The best family cell phone plans for 2014

The best family cell phone plans can save your family a lot of money.  All four of the major carriers and some prepaid carriers offer discounts for adding lines to a plan.  The plans are all structured a bit differently, and network coverage is always important.

Best family cell phone plans for family of four

Phone prices are new iPhone or high-end Android ($650).  Plans chosen have at least 2GB of data per line.  Some carriers offer less expensive plans with less data.

Best family cell phone plans:  Cricket Wireless

Cricket Wireless is a prepaid carrier that runs on AT&T's 4G LTE network.  Each line on the family plan offers unlimited calling and texting, 2.5GB of 4G data, and unlimited 2G data after the 4G data is used.  It costs $50 for the first line, and they offer discounts of $10 for a second line, $20 for a third, and total discounts of $90 for five total lines.  They also offer a $5 discount for enrolling in autopay (which is not factored into the above table).

This plan is a great deal on a solid nationwide network and they support iPhones and top Samsung Galaxy phones.  Unless you need Verizon's coverage or have specific needs, there's no reason to pay more.

Contract plans offer shared data and early upgrades

Verizon and AT&T are pushing their early-upgrade programs, and for a family of 4 the plans are actually less expensive once the early-upgrade options are added.  This will allow every member of the plan to upgrade their phone once per year for no extra cost.  The Verizon and AT&T plans both have 10GB of shared data, which is nice if some family members use a lot more data than others.

Unlimited data:  T-Mobile and Sprint

Sprint and T-Mobile offer affordable upgrades to plans with unlimited data on one or all of the lines in the plan.  Shop Sprint Phones and Plans Now!  These two carriers don't have the best coverage, but if it works for you and you need lots of data they're a good option.

Other affordable prepaid options

Virgin Mobile is another affordable prepaid carrier.  They don't offer family discounts, but their $35 plan is so affordable they don't need to.  Virgin also periodically offers great discounts on new iPhones (which haven't been included in the table). Unlimited Web, Data, Text, Email, & 100s of Talk Minutes starting at $35. No Contract & Free Shipping at Virgin MobileTM.

MetroPCS offers discounts of $5 per line for up to five lines, but is still the same exact price over two years as Cricket and T-Mobile. MetroPCS runs on T-Mobile's network, but doesn't include any of T-Mobile's extras such as unlimited international data and texting, and music not counting against the data cap. If T-Mobile's coverage works for you they're probably a better deal. If not, Cricket offers better coverage for the same price.

For a Couple

Things change a little when looking at a couple.  Since the discounts on two lines aren't as heavy as four or more, some of our best picks for individual plans, such as Cricket and Straight Talk look the most attractive.  Also, adding an early-upgrade plan to AT&T or Verizon doesn't make the overall plan less expensive anymore.

Wrap-Up: All about coverage

There are lots of different types of family cell plans:  unlimited, early upgrade programs, individual lines with discounts, etc.  The most important thing is coverage, which is why Cricket is our number one pick.  It's a great balance of nationwide 4G coverage and affordable price.

I also tend to favor GSM networks (AT&T and T-Mobile) because the phone you'll be using can easily be switched to other GSM carriers (if the carriers are compatible or the phone is unlocked).  For example, I've recently used my unlocked GSM phone on T-Mobile, AT&T, and Straight Talk.  This isn't the case with Verizon's or Sprint's phones.  You may feel 'locked in' to the carrier because you'll likely have to get a new phone if you want to switch carriers.