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How to save money on your phone bill

Diane Jermyn

Talk isn’t necessarily cheap when you’re on a cell phone, particularly if you’re addicted to your BlackBerry, iPhone or Android. But with a little effort, you can cut down that monthly bill from your wireless provider. Here are some tips to help you save.   
 
1. Review your phone habits
Calling habits change with your evolving lifestyle so the plan you picked last year may no longer be the best one for you now. A job change or a child away at university can significantly increase how much you use your phone. Track your usage to find out how much talk time or data you actually use and review your bills regularly. Not only will that help you avoid overage charges, but should tell you if your plan still meets your calling needs.
    Check if your wireless carrier allows you to make changes in your rate plan at no charge. If you’re not sure how much you’ll need, talk to your wireless carrier about flex plans for data that charge you based on usage. Don’t be shy about asking for discounts or incentives that may be available. If you just subscribe to talk and text, and barely use the minutes you pay for, consider passing on a long-term phone contract and simply go with a prepaid cell phone. You can purchase blocks of time ahead or a choose a pay as you go plan. 

2. Get better roaming rates with pre-paid add ons
Whether you travel for business or pleasure, avoid outrageous roaming charges when you visit the U.S. or other foreign countries by buying a plan from your wireless carrier before you go. Since carriers in other countries usually charge foreign visitors a premium for using their networks, roaming charges can be very expensive. If you plan to access data from your smart phone while you’re traveling internationally, find out if your provider will allow you to add on an international roaming data pass that works for that trip. The key is to contact your carrier before your departure. You’ll get significantly lower rates than the standard roaming charges.

“I’m no huge fan of wireless carriers, but I have found when I call in and activate a U.S. roaming package, they turn it on immediately and it’s really good value,” says Trent Johnsen, co-founder and CEO of Hookflash, a Calgary communications company. “Corporately, we’re with Bell and if I pay an extra $50 before I go to the U.S., I usually save double that. When I was in San Francisco last week, it was $1.75 a minute and .40 a text, but I was able to get way better rates.”

Your wireless carrier should be able to help you track your data usage through real-time text alerts on how much is left in your data package. Then you can decide whether to increase your data pass, or curb your usage. Check with your provider.

3. Download a mobile VoIP app onto your smart phone
There are lots of different VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] apps such as Skype, Fring, Vopium or Rebtel that work on iPhones and Android or BlackBerry smart phones to get cheap international rates on international calls. Mobile VoIP works by re-routing your call via the internet to the country you’re calling and then makes the call using a local number in that country for a minimal charge. You’ll need a smart phone and a software app installed on your mobile device. Another advantage to making long distance calls using mobile VoIP is that because it’s digital, it’s sent as part of your cellular data plan so it doesn’t gobble your wireless minutes, although some carriers may charge you for a local minutes.

“There’s a whole industry devoted to building VoIP software for smart phones to bypass long distance,” says Trent Johnsen. “People can load just a little piece of software on their iPhone or smartphone so that if they’re in Wi-Fi, or on data, they can bypass the wireless carrier’s toll.”

While Canadians can use Skype for iPhone and Skype for Android on any Canadian carrier offering iPhone and Android phones, Vancouver telecom Telus has partnered with Skype to enable their smartphone customers to buy Skype credit though their existing accounts and make calls without using their anytime minutes.

“People can purchase Skype credit directly from their smart phone and it’s billed to their Telus wireless cell phone account,” explains Telus communication specialist Catherine Peters. “All they need is a suitable data plan or a Wi-Fi connection and their smart phone that’s compatible with android or iPhone. Skype’s low calling rates are a good cost saving solution for people who do a lot of long distance calling.”

4.     Use a prepaid phone calling card or PIN code
International phone calling cards for long distance [basically a telecom credit card widely available at stores or over the internet] and PIN codes [numbers that you dial before making your long distance calls] have been around for a decade but still work as a toll bypass.

“There’s a major player in Canada called Goldline that markets under a lot of different brands but will give you toll free numbers or local numbers to dial into when you’re traveling,” says Mr. Johnsen. “You can buy a package like that and put a Goldline PIN into your cell phone speed dial. Then wait for the second dial tone before dialing your long distance number and get a big discount that way.”

5. Use one data plan for multiple devices
If your smart phone can create its own Wi-Fi hot spot, you can then share its data plan with another Wi-Fi enabled device such as a tablet at no extra charge.
For example, according to the product team at Telus, a BlackBerry customer is able to create a Wi-Fi hotspot and share their smartphone data plan with a WiFi enabled iPad if their BlackBerry device operating system is version 7.1 or higher. To determine what operating system your BlackBerry has, go to “Options” from the home screen and select “About”.
    Almost all smart phones with similar capacity should work the same way. If the device is an Android, you’ll need at least version Froyo (2.2). To determine the operating system of an Android smartphone,  go to “Settings”, select “About Phone” and then “Android version”.  On an iPhone you’ll need the current operating system that comes on iPhone 4 or later.  The specifics on setting up the hotspot on different phones should be found in each phone’s user guides.
    While there is no extra charge to share data between wireless devices, the data usage is being drawn from your monthly plan allowance. To avoid overage fees, a data flex plan that automatically adjusts to with your monthly usage is a good idea. Data flex plans begin each month with a set amount of data and adjust to the next tier according to your use as opposed to being charged for additional data at pay-per-use rates.
    You can also share data between your smart phone and your tablet using Blue Tooth technology, so you can use more devices on the same data plan.

6. Add a text messaging plan
Like to text? Got teenagers? It doesn’t take long before a plan can save you money. Per use text messaging typically costs around $.20 per message but a $5.00 plan can give you around 200 messages which works out to around two and a half cents per message so it’s significantly cheaper. Most providers offer unlimited plans for around $15 to $20 a month. Or check what apps are available for your cell, like iMessage for the iPhone that lets you send unlimited messages – plus and photos and videos – back and forth with other iPhone users. Perfect for obsessive text users.