Can you hear me yet? Cell phone advice, please

by Pari

A week ago, when I was sitting in the pediatric emergency room at the University of New Mexico Hospital, I realized that having a working cell phone might be nice. In addition to letting my husband know that our older daughter likely had a broken nose, I needed to find someone who could give our dog — who has a total heart block — his medicine.

I do have a cell phone. My father in law bought it for me sometime during the Cretaceous Period. It lost its antenna years ago and the battery holds a charge for less than a nanosecond. Also, I don't know how to answer it or retrieve messages.

It's not that I'm a technophobe; I just don't get the big deal about most "communications" advances in the last decade or so. When I see people with their Bluetooths, all I can think of are the Borg. When I'm in restaurants, stores, sporting events etc. etc., I'd rather not hear other people's phone conversations. Why would anyone WANT to text a buddy while walking on a nature path? What gives with that??

So, sure, I have to work through some hefty biases.

Up until last Monday I was fine. However, when I desperately needed to reach my husband, I wondered if it was time for me to enter technological adulthood.

Last Saturday, my hubby and I took a long walk. On the way home, we stopped at a cell phone store. Both of us were stunned by the cost. I couldn't get past the fact that people with far less money than we have — and we're NOT rich — spring hundreds of dollars monthly for these phones and messaging and blah blah blah services.

In spite of my numerous reservations about cost and undesired accessibility, I think we're going to take the plunge. That's where you come in. At the moment I'm feeling like I need another Master's Degree to sort out all the choices. I'm overwhelmed. My disinclination to have a phone in the first place isn't helping.

I need to hear from people who like cell phones and who've done the research. I think that means YOU.

You have your favorite phone and plan. Would you be willing to give me a bit of advice?

Here's how bad it is: I don't even know if we can buy a cheaper phone at Target or someplace like that OR if we have to buy the phone from the provider that gives us the service. The cell phone store we went to certainly led us to believe we had to buy the instruments from them, that there was a compatibility issue. But I felt like I was being B.S.'ed.

Our requirements:
1.  At least one phone dial pad needs to have larger numbers for our child with the vision impairment.
2.  As few bells and whistles (we don't want a phone that thinks for us).
3.  Decent service with options for low-minute usage because we don't plan to depend on the darn things.
4.  An ICE button (ICE: In case of emergency).
5.  We don't need, or particularly want messaging capabilities, internet accessibility, cameras, video streaming, computer hook-ups, or a phone that can wipe our . . . well, you get the idea.

What kind of phones do you like? What plans/brands rock your world or thrust you into the depths of despond?

Please. Educate me.

Yes. Her nose is broken, but she's not in pain and the break was small.
Yes. Our dog is still alive. But we're terribly worried about him; he's only five and it's heartbreaking to know he's so sick.

62 thoughts on “Can you hear me yet? Cell phone advice, please

  1. B.G. Ritts

    I use TracFone, , where you can buy a phone and add whatever minutes you need. They have annual and pay as you go plans. Their minutes carryover if you don’t use them all in the time frame you are working with. I don’t Internet, text, take pix, etc., so I’m clueless about all of that.

  2. Joyce Tremel

    I have a TracFone, too, and it’s perfect for what I use it for. I had one from one of the major companies with 400 minutes and I was only using about 40 of those minutes per month.

    With the TracFone I bought, they had a special that I get double minutes for life, too. I usually buy 60 minutes at a time, which means I get 120.

  3. Dru

    I recently bought my mother a cell phone and I got her Virgin Mobile on the pay-as-you-go plan with the free phone. The only thing her phone does is make and receive calls.

  4. billie

    We have Verizon, with two of their cheap LG phones, both of which seem indestructible. I dropped mine in the horse water trough once and it still works. 🙂

    I had texting turned off b/c I started getting spam text messages that I was in turn billed for, and don’t have the internet capability. The only thing I sprung for when I initially got my phone was to get the one that went to analog if there was no cell signal, since we do a fair amount of hiking.

    For years we’ve had way too many minutes on the plan but recently decreased to cut back on the monthly budget.

