Getting the best deal on prepaid phone cards
Sherry advises buying from reputable stores and sticking
with well-known carriers. With an established company, it is usually
easier to reach customer service if you have a problem. You also
can be reasonably certain the company will still be in business
"There's always the chance when you're buying
that a card won't work -- it will just be a piece of paper,"
says Sherry. "Or that someone trying to reach customer service
[will get] a phone that just rings and rings."
Best bet: Go with a name you know, try out
the customer service number before you buy and opt for a carrier
that is vetted by the IPCA.
Many of the big players in prepaid phone cards include
names you've probably heard before, like AT&T, Sprint, MCI,
IDT, Qwest, ILD Telecommunications Inc. and Global Prepaid Alliance.
It might be a good idea to buy a smaller denomination
to try a company or its card program.
"Don't go out and buy a $50 card if you've never
heard of the company," says Sherry. "Buy a $5 card, try
it out and call customer service."
And if a company promises too much -- like a penny
a minute rate -- beware, says Segermark. "It's probably not
A good fit
Just like a pair of shoes, you want to look for the card that
fits you best. Before you buy, look at your needs. If you'll be
making frequent short calls, avoid cards with connection fees or
calling minimums. But if you're making longer calls less frequently,
it might be worth trading a reasonable connection charge for a lower
per minute rate.
A good rule of thumb is to look at the cost of the
call, rather than the cost of the minutes, says Segermark.
If you want a card to keep in your wallet for emergencies,
you probably want one that is good for at least six months to a
year -- preferably one that won't levy daily, weekly or monthly
fees. But if you are using the card regularly, or for a specific
special occasion, you might not mind a card that expires in 30 to
If you want to make international calls to specific
countries, shop prices on those rates in advance. Look for toll-free
customer service, and use the number to shop calling costs to the
country of your choice before you buy.
Comparing prices is not always as easy as it sounds.
Orange County, Calif., resident Tina Bartel shopped diligently when
she decided to purchase a card to keep up with her student daughter
overseas. Specifically, she wanted to know if her calls would be
rounded to the nearest minute.
"But I had a hard time finding programs that
would give me enough information to make a decision," she says.
"And it seemed purposely so, because that seems like a terribly
simple thing to include if you want people to shop."
Same card, new deals?
Not all disposable cards are disposable. Many companies allow
customers to buy more minutes, or "recharge" their cards.
With the new technology consumers have all kinds of options for
recharging, from customer-service phone lines to the Internet to
experimental programs that use local ATMs. But that presents a whole
new set of questions, too.
If you're buying a card for long-term use, ask about
the recharge policies. There may be a fee to recharge. And in some
cases, companies could increase the per minute rates as well. Just
because you're using the same card doesn't mean you automatically
have the same deal.
Several carriers are even taking the "cards"
out of prepaid phone cards. Instead, if customers choose, they can
purchase minutes online and access them through a pin number.
"We advise people to be very cautious when they
buy minutes on the Internet," says Sherry. Her group urges
consumers to use the larger providers that "have been around
Dana Dratch is a freelance writer
based in Atlanta.