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We Help You Decide: It's Time For College

We must have read these words 50,000 times so far this month: "It's back to school time, and you know what that means..." Just because it's a completely hackneyed line, though, doesn't mean it's not true. Millions of kids are heading back to school -- some of them are already there.

What it means for college students: Four months to get in as much partying studying as possible.


What it means for parents: Buy, buy, buy.

After all, a college kid needs plenty of provisions. Bedding, food, clothes, books...nevermind tuition. And on top of that, a cell phone. Unlike the other listed costs, though, the phone cost is recurring, which can be a real burden on parents over time. Clearly, they'll want to spend as little money as possible on a monthly plan.

This does not fit well with the typical college kid's life, though, in which the cell phone is used religiously. Minutes can be drained at an exponential rate, and text messaging is an oft-overlooked consideration. All of this can add up to a big time bill that some parents just can't deal with.

What to do, what to do?

Parents will obviously want their children to show some level of restraint, as to not rack up an enormous phone bill. But kids will be kids, especially when they're in college. There has to be a compromise somewhere down the road. That's where prepaid comes in.

Now, there's a sticky little situation when handing a college student a prepaid phone. Because it sets a strict limit on the number of minutes that can be used, parents prefer pay-as-you-go. That way, they can load a set amount on the phone each month, and their child simply cannot go over that limit. However, most pay-as-you-go services don't offer unlimited nights and weekends, which is usually a boon for parents. So there's a thin line to walk when picking a prepaid plan for your college student.

That's why we're here, though. Change of format, at least for this week: we're only going over viable providers. The criterion are as follows. First and foremost, price. If nights and weekends are included, that's a huge bonus. Finally, text messaging. Anything that doesn't offer a package and is 10 cents a message or over is basically disqualified. We don't condone the sending of text messages during class, but it still happens.

Another quick note: we're also leaving off a lot of the smaller MVNOs, since, according to our provider reviews, most of them offer questionable customer service. The last thing you want to do is spend hours talking to a CSR from these companies (or just on hold) for your kid's phone while he's stuck in a faraway land without service.

(read the review) Here we go with our unabashed love for Alltel's pay-per-day plan. For an average of $23 per month, you can set up your college kid with unlimited nights and weekends and unlimited text messaging. After that, calls are 10 cents per minute. So even if he or she uses 250 non-peak minutes, you're still under $50 per month. And that's a pretty sweet deal.

Verdict: The price is great, but there are no limits on the number of anytime minutes that can be used. But we're sure that if you called Alltel, they could work something out. Any kind of cell phone plan that has unlimited nights and weekends and unlimited texting for under $45 per month is a stellar deal. Comes with our highest recommendations. Unfortunately, it's not available in all areas.

(read the review) We find it difficult to leave the big telecoms off this list, even if they don't totally meet our criteria. Like Alltel, AT&T's best plans stray from the true pay-as-you-go model. Let's go over the options. You're going to want to do the dollar-per-day option, as it lowers all calls to 10 cents per minute. So before your kid use a minute, you're out $30, though you do get unlimited mobile to mobile. Then it's $20 on top of that to get 3,000 night and weekend minutes. So with the 250 anytime minutes we discussed above, you're up to $75 -- and then there's text messaging at five cents a message.

At that point, you're better off getting the $70 monthly plan, which gives you 650 anytime minutes, unlimited nights and weekends, and unlimited mobile to mobile. Add $5 for 200 text messages, and you're at $75, which is what you'll be paying for pay-as-you-go before using a peak minute.

Verdict: You're not escaping AT&T prepaid for under $75 per month. The monthly plan is definitely the way to go, as you're going to get much more for your dollar.

(read the review) Once all is said and done, Boost's options are going to look very similar to those of AT&T. Their pay-as-you-go offers calls at 20 cents per peak minute, 10 cents per minute for nights and weekends (which start at 9 p.m.). So even if you keep it to 400 night and weekend minutes and 150 peak minutes, you're already at $70. So the pay-as-you-go probably isn't going to cut it.

Getting to the plans, the best bet is $70 per month for 600 anytime minutes and unlimited nights and weekends starting at 7 p.m. Slap a $10 unlimited texting on there, and you're at $80 per month.

Verdict: Like AT&T, this won't be cheap any way you slice it. You're definitely better off with a monthly plan, which undermines the power a parent has over his or her kid's minutes.

(read the review) If Cricket is available in your area, you might find it perfect for your college student. Most kids don't travel too far off campus, so you don't need to pony up anything extra for the roaming plans. So that means you can get away with paying just $45 per month, which gives you unlimited calling and unlimited texts. They should just call it the College Kid Special.

