With this latest cell phone merger, there will be fewer places to go if you’re feeling trapped by your cell phone carrier.

There’s nothing worse than hating your cell phone carrier and having 18 months left on your plan. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little planning, you can get a better deal and leave your options open.

They may not advertise it, but all cell phone companies have dead zones — places where your call might drop suddenly, like the highway or in a high rise — and cell phone users hate them. The problem is, there’s no way to know whether your phone service will work where you need it to until you test it. That’s why carriers give you 14 to 30 days to put your new phone through its paces.

“Take advantage of the trial period because it will help you determine if the phone is going to work the way you want it to,” says Sylvia Manrique, Cingular Wireless.

Another trap cell phone users fall into is choosing a plan that doesn’t match the way they use their phone. At myrateplan.com, you can estimate how many minutes you talk both locally and nationally.

“It’s going to cost you more to buy a larger coverage area. If you travel a lot, then you should buy that coverage area. And conversely, don’t buy a national plan just because it’s simple. Because you’re going to be spending money for every minute you talk that you don’t need to spend,” says Allan Keiter, myrateplan.com

When the bill comes in, check it twice — especially the first bill you receive. “When the bill is high in the beginning, you’re coming in the middle of a cycle and you’re paying for 6 weeks of service versus 4 weeks,” says Robynn Fortner, Verizon. And watch those fees.

“Directory assistance can be $1.25 per call plus air time. Basically a lot of nickel and diming can happen,” Keiter says.

Some of the fees, like the universal service fee, state and local taxes, and number portability fees will appear on each bill. The activation fee should appear only on the first months’ bill. But look out for fees that you might have been activated accidentally, like text messaging, internet access, insurance for your handset, mobile-to-mobile calling (if it isn’t included), and data charges for uploading photos or video from your phone. Those can really add up.

“If carriers are offering their customers exactly what they’re saying, there should be no hidden fees or hidden words in the contract,” Fortner says.

But signing a 2-year contract can feel like the biggest trap of all, unless you get your carrier to add a few goodies to the deal, like a better phone with more features or eliminating the activation fee because terminating your deal early can cost as much as $200. Of course, there’s always another option.

“If signing a contract isn’t for you, you could always go with a pay as you go system,” Fortner says.



Published: Dec 19, 2004