When it comes to choosing a cell phone plan, the choices just got a lot more interesting. In just the past week all four carriers have all revamped their plans with a focus on unlimited data.
But just because unlimited is hot now doesn't mean it's right for you. Here's how you can make the most of your cell phone plan.
1. Look at your current data usage
If you don't use a lot of data and have a cheap, possibly now discontinued plan, then there is a good reason not to mess with a good thing. Unlimited data sounds great, but unless you're using a lot of data every month one of the cheaper shared data plans would be better for you.
AT&T and Verizon both revamped their plans last year, removing overage charges on new plans. Instead of automatically charging you extra for more data (usually $10-$15 per extra gigabyte), they will drastically slow down your data until your billing month ends. But this is only on the newer shared data plans. If you are on an older plan, you still may be charged if you go over your monthly limit.
2. Know what works in your area
3. Check the latest promotions
On Monday, T-Mobile upped its unlimited offer to include HD video and 10 GB of mobile hotspot for $70 for one line, $100 for two lines or $160 for four lines. T-Mobile's plan also includes taxes and fees, something that can add roughly another $10-$20 to your total bill (depending on how many lines you have and where you live).
On Thursday Sprint and AT&T introduced new unlimited offers of their own. Sprint bumped up its unlimited plan offer to new subscribers to include up to five lines of service, all with unlimited talk, text and data — with HD video and 10 GB of mobile hotspot, for $90 per month (a single line is $50). The nation's fourth largest carrier is also throwing in a free iPhone 7 for 18 months.
AT&T dropped the requirement that its unlimited users also subscribe to its DirecTV or U-verse television service, allowing anyone to get an unlimited data plan. Like Verizon, however, AT&T is pricey. AT&T charges $100 for a single line and $180 for four lines. The unlimited plan includes HD video, but unlike the other carriers won't allow you to use your phone as a mobile hotspot.
The carriers won't switch your plan for you, even if they are similar or offer more data for a cheaper price. A fellow USA TODAY colleague had Verizon's older 8 GB "More Everything" plan, nearly identical to the newer 8 GB Verizon "L" plan. Prior to us looking over his bill, he would never have known that he could drop his bill by more than $15 per month just by clicking a simple button to switch to the new plan.
The same can be said for maximizing your data so you don't go over. Verizon's overage protection feature, "Safety Mode," is included with all of its latest non-unlimited plans but needs to be turned on by you before it can help save you from overages. You can enable it by downloading the My Verizon app to your phone, logging into your account and going to the section labeled "Data Hub" where you'll see a toggle to turn the feature on.
AT&T's overage protection feature is enabled by default on its new Mobile Share Advantage plans, as is a "Stream Saver" feature that limits the quality of videos streaming over cellular networks to standard definition in order to save data, even on the unlimited plans. The feature can be turned off through AT&T's website or app if you want to watch videos in HD. T-Mobile and Sprint employ similar video streaming features on some of their plans to minimize data used on their networks.
4. Take advantage of discounts
One thing to note: These discounts don't always apply to the unlimited plans, including Verizon's newest option.
5. Don't be afraid to switch — or threaten to switch
A simple call to the cancellation department to let them know you're willing to go can go a long way in finding those "retention deals" that can save you money without changing your plan. The carriers have already done the hard work in building out the networks, it's money left on the table if you're not using it.
As with any interaction, remember to be respectful to the representative you're dealing with. It's not their fault the bill is the way it is, but being kind will give them a greater incentive to find you the best possible deal.
6. Sweat the small stuff
Some Sprint and T-Mobile plans also offer $5 monthly discounts when you signup online to automatically pay your bill each month, a process known as AutoPay. You can check your plan by logging into your account on a computer.