PAYG is a many headed creature. It’s strong, resilient, ever-growing, flexible and utterly unfathomable to the technology journalist. It is the Hydra and it could only take a truly herculean effort to tackle, master and eventually understand. Today, Pocket-lint shall do what few men dare: to bring the beast down, to stop its writhing and show the world what it is really all about. Yes, today we uncover which UK operator offers the best PAYG deals.

A caveat. Two really. First, is that those hoping for a complete, whole and definitive answer should best prepare themselves for disappointment. No man is the same and these deals will appeal to different people. That’s what they’ve been designed to do. What we can help with is to show you which might yours. The second thing to note is that if time moves quickly in the world of technology, that’s doubly true for PAYG. These deals might well of changed before you finish reading this sentence. And again. All the same, the big hitters do seem to stick around. We shall begin.

To start with 3 is something of an anticlimax but that’s the alphabet for you. 3 is actually the most straight forward of all the networks to get your head around for PAYG. Essentially, top up your phone and you get to use what you put in as calls, texts and data credit however you like. The only slight complication is that the company offers what it calls Add-ons. Instead of spending that £10 you just put on as credit, you can choose to buy an all in one Add-on which offers a combo of 3000 texts, 100 minutes and 500MB to use over a month. Up that to £15 and the minutes go up to 300. Go to £25 and it’s the same texts, 500 minutes and 1GB of data. But if all that sounds like too much, just pay a fiver and buy the £5 add on which is 3000 texts, 500MB and 300 3 to 3 minutes.

Just in case that was all a bit easy to understand, O2 has plenty to bend your mind around. This company also has PAYG tariffs of a sort but it works a little differently. The idea is that you top up your phone and while getting that credit, you can also pick from one of five bonus schemes. They are as follows:

Text and Web - Get 300/500/3000 texts, 500MB of data and unlimited Wi-Fi access as a bonus if you happen to top up a total of £10/£15/£30 each month.

Favourite Place - Get 500/1000/”Unlimited” minutes to O2 mobiles or UK landlines in a given post code when you top up a total of £10/£15/£30 each month.

Your Country - Get 50/100/200 minutes of free calls to international landlines and mobiles when you top up a total of £10/15/30 each month.

O2 Unlimited - Get “unlimited” texts to O2 numbers/“unlimited” calls and “unlimited” texts to O2 numbers when you top up a total of £10/£15 each month.

Simplicity - Pay £5/10/15/20 and receive 3000 UK texts and Wi-Fi access plus nothing/100 minutes or 500MB of data/300 minutes or 100 minutes and 500MB of data/500MB and 300 minutes. Not sure why this is the one the company chose to call Simplicity, but when you break it down it’s actually very similar to 3’s Add-ons but arguable not as good value unless you’re a very heavy hotspot user.

O2 Rewards
Fortunately, as well as the tariffs, O2 has plenty of added bonus action to get excited about. The first is O2 Rewards which is a scheme that gives you 10 per cent back off each top up you make into a virtual fund. You can’t reclaim this as cash, but you can turn it into high street shopping vouchers, gig tickets, money for a new phone, call credit or mobile accessories. Not bad.

O2 Surprises
Finally, the last and most intriguing free bonus of all from O2 Surprises which is a lucky dip system of sorts. Each time you top up you get a silver or gold level code texted back to you depending on whether you put in under £15 or over it. Punch the code into the Surprises site and you can win all sorts of goodies ranging from adventure days to a rubber duck. The list of possibles is long and entertaining and also includes free music downloads and substantial phone credit deals. Definitely one for people who love a good bonus.

Unsurprisingly with Orange, it’s all about the animals. It’s a similar system to the majority of the O2 tariffs in that you put in a certain amount of credit which you can use as you like, but if you hit given totals each month then you receive bonus juice for the month after. It all depends which PAYG animal tariff you’ve signed up to.

Monkey (music & text) - Get 25/300/600/1000 texts messages and a daily music pass to the Orange music portal when you top up a total of £5/10/20/30 each month.

Dolphin (Internet and text) - Get 300/600/3000 texts plus 100MB of data to use for a month if you top up a total of £10/20/30 in the month previous.

Canary (free eve & wkd) - Get 100/200/300 evening and weekend call minutes plus the same number of messages, either normal text or MMS when you top up a total £10/20/30 over one month.

Racoon (low rate) - The Racoon means you effectively say “sod this” to all the bonus complications and just take a plan that offers more calls for more money. You get a lower rate plus a bonus of 100/200/300 free anytime minutes when you top up a total of £10/20/30 in a month.

Camel (international) - Get 60/120/240 minutes of bonus international calls when you top up a total of £10/20/30 in a month.

Tesco Mobile seems to concentrate most on just making its rates as low as possible and doesn’t want to get too complicated to its average Joe customers. That said, there is still one bonus deal worth mentioning - Triple Credit. As the name suggests, top up £10/15/30 and actually receive £30/45/90 worth of credit. If that doesn't take your fancy, then you can just receive triple club card points instead for all your top ups. Your call.

Traditionally a big player in PAYG, T-Mobile has three areas which users can exploit to get their hands on as much bonus credit as possible. The first is pretty straight forward. Anyone on any PAYG tariff who tops up a total of £10 in a month receives “unlimited” (think 3000) texts to use the following month. Beyond that, there are some Weekend Rewards tariffs to consider.

Weekend Talk - Top up £10 between Monday and Friday and get free calls to T-Mobile phones at the weekend.

Weekend Text - Top up £10 between Monday and Friday and get “unlimited” texts to all UK mobiles at the weekend.

