6 tips for savvy holiday shipping

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Now that you’ve managed to purchase all the items on your gift list, make sure you don’t drain your bank account in order to ship them.

Here’s how to determine what shipping options will get your gifts to their destination safely, on time and without busting your budget.

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1. Time is of the essence

When it comes to shipping your gifts, there is no shortage of options. The U.S. Postal Service, FedEx Corp., and pack-and-ship companies, such as The UPS Store, all have various services available to get your gifts to their destinations on time.

But the faster you need your items to get there, the more you’re going to pay. Ground service could take as much as five to eight days, and the package goes from truck to truck to truck, while flight delivery services can get your goods to their destination as soon as overnight.

“The earlier you ship, the more options you have,” says Megan Belt, a spokeswoman for The UPS Store.

Holiday mailing guidelines for the U.S. Postal Service
Location Letters and cards Priority Mail Express Mail Parcel Post
Anywhere in the U.S. Dec. 21 Dec. 21 Dec. 23 Dec. 16
USPS holiday mailing guidelines for military mail
Addressed to APO/FPO Letters and cards Priority Mail Express Mail Parcel Post Parcel Airlift Mail Space Available Mail
AE, ZIPs 090-092 Dec. 11 Dec. 11 Dec. 18 Nov. 13 Dec. 4 Nov. 28
AE, ZIPs 093 Dec. 4 Dec. 4 N/A Nov. 13 Dec. 1 Nov. 21
AE, ZIPs 094-098 Dec. 11 Dec. 11 Dec. 18 Nov. 13 Dec. 4 Nov. 28
AE, ZIPs 340 Dec. 11 Dec. 11 Dec. 18 Nov. 13 Dec. 4 Nov. 28
AE, ZIPs 962-966 Dec. 11 Dec. 11 Dec. 18 Nov. 13 Dec. 4 Nov. 28

2. Compare costs

Your least-expensive option will depend on how far you’re sending the package and how soon you need it to arrive. A 3-pound package being shipped from New York to Washington, D.C., would cost $6.20 via the U.S. Postal Service’s Parcel Post service — the slowest ground service offered. That same package would cost $6.25 via Priority Mail, with an expected two-day delivery and $22.20 via Express Mail, which would land it to its destination overnight.

One of the benefits of shipping via FedEx is you can designate more clearly what time a package needs to arrive. That same 3-pound package being shipped via FedEx may be scheduled to arrive the same day, or by 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m. or 3 p.m. the next day, with prices ranging from $28.06 to $66.87.

One of the best things about the Internet is that the largest shipping companies, including the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx and The UPS Store, all let you figure out the cost of service from the comfort of your own computer. As long as you know how much your package weighs, you can find out how much it will cost to get your package to its destination in various amounts of time.

3. The hassle factor

Cost isn’t the only thing to consider. With so many obligations during the holiday season, it may be worth a little extra money to save you some time. Pack-and-ship companies, such as The UPS Store and FedEx Office, give busy shoppers a respite by actually packing the boxes.

“Our associates and our franchise owners are certified packing experts,” says Belt. Even if you have enough time to pack items yourself, if you’re shipping fragile items, it might be worth the peace of mind of having the items packed by a professional. Another way to save time and hassle is to order your shipping products in advance. Check the Web sites of shipping companies to order necessities like boxes, tape and shipping labels.

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.

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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.”