Prepaid wireless: In search of the perfect bargain

Finding a prepaid wireless plan can be tricky, so here's a cheat sheet for some of the most popular services on the market today.

After the economic meltdown over this past year, many Americans are looking for ways to cut back their monthly expenses. And prepaid wireless plans offer a great alternative to expensive contract plans .

Traditional prepaid services or pay as you go services allow people to buy their own phone at full retail price and then put a certain amount of money in an account that is deducted based on usage. Some plans offer buckets of minutes for a set price, and some allow people to just put however much money they want in their prepaid phone accounts. These plans allow people to know exactly how much they are spending each month, and if they run out of minutes or money in their accounts, they simply add more online, over the phone, or at a retail location.

These plans differ from post-paid plans, which offer buckets of minutes for a set price, and then bill customers at the end of each month, sometimes resulting in surprisingly high phone bills or excess charges for services that were never used.

Prepaid services have long been popular in Europe and other parts of the world, but in the U.S. these services have traditionally served only niche markets. But now prepaid is gaining steam in the U.S. And consumers of all stripes looking for good deals with no service contracts are considering canceling their post-paid services and going to prepaid.

Ideal candidates for prepaid services include people who use their phones rarely to call friends or family when they are out and about or who only own a cell phone because they think they may need it for an emergency. My 66-year-old, retired father falls into this category. Teenagers are also prime candidates for prepaid services, especially for plans specific to text messaging, such as Virgin Mobile's Texter's Delight or T-Mobile's Sidekick plan. These plans offer loads of free texting and cheap per-minute voice charges.

And now a new category of prepaid services has emerged that will likely appeal to traditional post-paid customers, who talk, text, and access the mobile Web a fair amount each month. Several carriers including Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, MetroPCS, and Leap Wireless' Cricket offer low-cost unlimited plans that include voice calling, messaging, and unlimited Web surfing. And the beauty of these all-you-can-eat plans is that customers aren't required to agree to a pesky one-year or two-year contract and risk paying expensive early termination fees.

While there are many benefits to prepaid, there are also some downsides. Typically, these services don't offer the coolest, cutting-edge phones. In fact, MetroPCS is the only prepaid operator offering a plan for a smartphone, the BlackBerry Curve. And the fine print in these deals can make picking the right plan with the best value difficult.

There are some very good Web sites out there that can help consumers pick the best plan for them. The most comprehensive one I have found is called Prepaid Reviews, which rates prepaid options from 24 carriers. Consumers can view the pros and cons of each operator, track which phones are offered, write reviews, and read evaluations on several categories. Also, there's a tool that allows people to compare up to three carriers at once.

But for those looking for a quick look at what's available, I've selected some of the most popular plans--from smaller providers to big carriers, such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile--to help readers begin to find the plans that best match their needs.

Verizon InPulse

Verizon Wireless is the largest wireless provider in the country. It recently bought regional operator Alltel and is integrating those customers into its service. It offers a wide range of post-paid options. And it has recently updated its prepaid service options, which include pay-as-go and pay-per-day options.

Who is it good for? Verizon's InPulse plan is good for consumers who use their phone occasionally and don't text much and for people who don't care about cool, feature-rich phones. And of course, it appeals to people who don't want to be tied to an expensive contract service.

Pros: Great network coverage and reliable service.

Cons: Available only on a handful of phones (no smartphones available); expensive compared to other plans, roaming charges apply in the areas where Verizon Wireless isn't available, and a $25 activation may apply in some areas.

Pay as you go: Users are charged 25 cents per minute of talk time. Money can be added in various increments, but those increments vary in terms of expiration. For example, users can add $15 to $29.99, which will expire after 30 days. The next level is $30 to $74.99, which will expire after 90. And $75 to $99.99 expires after 180 days. Anything over $100 expires after a year. Text messages cost 20 cents to send and receive.

