People who rely on corrective lenses to see their way through the world are all too familiar with the financial squeeze of prescription eyewear, which hits the mid-triple-digit zone in short order. But those on a tight budget with straightforward lens requirements can find relief in the flourishing online prescription eyeglasses market. Cheapism.com pored over comments posted by consumers and independent review sites to identify the best cheap glasses websites. We found that for less than $50, consumers can order a pair of good-looking frames with single-vision lenses.
Cheap Eyeglasses Buying Guide
There's no shortage of competition among prescription eyewear websites. At the higher end are providers such as Glasses.com, where designer frames start at $77 without lenses, and Eyeglasses.com, which also sells designer frames and turns finding prices into a treasure hunt. The provider with the most buzz these days is Warby Parker, which has opened dozens of bricks-and-mortar stores and charges a minimum $95 for a standard single-vision frame-lenses combination -- nearly twice the Cheapism budget.
At the cheaper end of the category, the best online eyewear providers are Zenni Optical (starting at $6.95) and 39 Dollar Glasses (starting at $39), followed by Coastal (starting at $35) and Goggles4U (starting at $6.95). Each site offers a wide selection of men's and women's eyeglasses, limited offerings for kids, optional lens upgrades, a decent return policy, a user-friendly interface, and generally solid reviews. The site that didn't make the cut is GlassesShop (starting at $20), which maintains a stingy return policy, draws barbs for service, and garners far fewer reviews on which to base a recommendation. We also seriously considered EyeBuyDirect, another online seller of cheap glasses that claims fervent fans. But with only a couple hundred reviews to its name -- many of which are highly critical -- it lacks the draw of the best sites on our list.
Even at the low-cost sites, it's certainly possible to spend big bucks on a new pair of specs: Choose a pricey frame, upgrade the lenses, go for all the extra coatings, order bifocals or progressives, or submit a strong prescription that calls for ultra-thin lenses or prism correction. For the most part, though, the bottom line at the prescription glasses websites still undercuts a private optometrist or eyewear chain such as LensCrafters or Pearle Vision. Costco, Sam's Club, and Walmart also sell glasses at low cost, but they lack the range of options and interactive websites that characterize online glasses shops.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Ordering eyewear online requires a prescription. The Federal Trade Commission's Prescription Release Rule requires optometrists and ophthalmologists to give this information to patients. Make sure the prescription includes pupillary distance, or PD, a critical measurement not typically written down. If it's not included, follow the instructions offered by the eyeglasses sites for measuring PD.
The process goes more smoothly for customers who have a rough idea of their preferred frame styles and the size that fits their face. Experts recommend trying on glasses at a retail store and noting all the relevant information, including frame width, lens height and width, bridge width, and arm length. Alternatively, refer to an old, favorite pair of glasses and check the arms or bridge to see if the measurements are printed inside the frames. If not, measure the dimensions with a ruler and then use the site filters (sometimes given as extra small, small, medium, large) to search for frames with measurements that closely correspond.
Eyewear Website Reviews
Reviews on sites such as ResellerRatings and Yelp indicate that most patrons of the best cheap prescription glasses sites seem satisfied with the quality, and especially with the cost, of their new spectacles. Still, complaints dog them all. Delivery can be painfully slow, order tracking can be misleading, customer service can be indifferent, and the delivered eyewear may be unflattering or ill-fitting.
One of the biggest risks associated with ordering cheap eyeglasses online is the possibility of receiving an incorrect prescription. Sometimes even a straightforward correction for distance or reading lenses proves defective. Significant discrepancies are quickly apparent, but subtle errors are less noticeable. Lenses with the wrong vision correction or pupillary distance can cause headaches and negatively affect sight. It's a good idea to take glasses purchased online to an optometrist to confirm their accuracy.
Consumers generally say the quality of the frames is acceptable. Online reviewers express the most enthusiasm for the low prices, relishing the opportunity to build a wardrobe of spectacles. We came across a number of posts griping about frames with hinges that don't work properly, color coating that flakes off, and outright failure during a passive activity such as watching TV -- but only muted outrage when a pair of glasses falls apart. The simple and widespread explanation is that they're cheap enough to replace.
What We Considered
Selection.In addition to beating the bricks-and-mortar competition on price, online glasses websites outdo them on frame selection. Unconstrained by the dimensions of a showroom, they can and do stock hundreds of styles in a variety of materials and a riot of colors -- rimless and semi-rimless, plastic and metal, round or rectangle or cat's eyes, black or green or purple or red or two-tone, and so on.
Almost all the online glasses shops we researched carry generic frames; Zenni Optical even designs and manufactures its inventory. Coastal, by contrast, offers brand names such as Balmain, Dior, and Alexander McQueen that are hardly cheap, as well as several less expensive house brands that sit within the Cheapism zone. All the sites sell prescription sunglasses, with the exception of Coastal (Goggles4U can apply a permanent tint to only one type of lens but does offer photochromic lenses that respond to sunlight). Coastal and 39 Dollar Glasses sell contact lenses, as well, and the latter can put new lenses in a pair of frames that a customer is loath to give up.
