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Exploring all options can save family money and costly surprises

Think of a cell phone as a charge card with an open and unlimited line of credit. Now think about handing that charge card to your newly independent college student.

“It really is a license to kill,” said Marcello DeLuca, vice president of, an online cell phone retailer that also provides customers with a tool to search and compare rates from competing cell providers.

“Over the last five years, cell phones have become [college students’] biggest expense probably more than food,” DeLuca suggests.

And as with students’ food bills, parents typically are the ones still picking up all or part of the tab.

The right plan

Which is why it’s important to shop for the right plan, said Allan Keiter, president of rival Keiter’s company also provides non-partial, consumer comparison information and links to retailers.

“I think one of the key issues is how responsible is the child,” Keiter said. And depending on the level of responsibility, it’s up to parents to select the right cell phone rate plan.

Those plans are broken down into two basic categories, prepaid plans and postpaid plans. Both have advantages and disadvantages, according to Keiter. However, prepaid clearly provides parents with a more reliable method of budgeting their student’s cellular expense.

Prepaid plans are the high-tech scion of yesterday’s coin-operated phone booth. After purchasing a phone from the prepaid service, users must pay in advance for minutes and services they expect to use during the coming month.

In DeLuca’s experience, prepaid is far more popular with parents who often “just don’t trust (kids).”

Trust or not, Keiter said, “a prepaid option is a good way to budget a student. Tell them if they run through (their minutes), it’s up to them to buy more airtime”

Buying airtime is often as easy as going to a newsstand that deals with the prepaid provider and handing spare change to the cashier, who then adds the money to the student’s phone account.

The downside is prepaid plans tend to be the more expensive option on a per-minute basis, Keiter said. The phones also are often more expensive.

Postpay plans

Postpay plans are familiar to most cellular phone customers. They offer payment plans analogous to a regular home telephone, but with a service contract requiring customers to remain with their cell service provider for a set term, typically one or two years.

“Every carrier has what they call an add-on plan,” DeLuca said. Most of these allow existing customers to add phones to their existing plans for a small monthly charge, often between $10 and $20 per phone.

“The catch here is if you include your kids in your plan, whatever minutes they use are drawing your family minutes,” DeLuca said. If your plan allows 1,500 minutes per month, add-on users have access to them all. If the family goes over the allotted minutes, additional charges might be assessed on the next bill.

“It comes down to how much trust you have in your kid,” Keiter said, warning of an additional common pitfall that parents often don’t consider the cost of text messaging, video downloads and other peripheral cellular uses that younger users often take for granted.

Count added costs

For most adults, phones are phones; you listen to one end and talk into the other. But as cell phones add services, it’s important to account for the added costs.

Parents can shop for cell plans tailored to gadget use, Keiter said, suggesting youth-oriented cellular providers like prepaid VirginMobile or Amp’d Mobile, which provides both pre- and postpaid services. “They both focus on the student market,” he said.

Another tip to parents is to watch out when setting up a cell plan for students who will attend out-of-state schools. Does the provider you are considering have reception at the campus? Will the student use the phone primarily for local calls or for calling home, and if so, is it best to get an in- or out-of-state area code for the student’s phone?

Regional providers?

Also, be wary of regional providers. If they don’t have service in the student’s area, “every call may be roaming,” Keiter warned. “Make sure the carrier has service in both locations.”

There is one final option for parents who want their students to have a phone for emergency use only, DeLuca said.

“The carriers have started selling phones that only have $5 on them,” he said. These services, which include Firefly from Cingular Wireless and Migo from Verizon Wireless, target children as young as 10.

These phones have 911 and can be programmed with phone numbers selected by the parent. GPS capabilities allow parents to locate their children.

The phones are a good basic option, DeLuca said, “but I have to warn you, if you give this phone to a teenager, they’ll freak out because it’s definitely for babies.”

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