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How to buy glasses online and save hundreds of dollars

There are trade-offs, of course, but it's usually the cheaper option -- sometimes a lot cheaper.

goggles4u

Goggles4U is among the online eyewear stores offering dramatically lower prices than you can find in many stores.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Sometimes we get so stuck in the old way of doing things, we don't bother to see if there's a better alternative.

Take eyeglasses. Old way: Go to your local optical shop, get an eye exam, choose frames and lenses, pay a small fortune (especially if you add options like Transitions and anti-glare coating).

New way: Order glasses online. OK, it's not all that new; the internet has sold eyewear for years. But maybe you've always dismissed it as too risky a proposition, given that you can't try on frames, get adjustments and so on.

I kind of felt that way myself, which is why I spent over $600 on my last pair of glasses -- and that was with insurance covering a small portion of it. Granted, I wear progressives (aka no-line bifocals), which always cost more, but that was a hard pill to swallow. So hard, in fact, that I decided to take a very close look at the online alternatives.

Here's what I learned, and what you should know about buying eyeglasses online.

It started with a tweet

That's what I asked the Twitterverse last month, and I was truly amazed by the response. Lots and lots of folks have ordered glasses online and been very happy with the results.

I also learned the shocking truth about glasses, courtesy of this amusing, informative "Adam Ruins Everything" clip:

That cinched it: I was justified in feeling like I wasn't getting the best deal. To be fair, the folks at my local eyeglass place are incredibly nice, offering the kind of customer service you rarely find anywhere these days. Some of that is built into the cost. 

But you know what? I'm not paying another $600 for glasses. Not now, not ever.

Where to find glasses online

Everywhere -- there are tons of virtual eyewear shops. Among the best-known: EyeBuyDirect, GlassesUSA, Goggles4U, Warby Parker and Zenni Optical. A little searching will reveal plenty of others.

How do you choose? As with most stores, your criteria should include price, selection, ease of use, return policy and customer service. And if price is your main driver, it'll help to wrap up the next item -- a prescription -- before you start shopping around (because you can't really get a quote without it).

The one thing you can't get online

Before you can order glasses, you need a prescription. That means scheduling an appointment with your local optician or ophthalmologist.

The price for an exam varies depending on where you go, but you should probably expect to pay around $40 to $80. The result will be a prescription you can take anywhere; you don't have to use it to buy glasses at the same place you got the exam. Just take note that you may have to ask for a copy, because often it's provided only upon request.

What's more, in my experience, the prescription sometimes leaves off important information, most notably pupillary distance (PD). If you don't see that listed anywhere, ask for it. You'll need it when ordering online.

Finding the best options

With your prescription in hand, now you can visit the virtual aisles of eyeglass stores. Typically you'll browse the frames first, a process you can simplify by enabling filters: gender, color(s), shape(s), size and so on.

Most stores will let you "try on" the various frames if you upload a photo of your face. (Time to put your selfie skills to good use.) You might have the option of using your webcam as well. This can help a lot, even if it does give you only a single, front-facing view of the fit. And if you're not sure what size is best, most stores have sizing tools you can use as well.

zenni-optical

Zenni Optical's "try them on" tool is weird because the arms are shown as bent outward, exactly how they aren't when you're actually wearing glasses.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

At some point along the way you'll enter your prescription information, then choose from the available lens options: thickness, coatings, adaptive, etc. Needless to say, the more options you add, the higher your final cost. And because you're probably going to want at least a couple of these extras (UV protection is kind of a must-have), don't get suckered in by those "$6.95 glasses!" deals you've probably seen. In the end it's almost certainly going to cost you more than that.

Before you check out, note the turnaround time: custom glasses typically take one to three weeks, depending on the variables, and there may be shipping time on top of that.

Finally, before you place any online order for glasses, don't forget what is arguably the most important variable of all...

Check the return policy

The big question for any online eyewear order: What happens if they're not right? Maybe the frames don't fit you well or the lenses are off somehow. Heck, maybe you just don't like them.

This is where a bit of dew falls off the lily, because you already waited probably a week or two to get your glasses -- now you've got to send them back and wait for another pair?

Return policies vary from store to store. GlassesUSA, for example, offers a no-questions-asked full refund if you're unhappy with your order. Zenni Optical refunds only 50 percent unless there's a manufacturing error. If not, you can get a one-time-use store credit for the full amount you paid -- meaning you can effectively try again with a different pair or prescription.

Meanwhile, some stores might only give you store credit. Bottom line: Before you even start shopping, check the return policy and make sure it's something you can live with.

Adjustments may be needed

Once you receive your glasses, they may need to be adjusted to properly fit your face. This is where, head hung in shame, you'll have to pop back into an optometry place and ask for help.

However, you don't have to mention that you bought them online, merely that they need adjustment. (Glasses get bent out of shape all the time, and most retailers have no problem helping walk-ins.) If you feel guilty, buy a cleaning cloth or something.

As for me, I priced out a set of frames, lenses and options from Zenni Optical similar to what I just bought locally. Total price: a little over $100. I've yet to actually order them, because I'm still living with the $600 mistake on my face, but rest assured my next eyeglass order will come from the interwebs.