    Every two years they give me a free new phone, and I have saved them to use if we get to the point where my kids want/need one. We haven’t reached that point yet.

    And when I got this particular cell phone/plan (we’d had them before, and then went several years without), I gave up my office landline and use my cell phone as my business phone. That has worked very well since I don’t want the business listing in the phone book anyway.

  5. Jude Hardin

    Hi Pari:

    I’ve been using T-Mobile for a few years and haven’t had any problems. I have a very simple phone with unlimited Fri, Sat, Sun minutes and 600 anytime minutes and free roaming for just under $50 a month.

  6. caite

    I have a Verizon plan. the cheapest plan they have. I could have gotten a free phone with a 2 year contract, but I sprang for a slightly nicer one…for no practical reason. I just liked it and I can get a new phone free every two years. I have unlimited night and weekend minutes and find I never come close to my limit. I text on occasion, but not enough to get the unlimited texting which is $5 more I think. Coverage is very good all along the east coast…

    I like the security of having it but not a huge user.

  7. Kaye Barley

    I’m so sorry about your pup, and SO glad your daughter is O.K.!!

    I do not like cell phones. But yes, I have one ’cause its just smart to have one for exactly the reasons you’ve mentioned, Pari. I’ve had a person drift out of their lane while driving and using their cell phone and hit my car. I’ve had people bump into me with their carts in the grocery store while talking on their cell phone (WHAT’s with that?? You have to call home and ask permission to buy milk???!). I’ve had a woman tell me how rude I am when I asked her to move just a tad so I could reach the yogurt – her comment? “I’m on the phone here!” pffttt. Ridiculous.

    But TracPhone works for me. No contract. No monthly fees. Just pay as you go. And if you buy your minutes on-line through their website, you can get good deals.

  8. pari

    B.G., Joyce and Kaye:

    Thank you!

    You see, this is why I asked! I’ve never even heard of TracPhone.

    Is it something you get via the internet? How is service around the country?

  9. J.D. Rhoades

    Avoid Motorola like the plague. They’re cheap but the battery life is crap.

    I’m looking for a new phone right now. More and more people I know in both the legal and publishing businesses are texting so I’m thinking of getting that.

  10. pari

    Billie and Caite,

    The Verizon store was where we went. It sounded like we could only get a 700 minute plan; which seemed like far more than we would use.

    They also made us think that we could only use the phones they sold in the store. Do either one of you have experience with buying other phones and using them?

  11. pari

    Kaye,Thank you for the kind words for our daughter; she’s doing much better now. I wish I could say the same for our dog.

    AND — I know exactly what you mean about the people with cell phones. Albuquerque passed a hands-free phone law for driving two years ago. Its penalties are so small that NO ONE abides by it.

    Very dangerous. Very frustrating.

  12. pari

    Dusty,What’s wrong with your phone?

    I ask because I have no idea what to look for.

    Also, do you like your service/carrier?

    As far as texting, I can see how it can come in handy for work.

    My experience with it is in the carpool when the teen girls are in the back of the car cackling and keeping secrets. Argh.

  13. JT Ellison

    Sprint is great, and they have cheap phones with pay as you go. I’ve always had them turn off texting and internet access and just leave me with a phone.

    A disposable cell that you add money to would work well too.

    I’m hooked on my iPhone though, which has text, and internet, and phone and email. Couldn’t live without it.

    BTW, on ICE – what you do is put the entry into your contacts as ICE – the police then know it’s your emergency contact number and call it first. EVERYONE should have an ICE entry in their contacts – mom or husband doesn’t work.

    Prayers to the puppy and the tough girl ; )

  14. Tammy Cravit

    I’d recommend Verizon, myself — they use a different signalling technology (CDMA vs. GSM, for the techies) compared to most providers, and they seem to perform slightly better in areas with marginal signal coverage. They have any number of free phones if you sign a 2-year contract, and the lowest plan you can get is 450 minutes which (I think) runs $39 a month plus taxes and stuff.

    Of all the various phones I’ve had over the years, I’ve been happiest with the LGs – they’re pretty indestructible and have pretty clear audio. I lust after the iPhone, but AT&T’s coverage is too spotty here to make the iPhone a smart buy.

