Experts have two pieces of advice for this holiday season: Shop early and ship early.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a “confluence of events” that could delay shipments in the coming months, according to Sam Agyemang, co-founder of HaulerHub, a logistics platform.
“It’s not just because (the holidays) are high-demand,” Agyemang says. Instead, shipping companies are dealing with a variety of labor issues, from not enough dock workers to unload shipment containers to fewer truck drivers moving packages.
Still, the three main shipment companies in the United States — U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx — should be able to provide reliable service heading into the holiday season. Using a lesser-known company could cuts costs, but service may suffer.
“While the cost to ship might be cheap, the package could be delivered damaged, late or not delivered at all,” says Anthony Nuzio, CEO and founder of ICC Logistics Services.
Keep reading to see which carriers offer the best service and the lowest rates depending on what you need to ship.
[Read: The Best Days to Shop in 2021.]
Cheapest Shipping Methods in the U.S.
While the U.S. Postal Service often has the most cost-effective prices, they have struggled in recent years with some shipping delays, Agyemang says. For small items, the USPS is still likely the way to go, but for larger packages, consider delivery times as well as price.
The following are the cheapest rates for various size packages. Pricing is based on starting rates for various services, and actual costs, of course, will depend on your location, shipping destination and other variables.
— Best shipping method for gift cards: USPS Priority Mail 2-Day Envelope
— Best shipping method for small packages: USPS Priority Mail 2-Day Small Flat Rate Box
— Best shipping method for medium and large packages: UPS Simple Rate
— Best shipping for oversized items: FedEx Home Delivery
— Best shipping for overnight delivery: USPS Mail Express 1-Day
Best Shipping Method for Gift Cards: USPS Priority 2-Day Mail Envelope
If you are mailing a gift card to someone, the cheapest way to send it would be to slip it into an envelope and send it first class mail from the post office. That would cost less than a dollar.
However, the USPS recommends using a padded envelope or other sturdy packaging to ensure gift cards reach their destination safely. By the time you buy the right envelope and add insurance, you may be better off going with USPS Priority 2-Day Mail, which costs $7.95.
The Postal Service will provide a free envelope for priority shipping. Plus, most priority mail comes with free tracking and up to $100 of insurance should the package be lost or damaged. As the name suggests, your gift should arrive in two days as well.
[Read: Best Budget Apps.]
Best Shipping Method for Small Packages: USPS Priority Mail 2-Day Small Flat Rate Box
Small gifts, such as socks, T-shirts and jewelry, may be best sent using the USPS Priority Mail 2-Day Small Flat Rate Box for $8.45. This box is approximately 8 inches long by 5 inches wide by 1 inch wide and comes with free tracking, insurance up to $100 and two-day delivery.
The runner-up in this category is FedEx Express Saver, which has prices starting at $9.95 for a small box sent through the FedEx One Rate service. Delivery will take approximately four days. Or you could use UPS Ground Service, with rates starting at $11.50, for delivery in about the same time frame.
Depending on the weight of your package, both could be cheaper than USPS Ground delivery, which may take a week to deliver a package.
Best Shipping Method for Medium and Large Packages: UPS Simple Rate
If price is your main consideration, send your medium and large boxes using UPS Simple Rate. Prices for medium boxes start at $13.90 while large boxes of up to 1,050 cubic inches have rates beginning at $18.40. FedEx is priced similarly with starting rates of $12.95 for a FedEx medium box and $20 for a FedEx large box.
However, if you want your package to arrive earlier — in two days rather than four — head to the post office for 2-Day Priority Mail. Its flat-rate boxes run $15.50 for a medium box and $21.90 for a large box.
If you are sending books, movies or music, your package should be eligible for USPS Media Mail, which is the cheapest way to ship a box. Prices start at $3.19 for a 1-pound package. However, it is also the slowest method to ship and will take at least a week. Plus, media mail doesn’t come with tracking or insurance, which makes it less than ideal for gifts or other important shipments.
Best Shipping for Oversized Packages: FedEd Home Delivery
For furniture and other heavy or bulky items, you’ll have to look elsewhere than the U.S. Postal Service. Priority Mail through the USPS can’t weigh more than 70 pounds. That means UPS or FedEx will be your best bet for oversized packages. Both carriers will ship up to 150 pounds with their regular shipping services.
Pricing for large packages can depend on weight, dimensions and the destination. “It’s always difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison,” Agyemang notes.
However, assuming you are sending a 100-pound box from New York to California, FedEx Home Delivery narrowly beats out UPS when it comes to shipping cross-country. Its quote is $178 with delivery in four days. UPS Ground Service also has a four-day transit time for a price of $180.61.
Best Shipping for Overnight Delivery: USPS Mail Express 1-Day
Sending a package overnight will be expensive regardless of which carrier you use. However, using Mail Express 1-Day service from the U.S. Postal Service will likely be your cheapest option. Prices at the post office start at $26.75 for a 1-pound package with delivery by 6 p.m.
Meanwhile, UPS Next Day Air Saver will deliver by 8 p.m. at prices that start at $28.27 for a 1-pound shipment. FedEx prices run $36.30 for next-day delivery of a FedEx small box by 3 p.m.
Before spending extra, check the delivery times for cheaper services first. “Some folks pay for expedited shipping when in fact ground shipping would provide the same … transit times,” Nuzio says. Again, it depends on where you are shipping to and from.
Regardless of which service you use, remember that shipment time frames may not be guaranteed during the pandemic. Last-minute shopping and shipping could lead to holiday disappointment if there are delays this year.
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Update 09/23/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.