]

2. Research The Carriers' Coverage

U.S. wireless network operators have done a commendable job of covering large portions of the country with dependable 3G and speedy 4G networks. But service still isn't available everywhere, and coverage varies based on location. Be sure to check the coverage maps offered on the carrier websites to see if the areas in which you work, live and play are blanketed with a strong signal. This is especially important if you want to have access to LTE 4G, which is still far from ubiquitous.

3. Don't Be Afraid Of Prepaid

Wireless plans are often expensive. The post-paid plans offered by the big four carriers are among the most costly. Regional carriers and mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) often offer cheaper rates and better values (especially if you bring your own device). It is worth exploring the prepaid carriers in your area to see if they have coverage and plans. See if they can match the features of their larger competitors at a lower cost. You might be surprised. Aside from a few dollars, going prepaid means you have the flexibility to cancel service any time.

4. Don't Go It Alone

Whether you're in a large enterprise, midsized business or small home office, there are often savings to be realized by selecting group, rather than individual, plans. Most carriers offer shared or family plans that bundle together minutes, messaging and data to be shared by two or more lines. Such shared plans can be the best way to save money when you need to provide service to more than one person at a time.

5. Remember You're Not Locked Into Your Plan

Once you sign a contract you generally need to fulfill it before you can change your carrier, but there are a few important things to know. First, most carriers offer a 14-day trial period. These initial 14-day periods are your chance to test the device and the service plan you've chosen. Make sure you do a thorough job evaluating the service during that 14-day stretch. On day 15, you're locked down for another 23.5 months.

Second, even if you're in the middle of your contract, you can still change your plan at any time. For example, you can adjust the number of minutes you use each month, as well as messaging and data allotments to better suit your needs. For example, say three months into your contract you notice you've exceeded your monthly data plan twice. No worries. Call the carrier up and ask for more data. They'll be happy to oblige. On the flip side, if you discover that you're barely using any messages, choose a plan that offers fewer messages per month at a lower cost.