  15. pari

    J.T.,Thanks for the tip. No one else has piped up about Sprint.

    And though I may be dense, I did learn about the ICE button and that you can input your emergency numbers. I just like the idea that it’s easy to find on the phone so that paramedics or police wouldn’t have to look for the info elsewhere.

  16. J.D. Rhoades

    Pari: I have a cheap Motorola right now. The biggest problem is, as I mentioned, the battery life. After only a few calls in “roam” mode the “low battery” signal starts beeping. This can be a real problem at conferences when you’re using the phone to coordinate meet-ups with friends who are all over the place.

    Alltel is my carrier. No problems with them, really. I have the same prtob,em with AT & T that Tammy has, so no Iphone.

    I’m ambivalent about the texting thing. At Bouchercon, my agent kept texting me: “come to this place, I’m with someone you need to meet,” etc. So that sort of thing is handy. OTOH, some of the people urging me and my colleagues to get texting and Blackberrys are judges who’ve discovered the joys of reaching out and telling you to haul your butt down to their courtroom wherever you may be.

  17. Jude Hardin


    It’s a Samsung SGH-t209. I don’t use it for anything except making and receiving calls, although it does have text capability. And, it holds a charge really well.

  18. J.D. Rhoades

    BTW, good luck to daughter and dog. I’m glad to hear it’s “only” a little break and that she’s not in pain.

    As for the dog, I empathize. Our aging hound had a really bad weekend and we were beginning to think this may be the end. He seems a good bit more chipper now, though. He’s begging at the table again so I guess his appetite’s back. Hope yours has a similar rebound.

  19. pari

    Tammy,Great advice.

    The store we went to seemed to only have the 700 minute plan. If we can find something lower, we’d be much more interested.

  20. pari

    Dusty,Thanks for the additional info on the phone. We’ve had battery problems so I’m not interested in paying for more.

    The texting is an interesting issue. I’m still not sure how I feel about it either.

    As for the dog: He’ll be 6 in March — far too young to be having this kind of problem. He’s perky and playful when he’s not falling over. Argh.

  21. Louise Ure

    Pari, of course the only real phone to get is an iPhone, but I can see that you’d never use it.

    Try the Jitterbug. Huge numbers. An operator available to help. Yes/No prompts only. It costs about $150, but service is only $10 a month. It’s specially made for seniors and those under-65 year olds who never bothered to look up how to answer their phone.

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    I know I’m from a whole nother country, but we spend a lot of time in the US. Our UK cellphones are quad-band and have really good coverage throughout the States, but at a price.

    So, when we came out in Sept ’07 to do a month’s tour, the first thing we did was go into a shopping mall and buy a US pay-as-you-go cellphone from the first place we came across that sold them – FYE in New Jersey. It was more or less the cheapest phone they sold – a $20 Motorola with AT&T. It came with $10-worth of calls, plus a $10 mail-in rebate.

    We travelled through sixteen states during that tour, and the phone never missed a beat. The coverage and battery life was great, and we brought the phone back out with us to Baltimore for B’con last year and used it there, too.

    Every time you use it, the phone tweedles at you and tells you exactly how much credit you’ve got left. It’s very simple and easy to use – no camera, thank goodness – but the buttons are small.

    The only problem with it came about because we live in another country, and that’s when AT&T’s customer service department fell down big time – they were just awful.

    I can understand Dusty’s comment about Motorola battery life, though. Our UK cellphones used to be Razors, which are a lovely flip-phone with nice big touchpad buttons and a big clear screen. The battery on one was terrific, but the other one died on a regular basis.

    I swapped my UK phone for an Xda Orbit, which is a poor man’s iPhone and has everyone on it including all the sat nav maps for the US and Europe, but I don’t know if they’re available over there. It is internet-ready, but I’ve avoided activating that bit, and when I get a text message it plays the chicken chorus, however many times I try and set it to something less embarrassing instead.

