smart spending

6 tips for savvy holiday shipping

4. Look for deals

If you have a lot of items to send a good distance away, look for ways to cut costs. For example, look for flat-rate boxes, which may benefit those who have a lot to ship to the same location.

"When you use a flat-rate box, it doesn't matter where it's going, it doesn't matter how much it weighs, it doesn't matter what you've stuffed in that box, it all goes at $9.85 (the cost for the U.S. Postal Service box) -- anywhere in the country," says Joanne Veto, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service. Likewise, local pack-and-ship companies may offer holiday deals to better compete with the post office and the national companies.

One of the best deals happens on Dec. 17. That's Free Shipping Day, when online shoppers will get free shipping on purchases made at participating retailers. And all of the retailers guarantee delivery by Christmas day. You can also find free shipping deals year-round at freeshipping.org.

5. Protect your investment

Chances are, your gifts will arrive at their destinations. But if they don't, are you willing to take a financial loss? Know the consequences, should your gifts get lost or arrive damaged, before you have them shipped.

FedEx does not offer insurance, but "what customers can do is declare a value on a package," says Carla A. Boyd, a spokeswoman for FedEx, and customers will be reimbursed up to that amount, should the item get lost or damaged. FedEx also offers a money-back guarantee if items don't arrive by the time they are quoted. Normally, this benefit means FedEx will refund your money if the item is a minute late, but during the holiday season, there's a 90-minute grace period before your money would be returned.

If you use a pack-and-ship store for packing services, you may get even more protection at no extra cost. For example, if a customer uses The UPS Store's packing services and the gift is then damaged or lost, "the customer will get the value back for packaging materials and the service that they paid for shipping the item and obviously the value of the item itself," says Belt.

6. Pack wisely

If you choose to pack your items yourself, make sure you choose the proper type of box: "Not a shirt box like if you go to Macy's and buy a shirt and you get a gift box -- that's just going to get smashed up in the machinery," says Veto. "You want a heavier box and you want it to be as clean as possible."

When packing your box, don't use duct tape or string because they may get caught in the automated machinery that's used to process mail. Also, when wrapping electronic items or gifts that have batteries, take the batteries out of the item and wrap them separately within the box.

"Everything shifts when you put it in the mail," says Veto. If the "on" button inadvertently switches on and your gift starts ticking, it may spark a security scare, which could lead to it getting damaged or destroyed.

Wrap your items as securely as possible. "If you pick up the box and the item moves back and forth (inside), you want to go back in and put some more material in there," says Veto. Bubble Wrap, old newspaper and packing peanuts will all do the trick.

Finally, address the gift properly. Not only should the address of the sender and the recipient be on the outside of the package, but the U.S. Postal Service suggests that you put that information on an index card inside of the package in case the box is damaged or inadvertently opens during transit.

While there may seem to be a lot to consider, the most important thing is to get your items off as soon as possible. "We do so much volume during the holidays," says Veto, that "the earlier you mail, the better."

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