Savers want vanilla but they get tutti-frutti

Calling a savings account "easy access" when you have to pay a penalty to get your hands on your money sounds distinctly misleading. But of the 304 accounts currently described in that way, one in five either penalises you, or withholds bonuses, if you want to withdraw your savings, according to ING Direct savings bank.

And it warns that these restrictions are on the increase. There are 10 per cent more accounts branded as easy access, but which nevertheless impose penalties, than there were in 2003. "Plain vanilla easy access accounts are becoming rarer," said Sue Hannums from Chase de Vere, the independent financial adviser. "Providers are adopting new tactics to try to keep hold of your money."

Savers can be forgiven for thinking that the words "easy" and "instant" applied to a savings account mean that you can simply dip into it without any restrictions. But that's far from being the case: you need to look beyond the headline name and the rate to make sure you can.

Ms Hannums highlights two accounts marketed as either easy or instant access but which have conditions attached. Britannia building society's Easylife Guaranteed Account lets you make only two withdrawals in the first six months; and then only 12 for the rest of the year.

First Direct has a headline rate of 4.89 per cent on its e-Savings instant access account. But if customers make a withdrawal they're penalised by receiving no interest on the balance for the entire month. If the savings transfer account isn't another First Direct account, there may be delays.

Both providers say the terms and conditions are made clear on their respective websites. ING Direct urges savers to check the small print before opening any easy access or instant savings account. Its own research found that while two-thirds of people say the ability to make unlimited withdrawals is an important feature of a savings account, nearly a third have experienced subsequent restrictions.

The good news is that there are plenty of easy access accounts that don't levy a withdrawal fee. Ms Hannums likes ING Direct's own savings account (paying 4.75 per cent on balances of £1 and above). She also picks out the Anglo Irish Bank's Easy Access Deposit account (4.8 per cent on a minimum balance of £500) and Newcastle building society's Net Savings (issue 4; paying 4.9 per cent on £1 and above).