    Glad to hear both your daughter and your dog are OK. Give them both my best ;-]

  23. B.G. Ritts

    I’ve not used TracFone past the central NC/central MD/western PA corridor, but the service has been fine there. You can buy TracFone cards in the electronic section of many stores and you can also do business online at

    My phone is a Motorola with which I’ve never had battery issues, but I don’t talk on it except as truly necessary. I’ve not had a battery issue with any cell phone, but have never used one as a primary means of talking with others and have had them for years — starting with the ‘big ones in a tool-like case, plug into your car lighter outlet, have multi-digit roaming numbers in a mini phone book’ ones from the last century.

  24. caite

    Granted, if you go to a Verizon store, or I imagine any of the Big Companies, the sales people..and they pitch a hard sales…will likely not mention the ‘lesser’ plans. or phones.I went online first and saw what was offered and went it knowing just what I wanted. Very little thank you.But Verizon coverage is by far the best around here.

  25. Tammy Cravit

    Pari, check out — that’s the current selection of free phones. The rate plan you want to pick is the Nationwide Basic 450 minutes — $39.99/month plus taxes and stuff. You can add text messaging packages for $5-20 a month, or just pay $0.20 (I think) per message if you don’t think you’ll use a lot.

    I wouldn’t bother going to a Verizon store — just order online. You’ll often get better deals, and none of the hard-sell of the store clerks.

  26. Tammy Cravit

    One more thing…Louise recommended the Jitterbug. One caution with those guys — the phone is only $10/month, but you pay $0.35 a minute for your calls. Use 100 minutes in a month, and you’re almost at the price of the Verizon 450 minute/month basic plan. Then it’s not such a good deal.

  27. toni mcgee causey

    “I need to hear from people who like cell phones and who’ve done the research. I think that means YOU.”

    Uh, that would leave me out. I hate cell phones. I hate phones. I like talking to friends, don’t get me wrong, but after owning a business for 27 years and listening to the damned phone ring constantly, my knee jerk reaction now is to throw it against the wall. I usually turn off the ringer and then forget… for a month, then it’s dead.

    I *just* (as in, last night) discovered text messages on my phone from…. back in September. And November. And Christmas. oops. Totally forgot to check that feature.

    I hope your daughter continues to feel better–that’s so harrowing, being at the ER with a kid. And so very sorry to hear about your dog, Pari. I wish words could make him better.

  28. Cornelia Read

    Glad to hear your daughter’s okay, Pari. One of mine broke her nose in summer camp a couple of years ago, but it’s all fine. Hugs to your dog, too.

    I have an iPhone, so I’m probably not much help to you. It acts as my second brain (alarm clock, calendar that beeps at me, etc.), so I’m very happy with all the extra features, but before I got it the year before last, I hadn’t had any cellphone at all for seven years. Big learning curve, but I don’t have any advice on alternate phones or plans.

  29. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I second Billie that if you get a basic cell phone plan you can ditch your landline completely, which makes the price not seem so terrible.

    I have texting turned off on my cell phone, too, because I don’t want to have to be responsible for checking that many different places for messages. Keeping up with snail mail is hard enough.

    Anyone who knows me knows to e mail if they want to get in touch. Phone is for emergencies, texting is for kids or people who have them, which is not me.

  30. Lisa Hendrix

    Pari — I’m like you and despise the cell phone addicted Borgs that seem to feel their conversations are so precious that everyone must hear them. Nonetheless, cell phones have their place. I have a pay-as-you-go phone from Virgin Mobile. I paid a little extra to get a camera and keyboard, but they have phones for 19.99 that are perfectly usable. I buy a $20 card every three months to keep the service active, all the minutes roll over infinitely. If you need more service for a month or two, you can upgrade to a monthly plan, then go back to the $20 each 90 days plan. Other companies offer similar plans, but Virgin is the cheapest and works fine for us. Best of all — you can buy the phone–and top-up cards–at Target and not get a sales pitch.

  31. pari

    Louise and Cornelia,

    Yeah, I’m too much of a luddite and general curmudgeon to want the iPhone, though I know several people who have them AND love them.

    We have a Jitterbug right now for our child with the vision issues but would like to all get on the same plan.