Pay per day: These day plans allow users to pay only for service only on the days they use their phone. And there are three tiers of service. For $1 a day, customers can talk as much as they want to other Verizon Wireless subscribers and calls to all other numbers are 10 cents a minute. It's also 10 cents to send and receive text messages. The $2-a-day plan offers unlimited calling to other Verizon subscribers and unlimited calls on nights and weekends. Calls to non-Verizon subscribers during peak times costs 5 cents a minute. And texting is 5 cents per message. The $4 a day plan offers unlimited calling to anyone, anytime. And text messages are only 1 cent to send and receive.

Multimedia and picture messaging is 25 cents across all plans.

Users can also add unlimited mobile Web access (up to 5GB) for $1 a day. And unlimited texting can be added for $20 a month and unlimited in-network calling can be added for $10 a month and comes with 250 free text messages.

Roaming charges are 20 cents per minute.

Can get unlimited texting for $20 a month or for $10 a month users get unlimited in-network texting plus 250 additional text messages to anyone.

Phones: Only a limited number of Verizon handsets are offered for the InPulse service. And no smartphones are offered with this plan.

AT&T GoPhone

AT&T is the second-largest nationwide mobile operator in the country. It offers several post-paid services and exclusive phones, such as Apple's iPhone. It also offers pay-as-you-go, pay-per-day and monthly prepaid service options all with no contract.

Who is it good for? AT&T's GoPhone plans are good for occasional cell phone and text message users. And it's also appealing to people who don't care much about cool, feature rich phones, and who don't want a contract service.

Pros: Great network coverage, reliable service, includes rollover minutes.

Cons: Limited number of handsets for prepaid service, a better value than Verizon, but pricey compared to other prepaid services.

Pay as you go: AT&T also offers users the ability to put money in their prepaid account and pay 25 cents per minute.

Pay per day: For $3 per day users can make unlimited calls to any domestic caller for 24 hours. And for $1 a day, they can make unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls. It's 10 cents a minute to all other callers in the U.S.

Text messages on these plans cost 20 cents to send and receive, but users can buy packs of messages. For example for $5 a month, you can get 200 messages. For $10 a monthly users get $100, and $20 a month buys unlimited texting. Multimedia messages cost 25 cents a pop.

Users are charged $0.01 per kilobyte for mobile Web usage.

Monthly plans: Users can also pick a plan starting at $30 a month for 250 voice minutes. Calls are charged 15 cents after that. For $40 a month, users can get 300 anytime voice minutes, 500 nights and weekends, and unlimited calls to other AT&T subscribers. Overage charges are 13 cents per minute. The $50 a month plan offers 400 anytime minutes, 3,000 nights and weekend minutes, and unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls. Overage charges on this plan cost about 12 cents a minute. And the $70 a month plan includes 650 anytime minutes, unlimited nights and weekends, and unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls. The overage charge for this plan is nearly 11 cents a minute. Unused minutes are rolled over to the next month.

The texting, MMS, and data rates are the same for the monthly plans as they are for the pay-as-you-go and pay-per-day plans.

Phones: AT&T only offers a very limited number of phones for its prepaid service, which don't include any smartphones. But the carrier offers refurbished phones at a big discount.

Boost mobile

Boost Mobile is owned by Sprint Nextel, the nation's third-largest carrier, and it uses the Nextel iDEN network. It offers pay as you go, pay per day, and a monthly unlimited plan.

Who is it good for? Boost Mobile has typically catered to the young urban market. But its low-cost unlimited plan and good selection of phones also make it a great buy for any typical post-paid cell phone customer looking to ditch to contract.

Pros: Phones offer lots of features; service options suit almost anyone; walkie-talkie service offered.

Cons: Pricey handsets that are not subsidized.

Pay as you go: Users can add as much money as they like, and Boost deducts 10 cents for every minute of talk time, regardless of time of day. For $1 a day, users can get access to the walkie-talkie service. For 35 cents a day they can access the mobile Web for a day. Texting costs 10 cents a message to send and receive, and it costs 25 cents to send and receive MMS messages.

Pay per day: For $1 a day, users get the Chat Plan that offers unlimited voice minutes from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., and unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes, which includes calls to Sprint Nextel customers. All other calls are 10 cents per minute. Unlimited text messaging is also included in the $1/day Chat Plan. Multimedia messaging is 25 cents per message, and it costs 35 cents a day to access the mobile Web.

