Here is the provider may dad will be using very, very soon (he already has the phone). For people who just want to buy and go, this is the worst deal on earth for prepaid phone service. For those who can take the time and effort to search for deals Tracfone is a gold mine, if you're willing to put up with a selection of old phones.
First, the coverage. Tracfone operates on the netwroks of other carriers. You heard me right, there is no "Tracfone" network. This means two things. One is that you'll probably get the most comprehensive coverage available for your area available with any prepaid provider. The other thing is you might not. Depending on which network you're on, you may not get a local number you want, or as robust coverage as you want. You may have to buy from a different zip code to get a phone with good coverage in your area.
About the phones now. There are basically three tiers of Tracfones: black-and-white Nokia bar phones, CDMA\TDMA flip phones and SingleRate phones.
The first is usually on some sort of sale, so you can get some sort of model for "free" (shipping, usually $5, applies, and so do taxes) with the purchase of a $20 or $30 refill card. I don't reccommend getting the CDMA phone, the 2285, unless you know you have great CDMA digital coverage where you live, as it cannot use analog. This is a big problem where I live, as almost every carrier has analog but CDMA digital is much more limited (though the conditions are improving). The TDMA phone, the 1221, seems to also be crippled, but its lack of a 1900 MHz digital band probably will not effect your coverage at all. The SingleRate (GSM) phone, the 1100, is usually less available on promotions, and is a very solid phone, with a user interface very similar to that of the old Nokia 51xx phones. You can also get these phones for $35 new, but shipping and tax makes getting new ones off of the Tracfone site uneconomical; get one from Wal-Mart instead.
An oddball fits in between the first and second categories: the Motorola v120. This phone is a solid phone, but it's not sold online any more. You will have to pick it up at a store (usually a Super Wal-Mart) for around $20. This is a great alternative to the Nokia bar phones, especially if your promotional phone is the Nokia 2285. If you can get used to Motorola's phone interface (which isn't too bad) this phone can be a definite winner, especially for CDMA users who are otherwise saddles with a phone that has subpar coverage features.
The second category is comprised of one phone: the Motorola v60i. It sells for $60 new or $40 refurbished. On the outside it has a Caller ID screen. On the inside it has a black-and-white display. It's no different than the Motorola v60 flip phones sold by quite a few carriers around the country, except that it has Tracfone programming on it. Right now you can get this for free (plus shipping of course) when you buy the $130 Double-Minute card.
The third category is what Tracfone is trying to capitalize on now. The phones run on GSM, which doesn't have nearly as much coverage as TDMA or CDMA, but if they say you can get the phone you can usually get some amount of coverage. Besides the Nokia 1100, they have the color Nokia 2600 (my faorite of their selection though the one-button selection interface bothers me for a decidedly high-end phone), a wierd Motorola color bar called the C155, and their only color flip phone (which incidentally has a pretty darn small screen and no external display) the Motorola v170. These three phones sell for about $50, $60 and $80, repectively.
Tracfone has its accounting system built into the phone itself, so you never have to double-dial and you can always roam with their service. You are billed in one of two ways, standard or SingleRate, the former for CDMA\TDMA and the latter for GSM. Standard billing means calls more than 15 seconds long (remember this tidbit), which include those to 411 or 611, are 1 unit per minute, unless you're roaming in which case airtime is eaten twice as fast. Text messages are 0.5 units to send or receive. SingleRate is more versatile in my opinion. No matter where you are (even in Canada!) calls are deducted at 1 unit per minute! So if you are going to Rogers Wireless or Fido territory in Canada, you've just found a really cheap way to call. This is because the Tracfone doesn't care what network it's on, so long as it's 850 or 1900MHz GSM. Text messages are 0.3 units to send and free to receive, so let the ringtones roll!
Now for the trap for unsuspecting people who just want to act normal: Tracfone minutes are EXPENSIVE! A new phone normally comes with 10 or 20 minutes, depending o whether it's activated on the phone (less) or on the web (more). A 40-minute, 60-day phone card costs $20, for a whopping 50 cents a minute just for local (not roaming) calls! 100 minutes is a slightly more bearable $30, 200 is $50 and 400 is $80 but who wants to spend $80 every two months on a pepaid phone, which will only give you 400 minutes? There is also a one-year card ith 150 minutes for $90 (think more expensive than the $20 card per minute) and a Double Minute card with 300 minutes and 1 year of effective (double minute and regular service) time for $130 (less expensive but still outrageous) which brings the other cards down to a sane level of expense.
But wait! Promos have arived! The 40-minute card can be doubled in minutes with the promotion code 54661. Promos on other cards are included in your welcome booklet with your Tracfone. And right now the 1-year card can have 200 minutes added to it to make the price per minute only about 22 cents (the code is 59647). Cool. :)
Before you activate the phone though have someone (like me) refer you. This will give them (and you) 100 minutes extra (and gives them 60 more days of service time). If you have two unactivated phones you can cross-refer them for an unbelieveable 200 minutes per phone! That's $50 saved...or is it? I'll tell you about that in a second, but if you want to activate a Tracfone send me an email at email@example.com so I can get you the 100 minutes or (if you're reading this entry very soon aftetr I posted it) 200!
Enter eBay. On eBay you can find (among other things) Tracfone 1-year, double-minute and 400-minute cards that can be bought for about $15 off their normal price, or bid upon for even greater savings. 40-minute cards also abound, ranging from $13 to $15 for the good deals.
And then there's the phenomenon of ESN minutes. These little guys are sold by Tracfone as promotional minutes for probably $15 per 100. Sellers like LarrysCellForLess (stores.ebay.com/larryscell4less) sell them for $17 or $16 per 100, depending on how many lots you buy (right now 100 and 200 are $17 per 100, while 300 is $16 per). The catch with these jewels is you have to apply them all at once (or so it seems) and you have to give the seller your phone's serial number and due date (to justify the promotional status I guess). But these are a great way to get cheap minutes without buying expensive cards.
A neat feature on SingleRate phones is you don't have to call or go online to redeem the minutes you got (from the store or otherwise) and key in the resulting VLN (very long number). Instead you just use the phone's rapid refill function to key in the card's number plus whatever promotional code you've found and your minutes are added that way. At least, it should work. :)
As you can see, Tracfone can vary from an overpriced coverage nightmare to a dirt-cheap, promo-ridden best-in-class prepay service. It all depends on the amount of homerwork you're willing to put into it. With just 40-minute cards or 1-year cards, coupled by their respective promotional codes, and the 100 minutes fromreferring a friend, Tracfone is a medium-to-good deal, so I'd sau gove it a try, but don't pay $100 for a Motorola v170 and 40 extra minutes. :)