Playing the tariff game

One of my hobbies is watching the contortions of the mobile phone network providers as they attempt to screw as much money as possible out of their customers while seeming to provide them with good value. It’s a bit like a mugger relieving you of your wallet on the grounds that the removal of the weight will be beneficial to your posture.

Their weapon of choice is confusion: they confuse the customer with a thicket of complicated tariffs that only the most dedicated price-watcher can make sense of and just when you are getting used to the current tariffs, they sweep them all away and introduce an entirely new set, supposedly to match today’s usage patterns but really to make you pay more without realizing it.

What they don’t tell you is as important as what they do tell you. For example, has it ever occurred to you to question whether “non-geographical” numbers (e.g. 0845, 0871 and even 0800, since the networks charge you for these “free” calls) are covered by your included minutes? You ought to question it because most companies and institutions use them these days. If you thought these come out of your included minutes you would be wrong (the network charges you for them on top of your normal tariff) but the networks don’t go out of their way to tell you this: you have to read the small print.

Currently, we are both on a Virgin pay-as-you-go (PAYG) tariff. For several years, this has been the best available tariff for our usage pattern and my monthly bills have generally been less than £10. Now Virgin, in common with other networks, is making PAYG much less favourable so we are saying no, thank you, and going elsewhere. But where? The days of the 5p per minute call seem to have gone for ever.

I don’t know whether you have noticed an interesting new arrival on the tariff board. Your choice used to be between a monthly contract, including a handset, and PAYG, either with a handset or as a “SIM-only” deal. Now you have a third choice, the £10 a month SIM-only contract. This typically gives you 100 minutes to landlines and mobiles on all networks and 100 SMS. In return, you have to pay £10 each month by direct debit. If you exceed your allowance, you will cop charges of at least 20p per minute and probably higher.

So I have been scanning all the PAYG and SIM-only deals, trying to find one that suits us. I’m not keen to commit to £10 each month, given that I will probably use far less than the “included minutes” but, on the other hand, PAYG rates are now so high that if I take that route, I risk paying even more for my modest number of calls and SMS.

Another factor is that Virgin uses the T-Mobile network which has the worst coverage of all the networks in the UK. I have been itching to get off it ever since we signed up for T-Mobile in the days when it was called One to One. This seems to be my golden opportunity, even though Virgin itself offers a fairly meaty £10 a month deal, called Liberty.

But which tariff should we go for? I have narrowed the choice down to two. The first is Vodafone’s £10 a month tariff because the Vodafone service seems pretty solid (yeah, yeah, I know, you’ll always find someone who’s had a bad time with any network you care to mention) and their coverage has to be better than T-Mobile’s. Moreover, the £10 SIM-only deal has a contract period of 30 days, meaning you can quit any time with 30 days’ notice.

Tigger, however, would definitely prefer a PAYG tariff. So the second choice is the Asda SIM-only PAYG tariff. You buy the SIM online for 47p and put it in your phone (get it unlocked , if necessary) and off you go. The tariff is a flat 8p per minute for everything except, of course, those famous non-geographical numbers, and SMS cost 4p each to all networks. Sounds a fair deal to me, especially as Asda rides on the Vodafone network and shares their coverage. If you want to continue using your existing phone number, both Vodafone and Asda promise to port it within 2 to 3 working days.

The only thing not provided by Asda is itemized billing, whether on paper or online. Tigger isn’t bothered by that but I like to be able to check my usage. For one thing it comes in useful when thinking about moving to another tariff or network: I can feed my calls and SMS expenses into the new cost scheme and see how it works out. In contrast, Vodafone provides both online billing and access to your account, so I am naturally attracted to it.

We have ordered two Asda SIMS and Tigger will activate hers as soon as it arrives. I have opted for the Vodafone £10 contract and I will keep the second Asda SIM in case I want to change. Or I might use it as a backup. (When you go abroad, it’s quite a good idea to leave your usual phone at home and take with you one whose number is known only to your nearest and dearest to avoid receiving expensive calls that can perfectly well wait til you are home again.)

The next job, of course, is to give Virgin the glad tidings and request our PAC numbers. The PAC, as you probably know, has to be given to the new network before they can port your number across.

How will it all work out? I’ll be sure to let you know.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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