Verdict: If it's available, do it. Just make sure that your kid understands that there is absolutely no roaming -- it's 59 cents a minute, so it's important to make that mandate stick.

(read the review) It's basically the same deal as Cricket, with unlimited calling and unlimited texting. It's set up a bit differently: you'll pay $40 for an unlimited plan, plus $3 for voicemail, callerID, and call waiting. That puts you at $43 a month, which is basically the same place. Also similarly, watch out for the roaming charges, which can range from 49 to 79 cents, depending on your location.

Verdict: Once again, if its available, jump on it. We need more unlimited calling plans, and with Boost Unlimited only being available in two locations, Metro and Cricket are your best bets for such deals.

(read the review) It's just 10 cents a minute, all day, every day, and five cent text messages. Okay, that's something we can work with. That means you get 700 minutes for that $70 you're paying with Boost and AT&T. As a parent, you can completely control how much money goes on the phone each month, which is a Godsend. So once that $70 (or $50 or $30 or whatever you want) is on there, that's all they can use for talking and texting.

Verdict: We have to recommend this service. We've heard complaints about customer service, but we've heard complaints about customer service from nearly every provider. Net10's advantage is that it offers an affordable pay-as-you-go, which can go a long way in teaching your college kid about budgeting. Nothing worse than going through the last week of the month without a phone because you blew through all of your minutes.

(read the review) The advantage of T-Mobile is that if you keep buying the $100 cards, you're getting 10 cents a minute. The downfall is that if you aren't a Gold Rewards member (which you get by buying $100 worth of cards), you're going to be paying a significantly higher rate. So you're basically on even ground with Net10 at that point. The only drawback, then, is text messaging, which is 10 cents to receive, but still only 5 cents to send.

Verdict: We like T-Mobile, we really do. Their customer service has been nothing but pleasant, making all of our inquiries pain free. Honestly, you can do worse than their pay-as-you-go service. If you're debating between Net10 and T-Mobile, we'd go with the latter, even though they have a slightly higher texting rate.

(read the review) On the surface, it might seem like Tracfone is expensive and really aimed at the less frequent caller. However, we discovered this week that you can, in fact, get a good deal on a Tracfone. If you work the system right, that bill can stay in a reasonable range -- at least as reasonable as the Boost and AT&T options listed above.

Verdict: Take a look at the article we linked to and see if that works for you. It's definitely the best bang for your buck when it comes to Tracfone.

(read the review) The downside: it has a limited activation area. The upside: you can definitely find a good plan. We're a fan of the $45 and $60 deals. With the less expensive one, it's unlimited nights (though not full weekends), 350 minutes, and 15 cents a minute on top of that. The kicker is free incoming calls, which you can definitely use to your advantage. For the extra $15, you add weekends to the unlimited minutes, and you get 600 minutes with extras at 10 cents per. Incoming text messages are also free with all plans, and you can nab 250 outgoing for $5 per month. Sweet deal, eh?

Verdict: Good deal if you live in the activation area. However, if you fall outside it, there's not much you can do.

(read the review) Oh Verizon. You're always on the list, even if you have a $1 per day access fee on your pay-as-you-go plans. However, that can work out for you. It's 10 cents a minute, but you also get unlimited nights (not weekends) and unlimited calls to Verizon subscribers which, if you live in an area like us, is nearly everyone. The free nights and free mobile to mobile can really keep the cost of this plan down. Their plans are somewhat impressive, costing you $50 or $70 per month for 350 or 700 minutes. They come with essentially unlimited night and weekends (3,000 minutes), and unlimited mobile to mobile.

Verdict: If Verizon is dominant in your area, we wouldn't hesitate to sign up. The unlimited mobile to mobile is just too convenient in that case. Plus, it would help you get away with the pay-as-you-go plan or the $50 monthly plan much easier.

(read the review) The pay-as-you-go plan isn't terrible, with a $6.99 monthly fee to make calls 10 cents per minute. If you're using 250 minutes or more per month, this is a necessity. Their plans are even more attractive, mainly because there's so many of them. We're thinking that the $45 plan is reasonable, offering 400 minutes and 2,000 night and weekend minutes. Jump up $15 for 600 minutes and unlimited nights and weekends. Hey, once again, it's cheaper than Boost and AT&T (who seem to have become the goats of this piece).

Verdict: With a good combination of pay-as-you-go and flat-rate plans, we can't see you going wrong with Virgin Mobile. Just make sure it gets reception in your area. We get a lot of complaints about that.