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How to ship holiday gifts for less

Dec. 4, 2013 at 12:51 PM ET

Shipping via the U.S. Postal Service typically cost less than other delivery services in a comparison by Cheapism.com.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Shipping via the U.S. Postal Service typically cost less than other delivery services in a comparison by Cheapism.com.

There’s the North Pole address, the flying reindeer, and the predilection for fireplaces over front doors. But perhaps the most unbelievable thing about Santa Claus is guaranteed overnight delivery for the cost of milk and cookies. 

In a survey of shipping prices, Cheapism.com found rates of more than $100 for that service — or less than $40, depending on the provider. Absent a jolly old elf, it seems the next best thing is the U.S. Postal Service, which nearly always cost less than FedEx or UPS in Cheapism’s comparison, regardless of weight, destination or shipping method.

The most dramatic example of the difference in shipping rates: a 10-pound package traveling overnight from New York City to San Francisco. UPS charges $118.62 for delivery by 3 p.m. the next business day and $126.25 for delivery by 10:30 a.m., while FedEx comes out slightly cheaper, asking $114.57 and $122.16 for the same services. At the post office, the cost is $83.25 for scheduled delivery by 12 p.m. The Postal Service website, USPS.com, offers even bigger savings. Consumers who go online to print out a shipping label and schedule a pickup can send the same package across the country for $57.32.

The cheapest option of all in this scenario is a flat-rate box from the Postal Service, at $39.95. Anything that fits inside the provided packaging costs the same price to ship, no matter how far it’s traveling or how much it weighs (up to a maximum of 70 pounds). The longer the distance and the heavier the package, the greater the cost advantage. For less urgent shipments, there’s a one- to three-day flat rate of $12.35 at the post office and $11.30 online. The flat-rate options also extend to international shipments.

Cheapism’s full shipping cost comparison prices out numerous other methods for sending 5- and 10-pound parcels from New York to residential addresses in Chicago and San Francisco. The least expensive overall is Media Mail from the Postal Service, at $4.33 for the 5-pound package and $6.52 for the 10-pound package to both cities. The catch is that consumers can use this service only for gifts that qualify as “educational materials,” such as books and movies. It’s also not the most reliable option for peak-season delivery by Christmas, with an estimated time of eight days and no guarantee.

In general, the private shippers provide more choices for urgent shipping and offer money-back guarantees across the board. Both UPS and FedEx suspend their guarantees, however, as that all-important Dec. 24 deadline approaches. This year the last day for guaranteed ground shipping is Dec. 11 and expedited services get a 90-minute grace period beginning Dec. 18.

Of course, prices and delivery options aren’t the only considerations when dealing with precious cargo and a frenetic holiday schedule. Cheapism’s search for the best cheap shipping company also factored in reliability, convenience and customer service. FedEx perennially enjoys the highest rating in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, tallying 85 out of 100 this year to UPS’s 84. The Postal Service slid to 77 from an all-time high last year of 81. It fares better on the convenience front, with service six days a week and free Saturday delivery.

More from Cheapism:

Guide to price matching 

Holiday vs. everyday return policies 

Best ‘champagne’ under $20 

Comparing cheap cell phone plans 

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