Dear Angie: What is the best cellphone plan for families? I’m looking for the most affordable cellphone plan with great service.
– Rhona M., Patchogue, N.Y.
Dear Rhona: Most major service providers offer various cellphone plans to meet the needs of families.
Whether it’s to check email, stream music or keep up with social media, most of us own a smartphone, and when purchasing a family plan, it can be tough to determine just how much data you need.
It’s a good idea to start by determining how much data you and your family members use on a daily basis.
LOOK AT YOUR MOBILE PHONE USE
All major cellphone providers offer an online data calculator that will help you estimate how much data you’re using.
Look at how you’re using your phone. Reading emails and surfing the web will use a smaller amount of data than streaming music, and streaming video will eat up an even larger amount.
For example, 1 GB of data will last through about two days of browsing the Internet or Facebook. The same amount of data is good for streaming about 250 songs using a service like Pandora or Spotify, or watching several dozen short videos on YouTube. If you use your smartphone to stream TV shows on a service like Netflix or Hulu, 1GB will get you about 10 30-minute episodes of your favorite show.
Another factor to consider is the availability of wireless Internet where you live and work. These days, you can find free Wi-Fi everywhere from coffee shops to grocery stores, restaurants and gyms. Using Wi-Fi will help you keep your cellular data use down and may let you choose a smaller data package without risking overages.
COMPARE CELLPHONE PLANS
Once you’ve estimated how much data you’re likely to need per family member, start looking at the various plans offered by cell phone providers.
All major cell phone carriers offer family plans, with data amounts ranging from 2GB to 20GB.
Depending on the carrier and how much data you choose, cell phone plans for a family of four can cost anywhere from $100 to $200 per month.
According to analytics firm Mobidia, many smartphone users wind up buying larger data plans than they really need. In December 2014, about half of all 3G or 4G wireless subscribers used 50 percent or less of their data allowance. So, be sure to find a carrier that offers a plan that fits your needs.
LOOK FOR HIDDEN COSTS
At the same time, it’s important to know what happens if you exceed your data limit. Ask your service provider how much it will cost if you go over the limit, and what you can do to avoid overages, such as purchasing additional data if you feel like you’re getting close to exceeding your allowance.
In addition to paying for data, you'll also be charged a fee per phone line. Some cell phone service providers offer a discount for each additional line beyond the second phone, but others don’t, so make sure you know all of the costs up front.
Angie Hicks is founder of www.AngiesList.com, provider of consumer reviews and services. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet with #AskAngie. Follow her @Angie–Hicks.