Monthly unlimited plan: The Boost Unlimited plan is $50 per month and comes with unlimited voice minutes, unlimited text, unlimited MMS, unlimited walkie-talkie, and unlimited mobile Web access all day long any day of the week.

Phones: Boost Mobile offers a wide range of phones that have lots of different features. Many of its phones include cameras, video recorders, and/or MP3 music players. Prices range from $30 to $180.

T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile USA is owned by Deutsche Telekom and is the fourth-largest cell phone operator in the U.S. It offers pay-as-you-go, pay-per-day, monthly plans, as well as a special texting plan for Sidekick users.

Who is it good for? T-Mobile has three plans that cater to the needs of many consumers. Its pay-as-you-go and pay-per-day plans are good for people who use their phones occasionally and text message rarely. The FlexPay plan is good for consumers who don't want a contract. And the Sidekick plan is ideal for heavy texters who don't use the phone much to make calls, i.e. teens.

Pros: Easy to use starter kits available, minutes roll over as long as the account is refreshed within 90 days.

Cons: No mobile Web services.

Pay as you go: T-Mobile offers four tiers of refill cards. For $10 a month, users get 30 minutes of talk time. For $25 they get 130 minutes, and $50 refills offer 400 minutes. A $100 refill, which offers 1,000 minutes, enrolls customers into the Gold Rewards program, which adds 15 percent more minutes for each future card.

Pay per day: For $1 a day, users get unlimited night minutes starting at 7 p.m., and unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes. All other calls are 10 cents per minute. The $1 charge only applies when calls are made.

Monthly plan: T-Mobile's FlexPay plan allows users to choose from among T-Mobile's most popular post-paid calling plans, but users only pay for them on a prepaid basis. They can either opt for a contract or no contract. Customers wanting a subsidized handset can sign up for a one- or two-year contract, depending on the selected plan and handset.

Sidekick: T-Mobile has a special plan for the popular Sidekick, which costs $1 per day for unlimited text messaging, e-mail, and Web browsing. And calls cost 15 cents per minute.

Texting rates apply across all the plans, except the Sidekick plan, and texts cost 10 cents to send a message and 5 cents to receive a message in the U.S. and Canada. Messages are 35 cents to send and 5 cents to receive messages from anywhere else. And multimedia messages are 25 cents to send and receive.

Mobile Web services are not available.

Phones: T-Mobile's pay-as-you-go and pay-per-day services don't include all of its hottest phones. But consumers are able to select from just about any T-Mobile handset for the FlexPay plan.

Virgin Mobile USA

Virgin Mobile USA is a mobile virtual network operator that uses Sprint's CDMA network to offer pay-as-you-go plans, monthly, and unlimited monthly plans, and a special deal for heavy texters.

Who is it good for? Virgin Mobile offers one of the widest arrays of services and plans that could work well and provide value to almost any consumer from occasional talkers to hardcore texters and chatters, i.e. teens. But there are better deals for people who just need a cell phone for emergencies or occasional calls.

Pros: Wide array of service offerings, including a new pink slip plan that will pay the cost of a monthly service for up to three months when subscribers lose their jobs. Decent prices for those who talk more than 300 minutes a month. Voice minutes roll over. No roaming fees. Operates over Sprint's nationwide CDMA network (which could be viewed as a negative or a positive depending on how you feel about Sprint.)

Cons: The $50 unlimited plan is cheaper than most contract plans from the large carriers, but offers fewer features than the Boost Mobile Unlimited plan.

Pay as you go: Virgin Mobile's pay as you go plans allow users to buy a certain bucket of minutes in various denominations. The first bucket offered costs $20 and gives users 200 minutes of talk time. The $30 plan offers 400 minutes. And the $50 plan offers 1,000 minutes. As long as customers buy another package of minutes every 30 days, the balance from the previous 30 days rolls into the next 30 days. And users can have a maximum of 5,000 minutes rolled over. The company also offers a pay as you go rate that charges 20 cents per minute.

