New York (CNN/Money) -
Consumers looking for discount cell phone deals had better act fast.
Over the next few weeks, many of the nation's top cellular service providers will pull the plug on their lowest monthly rates, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
Some already have.
Nextel, for example, discontinued its lowest-rate, $29.99 plan at the end of March. It had come with 2,200 minutes of call time and had been offered for the first three months of the year.
The company, which is focused on business customers and whose typical client spends $68 a month on cell phone calls, had launched the cheaper plan as a test program to study the calling patterns of consumers who might otherwise not sign up for a more expensive plan, said Nextel's spokeswoman Audrey Schaefer. Today, the company's lowest monthly plan starts at $34.99 and includes 300 anytime minutes and 3,600 night and weekend minutes. Long-distance calls are 15 cents a minute.
AT&T Wireless also ended its 50-percent more calling time bonus for customers who sign up for a two-year contract, according to the Journal.
Customers still have time, however, to sign up for Sprint PCS's 4,000-minute plan for $39.99. The deal ends June 30.
"America's Choice," a nationwide calling program launched by Verizon Wireless in January, is also up for grabs -- at least for now. For $35, customers get 300 anytime minutes. The $35 basic plan will remain, but a $40 souped-up version of the plan that comes with unlimited night and weekend calls is due to end on July 28, said company spokesperson Brenda Rainy. She expects Verizon will offer a different incentive than the free night and weekend calls for the $40 plan, but did not offer specifics.
And Cingular Wireless is about to end its "Cingular Nation" plan at the end of May, said spokesman Clay Owen. That $29.99 plan kicked off March 1 and now comes with 250 free daytime minutes and 2,500 free night and weekend calls. There are no roaming or long distance charges.
"We won't talk about what we're doing next of course," said Owen, who called it "fairly typical" for a plan to be offered for just about three months.
The report notes that cell phone companies are canceling their more affordable programs and doing away with perks as part of a shift in strategy, following a drop-off in subscriber numbers during the first quarter of the year.
Selecting a cell phone plan just because it's about to expire, of course, is ill-advised. The best way to identify a plan that's right for you is to shop around.
You can start your search online, where independent Web sites compare prices of various plans. Try lowermybills.com and star69.net. (Once you log on you have to skip past the ads to comparison charts.)
You'll also stay out of trouble if you decide what you're looking for before you get duped by a slick sales pitch. Start by determining how often you'll use the cell phone. Be realistic. You may well end up using the phone more than you anticipate. In fact, a recent study by Sprint PCS found that its typical customer now uses his or her cell phone for 570 minutes a month; that's 2 hours more per month than the average customer used at the end of 2000.
If you don't chatter on the phone for hours, you may do best by looking for the lowest rate and minutes possible. If you live on the phone, it's probably cheapest in the long run to pay a higher base fee for more minutes.
When comparing plans, be sure to find out what's considered peak (weekday) or off-peak hours. Many companies don't officially start their free nighttime calls until 9 p.m., though rules can vary depending on your location. At Verizon, for example, night calls generally start at 9 p.m., except on the West Coast, where free calling can start at 8 p.m., said Rainy.
Look, too, at what free minutes really include. A plan may limit daytime calls to a few hours but offer lots of free calls during the weekend or weekday. A quick way to do this is to check the company's Web site, where you'll often be able to compare all their plans on a single page.
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And don't forget to ask about roaming charges. Depending on the company's cell phone towers, your call may be tossed to another carrier's network. That comes with extra charges, which can be as much as 85 cents per minute. Be sure to ask for a map clearly delineating where roaming charges apply or opt for a national plan, which will likely have fewer roaming fees.
"Some of the carriers don't have an extensive network," said Ryan Kersten at Utility Consumers' Action Network, a consumer advocacy group. "You need to make sure the phone will actually work in the area you use it. We've had complaints from consumers who can't even use a phone at home. The only way to protect yourself against that is check with friends."
When you do opt for a plan, read the contract before signing the dotted line.
That may sound obvious, but many customers overlook the fine print.
"That's one of the major problems we get on our consumer hotline," said Kersten. "Consumers don't read their contract fully so they're misled by what customer service representatives tell them."
Finally, be careful where you shop. Stores operated by the cell phone companies are more likely to stay in business and give you accurate information about what various plans include than tiny storefronts or cell phone kiosks at the mall.