See the light: don't pay through the nose to improve your eyesight

Emma Lunn shows how to get a better deal on your contact lenses by shopping online

More than three million people in the UK wear contact lenses, says the Eyecare Trust, a charity that works to raise awareness of eye health. But many of these people may be paying over the odds by buying on the high street instead of online.

If you think you need a prescription, the first step is still to go to an optician for a sight test, which costs around £20, and a contact lens consultation, for £30. People with astigmatism – where the eye is irregularly shaped, causing distorted vision – will need a toric lens, which is more ex- pensive than other types.

Legally, optometrists have to give you a copy of your prescription, including three key numbers: the base curve, overall diameter and spherical power. You are free to buy the lenses wherever you want.

Most people stick to the big chains and as a result are not usually getting the best price. High-street opticians offer monthly direct-debit payment plans. The cost will depend on the type of lenses and will normally include cleaning solutions, aftercare appointments and check-ups.

But the price will also vary considerably between opticians. Take, for example, Ciba Vision's Air Optix – a new type of lenses designed to reduce irritation. Specsavers costs £13 per month but Boots £24. Vision Express and Optical Express cost £19.50 and £18 a month respectively.

Boots and Vision Express also offer contact lens customers money off glasses and sunglasses sold in store.

It is definitely cheaper to buy from an online retailer, some experts claim. "They bulk-buy direct from the manufacturers and sell from warehouses, meaning there are no expensive property overheads," says Martin Lewis, founder of website MoneySavingExpert.com. "The longer the supply you buy, the cheaper. Three, six or preferably 12 months is usual, though don't buy over a year's worth in case your prescription changes."

VisionDirect.co.uk offers 12 pairs (one a month) of Air Optix lenses for £60.02, plus £3 postage. ContactForLenses.com charges £59.96 for a year's supply but £3.50 for postage. Tesco charges £96 for 12 pairs and contactlenses.co.uk £140, both with free delivery.

"Unlike those who buy from opticians, you'll have to pay for aftercare," says Mr Lewis, "yet the saving from the lenses substan-tially outweighs its costs."

But other experts are more cautious. "[Some] online retailers have not been verifying patient prescriptions before supplying products," says Michael Wilkinson of contact lens maker CooperVision. "This could put patients' ocular health at risk as it is vital they are only supplied the lens type prescribed by their eye-care professional."

Contact lens aftercare appointments at an optician cost between £20 and £30, and most websites do not sell solutions; you can get these from an optician and they cost upwards of £10 for three months' supply.

Nevertheless, buying online beats the high street. A monthly plan with Specsavers would cost £156 over the course of a year and Boots would charge £288. Buying the lenses from ContactForLenses or VisionDirect would set you back some £60, and adding on £70 a year for solutions and check-ups would bring the total to just £130.

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