If you make fewer than 12 hours of long-distance calls per month, then a per-minute plan is probably your best bet. Of course, you'll need to do a little math and figure in your local service in order to decide whether you'd do better with an all-inclusive long-distance plan like AT&T's Unlimited Plus (*Est. $33 per month). If you don't make many long-distance calls, a per-minute plan will most likely be your cheapest option. Two companies consistently rise to the top: ECG and Pioneer. Telna (formerly 3U Telecom) has the best international long-distance rates.
SaveOnPhone.com and TollChaser.com say that ECG (*Est. 2.5 cents per minute) has the best deal. Long-distance rates with ECG Easy 2.5 run 2.5 cents per minute state-to-state, with a monthly charge of 99 cents and a 59-cent recovery fee. The minimum per-call charge is for 18 seconds, after which calls are charged in six-second increments. While this isn't the absolute lowest billing increment we found (some companies bill in six-second increments with no minimum; Telna bills in one-second intervals), competing companies such as Pioneer and PNG charge by the minute. Customer service appears to be a factor in many of the reviews we read, and ECG excels in this respect as well. Editors at SaveOnPhone.com say customer-service response time was less than one minute. User feedback at PhoneDog.com is also above average.
With ECG's Easy 2.5 plan, you must pay your bill automatically with a credit-card or automatic-debit plan. A paper bill or check payment isn't an option; you'll receive your bill via email. ECG has another plan, the Basic 3.5 plan, which charges 3.5 cents per minute with a $2.50 monthly bill-processing fee. The only advantage to this plan is that you get a monthly bill in the mail, which you can review before you pay, rather than auto-paying. Even if you prefer receiving a monthly paper bill, ECG has one of the better deals.
These plans aren't available to customers in about 15 percent of the U.S. depending on the local-service carrier. You can determine whether you are eligible for ECG by entering your phone number on their website. ECG is not available nationwide. Note that calls to Hawaii and Alaska cost more (24 cents per minute for Alaska and 21.4 cents for Hawaii). Higher-cost calls to these states are typical of discount long-distance services.
Pioneer (*Est. 2.7 cents per minute) is another company that is mentioned frequently in reviews of long-distance services. However, our most reliable reviewers rated ECG higher than Pioneer. These reviewers did not like the fact that Pioneer bills in 60-second increments. If you make a 10-second call, you are billed for a full minute. Pioneer does offer a plan with six-second increments, but the charge is 3.25 cents per minute rather than 2.7 cents.
Pioneer's per-minute rate is still cheaper than most: 2.7 cents per minute for domestic calls (excluding Hawaii and Alaska). Calls to any other Pioneer customer are billed at only 1.9 cents per minute. As with ECG, your location must be served by a current or former Baby Bell company, so about 15 percent of the country won't be able to access Pioneer. (You can find out if you're in an eligible area by entering your telephone number on their website.) Paper bills cost $2, though this charge is waived if you make at least $20 worth of calls per month. There appears to be little difference between ECG and Pioneer, but we like ECG's shorter billing increments. Editors of PhoneDog.com say the savings are 12 percent to 14 percent when using a six-second billing increment versus a full-minute plan. For this reason, we have chosen ECG as the Best Reviewed long-distance service plan and Pioneer as the runner-up. If you make a lot of in-state calls, it pays to check the rates of both carriers.
Unitel (*Est. 2.5 cents per minute) is another provider that impresses some with very low long-distance rates. Unitel's interstate rates are 2.5 cents per minute, the same as ECG's. But in addition to a 98-cent recovery charge, Unitel charges a higher monthly fee of about $3. The fee is $2 if you opt for paperless billing, and it is waived entirely for customers who make more than $20 in calls during the month. Again, whether this fee structure is better than those mentioned above depends on how many calls you make. Unitel doesn't get as much review coverage as ECG or Pioneer, however. According to PhoneDog.com, Unitel's average in-state rates are higher than their competitors'.
Telna (*Est. 4.8 cents per minute) (formerly 3U Telecom) is a company that undercuts other providers when it comes to international calls and calls to Alaska and Hawaii, even though its 4.8-cent-per-minute domestic rate is higher than ECG's. Telna charges in one-second billing increments, an industry first. That means that if your call lasts three seconds, you pay for three seconds. With other plans, you'd pay for a six-second call or even a 60-second call. There is neither a monthly fee nor a minimum usage charge. Billing is online or by email, and you must pay with an automatic credit- or debit-card plan. You'll have about three days to review your bill before your card is charged. You may choose to receive a paper bill, but Telna charges 99 cents per month for that service.
One of Telna's most attractive features is its cheap international-calling rates. Calls to many countries (including Australia, Japan, Germany and the U.K.) cost the same 4.8 cents per minute as domestic calls (when calling a landline). Telna also gives you a special access number, so you can get those same rates when calling from your cell phone (as long as your cell phone is registered in the 48 continental states). Your cell company will simply think you are making a domestic call. If you're calling an international cell phone, rates vary a lot but are still lower than those of other companies. Complete rate information is easy to find on the Telna website (http://www.telna.com). Telna is available to anyone; your local carrier does not have to be a current or former Baby Bell (as it does with ECG), so Telna is a good choice for those who can't get ECG.
Total Call International (also known as TCI Long Distance) (*Est. 3.9 cents per minute) is not mentioned very often among the least expensive calling plans, but this company has the advantage of wider availability than ECG. TCI has a 3.9-cents-per-minute, 24/7 rate plan with no minimums or monthly fees, and six-second billing increments (with an 18-second minimum charged call time). If you make frequent long-distance calls, there is also a 2.9-cents-per-minute plan with a $15 monthly minimum. Online billing and payment is required. TCI's customer service is unique in that customer service is available in six languages -- English, Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic. Although it is more expensive than ECG, TCI is available with most carriers, and it's a good choice if you don't live in ECG's coverage area and don't make many international calls. Telna is cheaper for international calls.
Some plans offer some kind of incentive for luring your friends and relatives to join. For example, ECG has a scheme, under which you get 5 percent of your friends' payments credited to your own bill after you refer them. However, if you are always nagging your friends to switch phone providers, you might find yourself with fewer friends to call.