1. Research the best coverage in your area
Before you even buy a phone or sign up for a plan, you need to figure out which cell phone company has the best coverage where you live, work, and travel, says Jen O'Connell, author of The Cell Phone Decoder Ring and a wireless expert.
Most providers can check your coverage by zip code. But you need to test the reception, warns Gikas. Signals are easily blocked by everything from cell-tower obstruction to your home's building materials.
"The one place where people have the most trouble is inside their home," he says. Ask neighbors if they are happy with their service; maybe even place calls from your home using friends' phones.
2. Buy the phone that fits your budget
Finally, the fun part: test-driving phones. Research models online, then try some out in a store. Again, only buy as much phone as you need. Planning to text? Decide between a QWERTY typewriter-style keyboard or a touch pad (it's a matter of taste). And take the phone outside to ensure you can clearly see the screen in the sunlight.
If your heart is set on a tricked-out smartphone although your budget favors a plain Jane, consider a refurbished model. These days it's easy find pre-owned devices at up to 75 percent off. Buy only phones that come with a warranty. Verizon would sell us a pre-owned Motorola Droid that retails for $559.99 for $29.99 (with a two-year contract). Or skip the absolute latest cell phone model (which may have only minor tweaks to button shape or color) in favor of last year's and save a bundle. A final tip: All four major carriers let you return a phone, no questions asked, during a 14- to 30-day trial period. Maximize that time, and test your phone everywhere you go. If not, you could end up with a very expensive paperweight.
3. Say no to insurance
If you lose your phone or send it through the washing machine, it's gonna hurt to buy a new one. But do you really need to pay from $5 to $7 per month to insure a $200 to $500 item?
4. Waive activation fees
They're typically $35. If you ask, sympathetic sales staff will sometimes cancel the fee — especially to seal the deal.
5. Turn the data off
Smartphones continue to download data every few minutes. Unless you have an unlimited-data plan, switch off your data feature if you won't be using the phone for a while.
6. Pay zip for overseas calls
Make use of Freephone2phone.com. Look up a local access number on the service's website; dial that number; listen to a 10 to 12-second ad; then call to any of 54 countries (mostly landline numbers) for free for 10 minutes max.
Laura Daily is a contributing editor for AARP The Magazine.