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The obvious answer is to cut down on the number and length of your calls. But that is something that is easier said than done, particularly if you have family and friends in far away places. Your next best bet is to find the cheapest long distance carrier, a complicated task for even the most market-wise consumer.

It seems everyday, direct mail, telemarketing, television advertising brings ads from long distance carriers each claiming to offer the best available rates and savings. How can you make informed decisions with so many different factors to consider?

With all of these new features and services being offered each day, just choosing a long distance provider isn't always enough. To be certain you are getting the best rates, you must also be sure you are enrolled in the right plan. These plans are constantly changing, however, and a plan offered one year may be gone the next. A plan that is a carrier's cheapest one year, can suddenly become its most expensive.

Saving money on long distance can be done by periodically conducting check-ups. How often you should do this depends on your long distance bill. The higher it is, the more often you should conduct a checkup-though it's generally advisable to do at least once a year. Another good time is change your residence or calling patterns.

The check-up is easy. First, call your carrier's toll-free customer service number and ask if you're on their least expensive plan. Make sure that when they look at your records, they are examining a typical calling month. If you're not satisfied, shop around.

To do that:

1.. Determine your calling patterns. Take a look at your long distance bills for the last few months. Note when you make the most calls and their average length. Are there patterns to your calls, such as frequently calling the same number or area code, or making the majority during a certain time of day?
2.. Compare each company's plans. Read each plan's description to ensure that you meet the requirements to receive discounted rates, that it suits your calling patterns and also to that it includes all the features and services you want. Watch out for things like services that require a minimum amount of minutes before you get the best rate. Pay attention to how the company bills for time. Some round out fractions of a minute to the next highest, others charge by the second.
3.. Research the Plans. Once you are interested in some plans, follow-up with additional research. Call the carriers to confirm that these would, indeed, be the best plans for you, that the rates are still the same, and the features and services you want are still offered with those calling plans. Remember, plans change frequently and competition results in even more frequent rate and service changes.
4.. Now, pick the best and start saving money.