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How to get a great-looking pair of cheap glasses

A new pair of glasses can leave you seeing double over the price. Fancy frames, special lenses, and protective coatings can add $500 or more, even with insurance. But with our tips, you can chop the overall cost significantly.

And if you have a flexible spending account, you can buy glasses with those extra use-them-or-lose-them dollars. Glasses and prescription sunglasses qualify as medical expenses. If you haven't bought new frames in a while, here's what you need to know to find cheap glasses without sacrificing on quality.

Don't focus on brands

One reason glasses cost a lot is that they have become a hot fashion accessory. You can spend hundreds on frames from Chanel, Prada, Versace, and other big names. But those frames are often designed and manufactured by companies that license the names—not the designers.

And they may not be sturdier than store-brand frames. Most are made by a handful of companies that also make high-quality nondesigner frames, some of which look similar to the name brands, minus the logo, at a fraction of the cost. Luxottica, for example, makes frames for the designers above and for LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, and Target Optical.

Check our eyeglass store buying guide and Ratings for more tips and for buying eyewear. Shop discount stores

Just 38 percent of Americans buy their glasses from an eye doctor or optometrist, according to Mintel, a market-­research firm. Instead, they are turning to inexpensive places such as Walmart Vision Center and Costco Optical.

In our survey of 19,500 Consumer Reports readers published in 2013, Costco topped the Ratings for overall satisfaction, beating out retailers such as LensCrafters and Pearle Vision. But you might have to wait a week or more for your glasses.

Look online

Sales of glasses online are growing stead­i­ly. Warby Parker entered the market in 2010 as an independent online shop. (It now also has more than a dozen stores nationwide.) To keep prices low, generally $95 for single-vision glasses and $295 for progressive glasses, the frames are designed in-house. Shoppers can request up to five pairs to try on at home for five days.

There are other online sources, often with huge selections and low prices. Zenni Optical, which also offers single-vision specs for less than $100, was the most widely used online source of glasses among Consumer Reports readers. And most Web shoppers told us they would buy glasses online again. We found a women’s Vogue frame for $160 at LensCrafters that was just $96 at SimplyEyeglasses.com and $80 at LensesRx.com. Similarly, a men’s Polo frame was $199 at LensCrafters but $100 at LensesRx.com. With single-­vision poly­carbonate lenses and an antireflective coating, it came to $180, ­cheaper than LensCrafters by more than $300.

To get lenses online, ask your doctor for a copy of your eyeglass prescription, plus your pupillary distance number (the distance, measured in millimeters, between the centers of the pupils in each eye).

But buying online isn’t for everybody. “If you have a complex prescription requiring additional measurements, it’s not the best choice,” Linsy Farris, M.D., professor of clinical ophthalmology at Columbia University, said. Plus, online retailers can’t adjust frames or provide other in-person services. One option is to buy frames online and lenses locally. Walmart fills prescriptions for frames purchased elsewhere for $10 plus the cost of the lenses; Costco charges $18.

Check on quality

If you want wire frames, look for titanium, which is strong, doesn’t corrode, and is lightweight, says Avi Vizel, an optician and owner of optical shops in New York City. Spring hinges are more likely to break than regular ones. And “if you’re on a budget, invest in lenses, not frames,” he said. Also ask about warranties and return policies. Some give you just 14 days to return glasses; others offer a full year.

Ask about insurance

If you’re covered by insurance, find out whether the eyeglass store accepts your plan. About half of our survey respondents who shopped in stores used it to cover part of their bill. Insurance would cover up to $140 of the cost, on average, for our readers. Those with little or no insurance had to pay an average of $244 out of pocket.

If you have vision coverage but are shopping at a retailer that doesn't accept your plan (and many online vendors don't), you might be able to get reimbursed for at least part of your out-of-pocket costs.  

Get two pairs

Eyeglass stores often have coupons and special half-price deals. If you find one, consider buying a backup pair in case your primary pair is lost or broken. That way you won't have to run to an expensive shop to have a replacement made right away. Or just ask for a discount if you buy two pairs. Eye doctors and independent shops may be more willing than chains to negotiate on price.  

Can you spot the splurge?

Eyeglasses that look identical are often sold at vastly different prices. Think you can tell which frames are the costly designer ones and which are the less pricey pairs? The top frame (A.) is the Oliver Peoples “Artie,” which costs $340 without lenses. Compare that with the lookalike Warby Parker “Sims“ frame and lenses (B.) for $95. The bottom frame is the Giorgio Armani 7005 (D.), which costs $280. Compare that with its lookalike, the Ray-Ban 7029 frame (C.), which costs $160.   

—Sue Byrne

A version of this article also appeared in the December 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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