Prescriptions.All the sites we researched theoretically can accommodate almost any prescription, including prism correction. That said, consumer reviews indicate that the simpler the prescription, the greater the chances that the delivered lenses will be problem free.
Complex prescriptions for progressives seem to cause the most grief at all the sites we researched. Disappointed patrons complain about flaws such as segments that don't align on the two lenses and blurred vision at the far reaches. Although manufacturer errors do occur, it's also possible that improper correction may reflect a prescription that the wearer entered incorrectly into the template. The vast majority of patrons of the best cheap online glasses shops report that lens accuracy is spot on.
Lens Options.These days, eyeglass lenses are made from CR-39 plastic, polycarbonate, or polycarbonate composite, or a high-index plastic. Polycarbonate is lighter and more impact resistant than CR-39, making it the compound of choice for safety lenses and kids' eyewear. Polycarbonate lenses provide UV protection and are better for stronger prescriptions, because they are comparatively thin. Polycarbonate composite can be made even thinner than a non-composite lens and tolerate tinting, which pure polycarbonate cannot. High-index plastic lenses likewise are thinner and lighter than regular CR-39 lenses.
Each of the eyewear sites we researched offers a range of lens indexes, starting at 1.50, 1.57, or 1.59 and topping out at 1.67 or 1.74, depending on provider. Eyewear sites generally indicate the lens match for any given prescription. As the prescription gets stronger, the recommended lens index increases and the lens thins out -- and the price rises accordingly. Lenses made of polycarbonate rather than CR-39 often come at a premium, depending on provider, and may be available only for certain lens indexes. At Coastal, for example, 1.59-index polycarbonate lenses with scratch-resistant and UV-protective coatings are included in the cost of the frame; moving up to a 1.67 index automatically adds an anti-reflective coating and boosts the price by $85. At Zenni Optical, the standard is 1.50-index CR-39 plastic lenses or mid-index polymer lenses, and the same single-vision 1.59-index polycarbonate lenses offered for free at Coastal would be $9. But upping the index to 1.67 at Zenni Optical costs only $34.95. Bifocal and progressive lenses up the overall ante no matter where glasses are purchased, but especially at Coastal.
All the glasses sites we researched throw in anti-scratch lens coating at no cost. Our top picks automatically provide UV-protective coatings, as well. Sometimes an anti-reflective coating is part of the package with costlier, higher index lenses. Other optional add-ons that increase the bottom line: tinted or polarized lenses, water-repellent coating, lenses that protect eyes from the blue light emitted by digital devices, and generic photochromic or Transitions brand lenses that adjust from clear to dark depending on the surroundings. Note that coatings and lens options may be limited to specific lens indexes.
Website Interface.The best online retailers of budget eyeglasses maintain user-friendly websites. There are numerous search options and filters -- gender, size, frame style, material, and best sellers, for example -- and a step-by-step ordering process. Customers can upload a photo and virtually "try on" as many frames as they like; 39 Dollar Glasses lets users print an image of a frame to cut out and try on. The sites also provide guides for matching frame style with face shape. After selecting a frame, users choose the lens type and input their prescription. Then comes an opportunity to add extras, such as tints and coatings. As each choice is made, users can see a running tally of the total before finally arriving at checkout.
The best eyewear websites also contain lots of helpful information about vision, lenses, understanding a prescription, and measuring pupillary distance. Zenni Optical and 39 Dollar Glasses post explanatory and instructional videos and each has an extensive FAQ section, while those at Coastal, Goggles4U, and GlassesShop are comparatively bare-bones. All the sites make direct contact easy. Customers can reach a representative via email or phone, and chat is often available. (At time of writing, the Coastal site had just been redesigned and many features were not yet up and running.)
Come-ons for better deals are featured prominently on some sites. Consumers are greeted with a buy-one-get-one offer right on the home page at Goggles4U. Weekly deals and coupon offerings are displayed as soon as the GlassesShop site opens, and a pop-up offers a 15 percent discount to first-timers just for entering their email address.
Customer Service.From consumers' point of view, customer service can make or break an eyewear website. This includes not just interaction with company representatives but also shipping. Reviewers' assessments of these factors is both positive and negative for all the sites we researched, with some providers garnering relatively more commendations and others relatively more censure.
Processing and shipping times vary by site. Zenni Optical stipulates 14 to 21 days with standard ground shipping, for example, while 39 Dollar Glasses says the vast majority of orders are processed within three days and standard shipping should get glasses to customers' homes within another week. Orders for strong prescriptions or multifocals take longer. In a comparison and ranking of 11 sites, including four of the budget providers we researched, TopTenReviews calculated the category average minimum shipping time at 6.82 days and the maximum at 10.45 days. Not surprisingly, patrons of even the best cheap online glasses purveyors lodge complaints about tardy shipping and orders that don't arrive.