The Bottom Line
Phone prices vary by where you buy; a carrier's rate plans do not. You'll often find noticeably better phone deals online, from independent retailers, than you will by buying directly from the carrier.
A contract is a reality if you want the best phone pricing and lowest rates. However, it is very difficult to know ahead of time if your new phone will work everywhere you need it to.
The good news is that all national carriers and many regional providers now subscribe to the wireless industry's consumer code. The most important provision of this code is that new customers will get at least 14 days to try out a carrier's service, with no contract termination penalty if service is canceled.
If you do cancel, you will still need to pay for any airtime or other services used during the trial period. Additionally, you must return the phone in good condition, so be sure you hang on to all the original packaging.