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Tip No. 3: Be sure to package your gifts in strong, corrugated cardboard boxes. Check the bottom of the box for a weight limit. Don’t wrap the outer box in any kind of paper; it could tear off and your gift could be lost or delayed.
By Laura T. Coffey
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/14/2006 9:36:26 AM ET 2006-12-14T14:36:26

The boxes. The bubble wrap. The packing peanuts. The uncooperative roll of tape. Shipping gifts at this time of year can be a colossal pain in the neck – not to mention a pain in the pocketbook.

Are there tricks for sending the fruitcake to your Aunt Louise, the LEGO set to little Jimmy, the books to your Uncle John and the heavy cookware to your Mom? You bet there are.

The following tips will help you ship holiday packages safely and in the least expensive way, depending on your needs.

1. Don’t dawdle. If you procrastinate about sending your gifts on their merry way, you may find yourself spending much more money on expensive – and in many cases, utterly avoidable – next-day-air service for shipments to other parts of the country.

2. Do your shopping on the Web. Online retailers will package and ship gifts for you so you don’t have to worry about it at all. Many will even gift-wrap presents and allow you to include personalized notes and gift receipts.

3. Choose the right box. If you forgo the online route and need to ship gifts yourself, be sure to package them in strong, corrugated cardboard boxes. Check the bottom of the box for a weight limit. Don’t wrap the outer box in any kind of paper; it could tear off and your gift could be lost or delayed. (U.S. Postal Service, UPS, DHL and some FedEx boxes are free.)

4.  Use the right packing materials. Invest in some packing peanuts and bubble cushioning, especially if you’re sending anything fragile. Leave enough space between items in the box, and wrap individual items with double cushioning if necessary.

5. Ship perishables correctly. Send baked goods, meats, cheeses and fruits on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, ideally via next-day delivery. If you send them on a Thursday or Friday, make sure the foods can handle extremely hot or cold temperatures for up to four days. This may require the use of frozen gel packs.

6. Know how to send high-dollar items. Ship expensive jewelry and other valuables via next-day delivery in a box no smaller than 7-by-4-by-2 inches. Look into insuring the item through your insurance company, since most shipping companies put limits on claim amounts. Don’t attach anything to the outside of the box that would reveal the item’s value.

7. Shop around. To get a sense of how much it will cost to send a package somewhere, call these numbers and use the automated rate services: U.S. Postal Service, (800) ASK-USPS (275-8777); FedEx, (800) GO-FEDEX (463-3339); UPS, (800) PICK-UPS (742-5877); DHL, (800) CALL-DHL (225-5345). You’ll need ZIP codes, the weight of the package and the gift’s basic shape (so you can choose whether to ship it in a box, envelope or tube, for example).

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8. Know the basic differences in shipping costs. Here’s what it costs to send a 10-pound box from Seattle to Tampa using these specific services: UPS’s second-day air service, $47.72; FedEx’s two-day service, $45.38; DHL’s second-day service, $44.32; U.S. Postal Service’s Express Mail service (guaranteed overnight delivery, including on Christmas), $39.50; U.S. Postal Service’s Priority Mail Service (arrives in two to three business days), $20.25. You also can ask all of these carriers about slower and less costly ground-delivery services as well.

9. Consider a flat-rate box from the post office. It costs $8.10 to ship a Priority Mail Flat Rate Box anywhere in the country, and the box can accommodate up to 70 pounds. (The largest flat rate box measures about 13.6-by-11.9-by-3.4 inches.) Don’t use this box if your package weighs less than 2 pounds; in that case, a regular Priority Mail box would be cheaper.

10.  Understand when to pay more. If you find yourself facing a tough deadline or you need to be able to track a package, consider spending more on shipping through FedEx, UPS, DHL or Express Mail. UPS Stores, FedEx Kinko’s locations and DHL Authorized Shipping Centers can be convenient when you don’t have the time or desire to package gifts correctly; they’ll do it for you there.

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