Prepaid cell plans can offer big savings

LOS ANGELES Alex Gontcharov has had a prepaid phone plan for five years and is very happy with it.

"I only pay for the minutes I use. I don't have a contract. I can get out and switch to any other plan anytime I want," said Gontcharov.

Alex uses his phone sparingly and usually spends $5 a month. For people like Alex who don't call or text a lot, Consumer Reports says there are dozens of plans that offer reasonable deals, including ones from TracFone and Virgin Mobile.

But now, even if you use your phone a lot, a prepaid plan may save you. For example, a new Boost Mobile plan offers a monthly, unlimited plan for $50 that covers minutes, texting, and Web access.

"With the right prepaid plan, you could cut your phone bill in half even if you're a heavy user," said Tobie Stanger from Consumer Reports.

Be aware you usually have to buy a new phone. And while they don't necessarily cost a lot, the choices are often very limited. For instance, TracFone's Straight Talk plan offers just three phones.

As with any phone plan, Consumer Reports says to check out the details carefully. Avoid any plan that charges a daily fee whether you use the phone or not. Also avoid plans with a monthly fee for a set number of minutes. You may be buying more than you need, or get in a hole if you go over.

"And for now, most families are probably better off with a traditional contract plan," said Stanger. "That's the kind where you can add another line for as little as $10 a month."

Still, if you're getting phone and texting service just for yourself, prepaid plans are worth considering.

And here's a money saving tip, if you're thinking of making a switch to a prepaid service, do it when your wireless contract is about over. Otherwise, you could be charged for terminating your plan early.

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