  32. pari

    Zoe and Tammy,

    Thank you for the information. I appreciate it very much.

    The pay-as-you go might be the way to go, although Tammy makes a pretty good case for the 450 minutes.

    It sounds like whatever we do, we should avoid going into the stores again!

  33. pari

    B.G.,Why am I not surprised that you’ve had a cell phone that long? 😉

    And thanks for telling me where I can sign up. I did go to Tracfone’s website for info.

  34. pari

    Toni,You crack me up. Your experience with the text messages is like when I found out my website email didn’t notify me when something new came into the inbox (I’d switched providers) and had mail waiting from nearly a year before.

  35. pari

    Alex,It’s really interesting to see how many people don’t live for their cell phones.

    I was under the impression EVERYONE did.

    I don’t feel so bad about being resistant.

  36. pari

    Lisa,Great information.

    I don’t know about Virgin’s coverage in NM. I also don’t know how to find out, but I’m going to. It sounds like the most reasonable plan so far . . .

  37. Catherine

    Years ago I had a mobile/cell phone, and when it died I had no sadness at its passing. I resisted buying a phone for years as quite frankly there are large segments of my day where I want to be unreachable. I always made sure my girls had contact land line numbers to reach me if need be…worked well.

    A couple of years ago I had a car accident on a windy mountain road. To avoid someone else having an accident my car and the other car were both moved. I have since wished that I had a phone with a camera at the time. Photographic evidence of what angle my car was and the other car would of saved me a lot of drama. I now own a phone with a camera for this slightly paranoid reason.

    Apart from the actual costing plans suggested, my 2 cents would be to consider, as I think you are what you want it to do for you…If this is going to be a phone that is only used for emergencies define emergency in your world. If it’s only for the unusual set of circumstances you experienced lately( also best wishes to all traumatised)maybe a cheap monthly fee phone will work best for you…however if you get seduced by the ease of ringing to check if you need to pick up milk from the store before going home…um then time by the minute becomes more of an issue.

    Remember the phone is a tool, you’re not.

  38. kim

    I see I’ve been beaten to the punch about tracfones – I bought mine at Wal-mart (you can buy a cheap one for something like $10, I had the cheap version and it lasted over 2 years) – you can get them at Office Depot and places like that. You can buy the phone cards for them almost anywhere (Walmart, Target, Kroger, gas stations, online). I love the pay as you go, no monthly bills to worry about – and you only pay for what you use. Mine had text capabilities but no camera (altho you can get tracfones with cameras) or internet.

    I used my tracfone from Florida to Indiana to Texas without any problem.

    I currently use Nextel (Sprint) because of the walkie-talkie/direct-connect feature (out-of-state boyfriend had one and we only pay $5/month to use this feature so it saves lots of minutes). The phone was ‘free’ with a 2 year agreement and I pay about $50/month (500 minutes, but you can get plans with less) – the service isn’t as good as it was with my tracfone. It does end up saving me money because I was using the tracfone a lot – but I prefer the tracfone because I’m not fond of bills – and the service was better with the tracfone.


  39. pari

    Catherine,That accident sounds just horrid. I’m glad you survived.

    I don’t know how paranoid I am. It depends on the day, I guess. Very good advice about what constitutes an emergency.

    There’s a lot to think about in your comments.

  40. pari

    Kim,Thank you.

    I suppose we could go with Tracfones to start and then see if we wanted something more extensive down the road.

    A question: Are the numbers difficult to deal with — or are they fairly regular?

  41. B.G. Ritts

    My number is a typical cell phone number for my area. I can’t remember it though and my current phone has the ‘my number’ buried in the bowels of the menu. So I’ve also programmed it into my phone book list for easy access. (My last cell phone showed the number on the screen each time it was turned on.)

  42. kim

    “Are the numbers difficult to deal with — or are they fairly regular?”

    Do you mean the keypad numbers size? Mine was a small phone – but the keypad seemed no larger/smaller than any other cell phone I’ve used. They have a variety (not a huge variety) of phones to choose from – maybe you can find one to try that will work for your family.

    You’re right – it’s easy enough to try them out and if you decide it’s not for you, switch to something else then.