Weekend Credit - Top up £10 between Monday and Friday and get £10 bonus credit to use at the weekend.

Weekend International - Top up £10 between Monday and Friday and get £10 bonus credit for international calls to use at the weekend.

Lastly, there’s also an Internet Booster you can add whereby you pay £2.50/5/20 and receive 5 days/ 1 month / 6 months of free data with a limit of 40MB on the day rate and 1GB per month on the longer plans.

All in all, actually quite straight forward to unpick, but perhaps more complicated to manage.

Bees. That’s what you need to remember here. Bees. That’s what Vodafone has named its PAYG bonus tariff schemes and it’s all about which Top Up and Get Freebee you choose to buzz around with. The good news is that you can later combine them with even more bonuses, as with O2 and T-Mobile. The difference though is that it’s not about the total you top up each month, but what you get for free each time you add on a chunk.

Text & Web Freebee - Top up with £10/15/30 in one go and get your credit plus 300/500/3000 text messages and 500MB of data to use over the next 30 days.

Interntational Freebee - Top up with £10/15/30 in one go and get your credit plus 60/100/240 of international minutes to use over the next 30 days to landlines and mobile phones abroad.

Weekend Freebee - Spend £2.50/5 of your credit between Monday and Friday and get 3000 texts/free calls and 3000 texts at the weekend. Do note that only get 60 minutes of free weekend calls to other UK mobile phones.

Vodafone Family
On top of the Top Up and Get Freebees, customers can also sign up to Vodafone Family where you form an alliance with three other people - family or otherwise - and so long as one of you pays £5 for the privilege each month, you each get free calls within the group for up to an hour at a time.

Vodafone Bonus Bank
Much like O2 Rewards, Bonus Bank is the Vodafone version of this scheme which automatically stacks up payments of 10 per cent of the value of whatever you top up into a virtual fund. Again, this can’t be taken back as cash but you can use it to top up with or even put towards a new phone. Do watch out that it expires after a 12-month period, though.

There’s very little room for manoeuvre with Virgin Mobile in terms of bonus schemes. While there’s plenty of interesting deals on the handsets themselves, it’s largely all about the Addict Tariff. If you top up a total of £10 in a month, you get 300 texts to use the next month. If, however, you top up a total of £15 or more in a single month, then your dividends are considerably larger. You receive 3000 texts and “unlimited” data to the tune of 1GB/month and no more than 25MB each day. All very nice, but you’ll have to rely on your initial top ups for the calls in the latter instance.

What strikes you most of all as you look through the offers is that everyone seems to be giving texts away like they're going out of fashion and data's pretty easy to get hold of too. Virgin Mobile, O2, 3 and T-Mobile offer some kind of scheme whereby you can get yourself an effectively unlimited (3000) number of text messages each month by topping up a certain amount the month before. If free texts are really your thing, then it's probably O2 and 3 who are the ones to go with. Each of them offer more texts than you can use for just £5 each month. The pick of them has to be 3, though, as your £5 also buys 500MB of data and a handful of minutes to use to other 3 mobiles. While 500MB isn't masses, it's enough to last you a month if you do most of your heavy downloading over Wi-Fi.

Of course, the trouble with the 3 deal is that most of the people you want to speak to aren't going to be on 3 as well. So, for minutes, it's not necessarily the best option. Even when you take the package up by a further £10, you only reach 300 minutes which probably won't be enough. In fact, the closer you look, the more you notice that nobody wants to hand out any network anytime minutes. They seem to be the key and the place that the providers are forcing the customers to spend. The best you can manage is either to be organised enough or have your life run in such a way that you do all your calling over the weekend. In that instance, Vodafone is probably the best bet with the Weekend Freebee kicking in for free calls if you spend £5 of your credit during the week. Still though, only 60 minutes of those can be to non-Vodafone UK mobiles.

So, when it boils down to it, the best bonus for free talk time is probably Tesco's Triple Credit deal. There's no issues with how you use your extra credit and no need to top up at certain times to get it. It might not work out as quite as "unlimited" as the other glitzy headlines, but there's certainly lots of free flexibility. £10 tripled and used largely to your five frequent numbers works out as about 300 minutes of calls and the only other network to offer anything similar to that is O2's Simplicity package. Lastly on talk time, if you happen to notice that you make 90 per cent of your calls to a very small number of people, then Vodafone Family offers excellent value. A fiver a month buys you as much talk time as you like between four of you. The only issue is that you all need to be on Vodafone in the first place.

Finally, while 3 and Tesco Mobile offer good value for text and web and talk time respectively some people want a little more fun with their PAYG workings. Both O2 Rewards and Vodafone Bonus Bank add a certain interesting incentive although you should bear in mind that it will take up quite some time to build a decent amount of cash in the bank. Modest users won't amass much at all and those who manage to pile it in with frequent top ups might want to wonder whether it's time to move over to a pay monthly agreement.

If you really want to get you kicks, though, it has to be either O2 or Orange. The Monkey deal is fantastic for music fans with almost limitless streaming at you fingertips and the O2 Surprises is pure comedy amusement with a touch of National Lottery thrown in as well.

So, in conclusion, 3 is where to go for cheap mass texts and data; Tesco Mobile, O2 and maybe Vodafone for minutes and for the fun it's all about Orange and O2 - with Wednesdays and the Arena the icing on their cakes.

So which is your favourite bonus freebie and what are the deals that you'd like to see come to PAYG? Let us know in the comments.

Vodafone has introduced Vodafone Freebees on Pay as you go - where customers get great value pay as you go price plans with free texts and web access, or international calls when they top up. Go to for more information