Standard texting and e-mail messaging rates are 15 cents a minute and 25 cents a minute for multimedia messaging. Text-messaging packages are also available. And for $5 more every 30 days, users can get 200 free text messages. For $10 more a month, they get 1,000 messages. And for $20 a month, they get unlimited text messaging. Starting at $5 a month users can get 5MB of mobile Web downloads and for $10 a month, they can get 50MB of data per month.

Monthly plans : Virgin Mobile offers a monthly plan that starts at $30 a month for 300 minutes of anytime talk time and 1,000 minutes of night time calling, which starts after 7 p.m. The $40 a month plan includes 400 anytime minutes and unlimited night and weekend minutes.

Unlimited Monthly: The $50 a month plan includes unlimited calling, to any number, any time of day, any day of the week. Virgin Mobile also offers a few different texting plans. For an additional $5 a month, users get 1,000 free text messages and for $10 a month they get unlimited text messaging. Starting at $5 a month users can get 5MB of mobile Web downloads and for $10 a month, they can get 50MB of data per month. Text-messaging rates are 15 cents to send and receive messages.

There is also the Texter's Delight plans that offer 1,000 text messages for $15 a month and unlimited texting for $20 a month. Each service charges 10 cents a minute for talk time.

Phones: Virgin Mobile has a wide range of phones available, with some starting as low as $10. There are no smartphones included in the lineup but there are two phones that offer a full QWERTY keypad.

Metro PCS

MetroPCS is a regional wireless carrier that offers only flat-rate, unlimited monthly plans.

Who is it good for? MetroPCS offers the best value in the higher-tier unlimited plans for customers who are looking to replace a post-paid contract service with a service that doesn't tie them to a contract.

Pros: Flat rate, unlimited plans are simple to understand and customers don't have to worry about overages; mobile Web access, including a plan for the BlackBerry Curve

Cons: Limited coverage area, roaming is not included and there's an extra charge for using the phone outside the MetroPCS calling region.

Unlimited monthly plan: For $30, users get unlimited local calling. The $35 plan offers unlimited local and long distance calling. For $40 a month, users get unlimited local and long distance calling plus unlimited text messaging. The $45 plan also includes Web access and picture messaging. And for $50 a month, users can get unlimited local and long distance calling, unlimited text and multimedia messaging, unlimited Web access, and unlimited e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger. This premiere unlimited service also includes unlimited use of location-based service Loopt as well as access to a navigation service.

Text messaging, picture messaging, and mobile Web access is not available with the $30 basic plan. Mobile Web access can be added to the $35 and $40 a month plans for $5 more a month.

Users who buy Research In Motion's BlackBerry Curve or the touch-screen Samsung Finesse R810 must subscribe to $50 unlimited plan. And BlackBerry users can get work e-mail for an additional $10 a month.

Phones: MetroPCS offers a wide range of phones including the Blackberry Curve, which costs $449.

Cricket, from Leap Wireless

Cricket is a regional wireless carrier owned by Leap Wireless that offers flat-rate unlimited monthly plans as well as a pay-as-you-go service. It also offers 3G broadband wireless service for laptops.

Who is it good for? Like MetroPCS, Cricket offers the best value in the higher-tier unlimited plans for customers who are looking to replace a post-paid contract service with a service that doesn't tie them to a contract. The $1 a day pay-as-you-go plans are also good for people who use their phones occasionally.

Pros: Flat rate, unlimited monthly plans with no contracts, pay-per-day options, $40 a month 3G wireless broadband for laptops.

Cons: Limited coverage area serving parts of only 21 states, roaming fees for most plans, $15 activation fee, lack of basic cell phone features, no smartphone offering.

Pay as you go: Cricket offers three pay-as-you-go plans, which it calls PAYgo. The $1 a day plan offers unlimited local calling for the day. The $2 a day plan offers unlimited local and long-distance calling and unlimited texting. And for $3 a day, users can get unlimited calling, texting, and mobile Web access.

Monthly plans:The $30 a month plan offers unlimited local calling, but roaming or long-distance minutes are not included. For $40 a month, users get unlimited local and long-distance calling. The $45 a month plan includes unlimited local and long-distance calling plus unlimited texting and multimedia messaging. The $50 per month plan offers everything in the $45 a month plan plus unlimited mobile Web access and 30 free minutes of roaming. Cricket also offers a $60 a month Cricket Nation 200 plan that offers everything in the $50 plan and 200 free roaming minutes.

Voice roaming is 39 cents per minute for all services.

Wireless broadband: Cricket offers a $40 a month 3G wireless broadband service. Voice customers can add the wireless broadband service for laptops for $5 more a month when bundled with an unlimited plan. The activation fee is $25 and the "unlimited" data is really capped at 5MB a month.

Phones: Cricket offers a modest selection of phones with features like cameras, music players, and QWERTY keypads. But they are pricey.

Tracfone

Tracfone is a nationwide prepaid-only service that offers both pay-as-you-go plans and monthly service plans.

Who is it good for? This service is good for people who use their phone occasionally and are just looking for a cheap handset without many frills.

Pros: Cheap pay-as-you-go phones; simple plans; minutes carry over, as long as users add more minutes at least every three months.

Cons: Pricey for big talkers. And the texting rates are difficult to understand, no mobile Web access.

Pay as you go:Tracfone offers a traditional pay-as-you-go service that allows users to buy refill cards to top up their phones. The cards come in four denominations. For $20 users can talk for 60 minutes. A $30 card offers 120 minutes of talk time. For $40 users can talk for 300 minutes. And an $80 card offers 450 minutes of talk time.

Also offers a $50 Double Minutes for Life card that allows users to double future minutes purchased. But this excludes the one-year cards that offer 800 minutes of talk time. The cards are good for service for 45, 90, or 365 days from the date the minutes are added to the phone, depending on which card is purchased.

Monthly plans Tracfone also offers monthly plans, and for $10 a month users get 50 minutes of talk time. A $20 a month plan offers 100 minutes of talk time, and a $30 a month plan give users 150 minutes of talk time. Users can set up the service to automatically charge their credit card every month for the service.

Text-messaging rates are basically the same for the pay-as-you go cards and the monthly plans. And they vary depending on the phone. With certain phones, users are charged 0.3 units to send text messages. Receiving text messages is free. Other phones charge 0.5 units to send and receive text messages. Mobile Web access is not available.

Phones: Tracfone offers a wide range of low-cost and simple phones starting at $10. And most phones don't cost more than $50.

U.S. Cellular

U.S. Celluar is a regional cell phone operator offering both prepaid and post-paid service in 26 states. The prepaid services are monthly and pay as you go.

Who is it good for? The U.S. Cellular pay as you go service is perfect for people who only use their phone occasionally.

Pros: Monthly and pay as you go services available.

Cons: There are no pay per minute plans. All Talk Tracker plans mimic traditional cell phone service plans offered via US Cellular except that they require no credit check or monthly contract to get service.

Pay as you go:For $6 a month, users can get 15 cent a minute calls. And for $10 a month, they can make 10 cent a minute calls. Incoming text messages are free and outgoing messages are 25 cents. US Cellular also offers texting bundles. For $5 a month users can get 250 free text messages and $10 a month gets users 750 text messages. Unlimited texting costs $15. Multimedia and picture messaging aren't available. Mobile Web access isn't available.

Monthly Plans: U.S. Cellular offers four basic monthly calling plans. The $25 a month plan comes with 100 anytime minutes, and additional minutes are billed at 50 cents each. The $45 a month plan offers 350 anytime minutes. Additional minutes are billed at 15 cents a minute. For $60 a month, users get 600 anytime minutes. Additional minutes are billed at 10 cents each. And the $80 plan comes with 1000 anytime minutes and additional minutes are billed at 10 cents each.

Users who roam outside of U.S. Cellular's calling area are charged 69 cents per minute.

Incoming text messages are free and outgoing messages are 20 cents. US Cellular also offers texting bundles. For $5 a month users can get 250 free text messages and $10 a month gets users 750 text messages. Unlimited texting costs $15. Multimedia and picture messaging isn't available. Mobile Web access aren't available.

Phones:The phone selection is very limited for prepaid phones. They are very basic models which are best used for just talking and texting.

 

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