  43. Jeanne Ketterer

    Late to the conversation. Hope all is well now in the household.

    We have Alltel and a Motorola. We’ve had Alltel for at least ten years w/o any problems. Never had any problems w/roaming, etc., with the Motorola. Also, we up our minutes and other stuff when either of us travel. (I missed a flight in Houston and was being hauled to another terminal and frantically made a call to NC to alert flight change on a low battery. Totally loyal to them after that.)

    I intensely dislike bells/whistles/texting/everything else for the phone — just want to make/receive and voicemail. My husband who works for a telecommunications company — the companythatshallnotbenamed but filed for bankruptcy protection last week — and has a very basic phone, also.

    It might be a good idea to look at alternatives in case of emergencies. Disposable phones are one thing. When we were dealing with intense family things — serious illness, deaths, etc. — we also upped minutes, then knocked it back to usual low amount afterwards. Also, instead of getting a pager I believe they can be rented which also is good during short-term crises.

    I don’t know. The older I’m getting, the less I want to be tethered to something with 14 different types of options. If you want, you’ll find me or track me down easily.

  44. Jeanne Ketterer

    What I meant was that my husband designs software for all the wonderful things telephones can do, but we have pretty basic phones.

    Also, one thing to consider — conference calls or three-way is great when you’re coordinating instructions, funerals, etc.

    Just research and see if these different plans have things you can get as needed.

  45. pari

    So . . .The conversation continues!

    Keith,Thanks for the link and the heads-up.

    Kim,I wasn’t clear at all with my question. What I wondered was if the telephone number was unmanageable. My child with the Jitterbug has a number that is so incredible cumbersome and nonintuitive — no one even bothers to call her on it.

    Jeanne,Thank you so much for the information and the perspective you bring to the discussion. I’m glad you took the time to respond.

    It sounds to me like we’ve got some more research to do.

    But I’ve got to say that I’m feeling far more prepared to do it because of yesterday and today’s discussion.

    THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO RESPONDED. You’ve helped me a great deal!

  46. Dina

    I’m glad to have my cell phone for emergencies and other than that I’m happy if no one calls me, and I don’t have to call anyone. I have used a prepaid plan for a while now, through T-Mobile, and I have been really happy with it. The phone was discounted with the plan and I basically buy 1000 any time minutes for $100 and they are good for a year or until I use them up. For me, that is somewhere between 6 and 9 months. It works for me.

  47. Dru

    My mom likes her cell phone when she uses it.

    I had an LG under Verizon and recently bought the Motorola and I hate it. If you go with Verizon, get the LG phones and I also have the $39 plan because I barely use my phone as well.

  48. Jody

    We use Alltel. Have been able to use it all over the US except in some of those spots NO phone works in.Added lots of minutes this last year because my mother-in-law was in & out of a hospital & my husband was spending much of his time with her & I was undergoing chemotherapy at the same time.He doesn’t have a camera on his, but I have on mine & have actually used it.The hint to have the camera in case of accidents is a great one. My son-in-law used it after his last encounter with a deer on a fairly isolated road.

  49. Karen Dahood

    I’m part of a family plan with Sprint, so go along with my daughter’s decisions. I’m opting out as soon as the contract is up (a year from May) because I think I’m subsidizing the teenagers’ “homework” calls around the country.

    When we set up this time I spent extra $$$ to get a phone that is supposed to work internationally for me in the U.K. It didn’t, because (according to the phone stores there) Sprint didn’t enable it to be serviced by another provider. I did take pictures and turn somersaults and sing in seven languages (just kidding, sort of — I don’t really know everything it does). The upshot was that my bill for three weeks’ use — a few calls to my husband, also in the U.K., was $185. Meanwhile, he had bought the granddaughter we brought along, who simply would die without being able to call her mother (?????) every few hours, a cheap $30 English phone that did everything we needed. It was pay-as-you-go, and I think we probably spent $100 “topping up” the account.

    This whole cell phone, IPod, camera and texting development is so dizzying that I just don’t care anymore. I read in the WSJ that a lot of people are giving them up.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *