These days, you almost need a stopwatch, a map and a calculator to figure out which long-distance calling plan to use. While most plans look good on their face, nearly all have a few strings attached, and you must be aware of them to receive maximum savings.
US Sprint, for example, has a flat-rate calling plan that looks simple enough at first. But take a closer look.
Under the Sprint plan, calls are priced according to their distance -- the traditional way in which calls have been priced. But you're going to need help to figure out your costs from there: Short-haul calls of 1 to 10 miles cost about $5.50 an hour, while overseas calls that exceed 4,251 miles cost about $7.33 an hour. Rates vary depending on the time of day, and volume discounts of up to 20 percent may apply.
A plan offered by American Telephone & Telegraph Co. offers one hour of interstate calling for a flat $8.70. Additional calls are prorated at $6.60 per hour. A half-hour version of the same plan is available. Under both plans, subscribers must observe time-of-day restrictions to reap maximum savings.
Subscribers to MCI Communication Corp.'s new "Family & Friends" plan also have to read the fine print.
The MCI plan offers deep discounts for calls to a group of up to a dozen people anywhere in the United States. The catch: Those dozen people must also be MCI subscribers. That means subscribers have to limit their calls to MCI customers -- or find other friends to call.
Indeed, sorting through the dizzying array of calling plans offered by the "Big Three" long-distance companies -- AT&T, MCI and Sprint -- can be be time-consuming, even maddening. But for those willing to wade through the fine print and advertising backwash, the payoff can be worth it, said Jacci Gruninger, executive director of the Telecommunications Research & Action Center (TRAC), a non-profit consumer advocacy group in Washington.
"Don't get frustrated. It's not an easy thing to do, and it does take some time," Ms. Gruninger said. "But we think it's worth the Saturday afternoon you might have to spend looking at it."
Consumers who spend at least $10 a month on long-distance calls can probably benefit by using one of the dozen or more plans currently available, consumer experts agree. People who spend less than $10 a month probably won't save much by using a discount calling plan, but savings can still accrue.
To find the plan that's right for you, Ms. Gruninger suggests taking a long, hard look at your calling habits. Examine about three months' worth of phone bills to figure out what type of toll calls you're making -- state-to-state or intrastate -- and how much you're currently spending.
Getting a handle on your household's calling habits is a crucial step in deciding which plan to use, said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group.
"Everyone's calling patterns are totally different," Mr. McEldowney said. "There are a lot of differences in calling plans out there today, and you need to find out what your calling pattern is before you can find a plan that best fits your needs."
According to TRAC's Ms. Gruninger, consumers who can limit their calls to the cheaper, late-night hours can usually reduce their long-distance bills by using a discount calling plan. But that may require changing regular calling habits.
"If you can be flexible in calling -- call after 11 p.m. or only on weekends -- it can make a significant difference in your phone bill," she said.
Once you've determined your household's needs, the real work of shopping and comparing calling plans can begin.
The Big Three have toll-free numbers to answer questions (see ** box, 6D). When you call, telephone representatives may offer to analyze your telephone bill free of charge and may suggest a RTC calling plan. Those assessments, however, don't take into account discount plans being offered by the competition.
If you want to get it in writing -- and most consumer groups suggest that you do -- the companies will also mail out free brochures explaining their various calling plans.
Consumer groups are another good source of information about calling plans.
TRAC, for example, rates the various long-distance residential calling plans several times a year. For the latest ratings chart, send $2 and a self-addressed envelope to TRAC at P.O. Box 12038, Washington, D.C., 20005. TRAC's next update will be published in May.
Likewise, Consumer Action publishes a telephone tips newsletter that is free. For a copy of the latest newsletter, send a self-addressed legal-sized envelope to Consumer Action, Telephone Tips, 116 New Montgomery St., Suite 233, San Francisco, Calif., 94105.
Besides keeping an eye on the fine print, there are a few other pitfalls to avoid when picking out a calling plan, consumer experts say.