Emails, texts and messaging may have largely replaced physical letters, but there is only so much you can send over the internet. Shipping carriers will continue to do brisk business as long as there are online auction items to deliver and long-distance birthday gifts to give.
The three main shipping companies in the United States – US Postal Service, UPS and FedEx – all provide relatively reliable service. However, you still might find yourself wondering:
- Which is cheaper: UPS or USPS?
- Which is cheaper: FedEx or UPS?
- Are some companies better at rush deliveries?
- Should you use an alternative shipping carrier?
“People have different things they are looking for,” notes Marc Gorlin, founder and CEO of Roadie, a delivery service based on crowdsourcing and owned by UPS.
Finding the cheapest way to ship packages is most important for some people while others may say the best way to ship is whichever option is fastest. Depending on your priorities, some shipping companies may be better than others.
“The major carriers specialize in different areas such as price, package size and delivery speed dimensions,” says Bryan Valdemar, senior product manager for GoDaddy, which owns Sellbrite, an e-commerce service for those selling goods online. “For example, USPS often has the most economical options for small, lightweight packages, while UPS is better for larger, heavier items. FedEx has a sweet spot in overnight options when speed is most important.”
Keep reading for a look at which carriers generally offer the best service and the lowest rates.
Cheapest Ways to Ship Based on Delivery Speed
While the US Postal Service often has the most cost-effective prices, they have struggled in recent years with some shipping delays. For small items, the USPS is still likely the way to go, but for larger packages, consider the delivery speed relative to the price.
Here’s a look at the cheapest postal service options and how fast they will arrive:
- First Class: Prices start at $4.50 for 2-5 day delivery
- Priority Mail: Prices start at $8.70 for 1-3 day delivery
- Priority Mail Flat Rate Boxes: Prices range from $9.45 to $21.50 for 1-3 day delivery
There are limitations though. First Class mail is only available for light packages weighing up to 13oz. After that, you’ll need to move to Priority Mail, but that $8.70 starting price is only for 1-pound packages being delivered to nearby zones.
For the USPS, flat rate boxes may be the best value since they can contain up to 70 pounds and be shipped across the county for a relatively low rate.
Both UPS and FedEx also offer ground delivery service with 1-5 day delivery times, but their starting rates are $11 and $9.36, respectively, for 1-pound packages that are delivered in a nearby zone.
UPS and FedEx also have one rate boxes that are similar to the USPS flat rate boxes. Simple rate ground shipping for UPS runs from $10.15 for extra small packages to $27.30 for extra large packages delivered in the contiguous 48 states. With FedEx, small boxes start at $12.05 and go to $39.10 for extra large boxes and three-day delivery.
However, price isn’t everything. “The USPS has really struggled in the past couple of years,” says Alison Sanchez, administrative assistant with the North Country Trail Association. As a nonprofit that works closely with the National Park Service, the NCTA uses the US Postal Service for retail mailings and promotional materials. However, for heavy or bulky items, Sanchez says they rely on UPS which seems to be more reliable for those deliveries.
Best Way to Ship Next Day
If you need delivery to be in a matter of hours, rather than days, you’ll need an express service such as same day or next day delivery.
Priority Mail Express from the US Postal Service will likely be your cheapest option among the three major carriers. Delivery times range from next day to two days, with regular pricing starting at $26.95 for a half pound package. Holiday and Sunday delivery costs extra.
Meanwhile, UPS Next Day Air Saver will deliver by the end of the next day at prices that start at $29.66 for a 1-pound shipment. This service may not be available in all areas, and Saturday delivery is not an option. FedEx Standard Overnight runs $31.22 for next-day delivery of a 1-pound shipment by 4:30 pm, assuming the delivery location is within 150 miles.
However, for short distant deliveries, the best way to ship may not be with a traditional carrier at all. Gorlin says customers may spend as little as $12 to have a small item delivered locally via Roadie, which is a crowdsourcing platform.
“(Users) set up a gig from here to there, and our system will find a ‘roadie’ to go get it,” Gorlin says. The process takes consumers minutes to complete, and in most cases, delivery can be made on the same day. Roadie drivers go through background checks, and deliveries are insured for $100, although more coverage can be purchased.
While Roadie offers service in 90% of the US, Gorlin says most deliveries are within 250 miles. The cheapest shipments will be those that cover 50 or fewer miles.
Best Way to Ship Internationally
Pricing for international shipments will vary dramatically depending on the destination. Canada is among the cheapest destinations, and pricing from the major carriers is as follows:
- USPS Priority Mail International Canada: Prices start at $40.45 for a 1-pound package or $30.70 for a small flat rate box of up to 4 pounds.
- UPS Worldwide Saver: Prices start at $72.96 for next day delivery of a 1-pound package.
- FedEx International Ground: Prices start at $22.61 for a 1-pound package.
DHL is another popular carrier for international shipments. Its pricing relies on the weight and size of the package and sending a small 1-pound box from the US to Canada will cost an estimated $81.90.
Cheapest Ways to Ship Packages by Size
The cost to ship items depends heavily on their size and weight, so choose wisely when packing goods.
“While conventional wisdom says to use the smallest cardboard box possible to minimize shipping costs, there is another widely-available option: poly mailers,” Valdemar says. These plastic bags can be padded or unpadded and are a good choice for clothing and inexpensive items. “Carriers charge less for these package types since they don’t take up as much space in delivery trucks,” according to Valdemar.
Here are the cheapest ways to ship based on what you are mailing.
- Best shipping method for gift cards: USPS Priority Mail Flat Rate Envelope.
- Best shipping method for small packages: USPS Priority Mail Small Flat Rate Box.
- Best shipping method for medium and large packages: UPS Simple Rate or FedEx One Rate.
- Best shipping for oversized items: UPS Ground Service.
Best Shipping Method for Gift Cards: USPS Priority Mail Flat Rate 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 that gift cards reach their destination safely. By the time you buy the right envelope and add insurance, you may be better off going with a USPS Priority Mail Flat Rate Envelope, which costs $8.95.
The Postal Service will provide a free envelope for priority shipping. Plus, most priority mail comes with free tracking and up to $50 of insurance should the package be lost or damaged.
Best Shipping Method for Small Packages: USPS Priority Mail Small Flat Rate Box
Small gifts, such as socks, T-shirts and jewelry, may be best sent using the USPS Priority Mail Small Flat Rate Box for $9.45. This box is approximately 8 inches long by 5 inches wide by 1 inch wide and comes with free tracking, insurance up to $50 and expedited delivery.
The runner-up in this category is FedEx Express Saver, which has prices starting at $12.05 for a small box sent through the FedEx One Rate service. Delivery will take approximately three days. Or you could use UPS Ground Service, with rates starting at $10.15, but delivery could take a week.
Best Shipping Method for Medium and Large Packages: UPS Simple Rate or FedEx One Rate
For medium and large packages, UPS Simple Rate and FedEx One Rate offer similar values.
When using UPS Simple Rate, prices for medium boxes start at $16.95 while large boxes of up to 1,050 cubic inches have rates starting at $22.95. FedEx is priced similarly with starting rates of $15.70 for a FedEx medium box and $24.20 for a FedEx large box.
For books, movies or music, packages will 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: UPS Ground Service
For furniture and other heavy or bulky items, you’ll have to look elsewhere than the US Postal Service. Priority Mail through the USPS cannot 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 destination. Assuming you are sending a 100-pound box from New York to California, UPS Ground Service is slightly more expensive than FedEx Home Delivery, but it says it can deliver two days faster. UPS quotes $191.64 with a four-day transit time while FedEx Home Delivery charges $187.80 for 6-day delivery.
If you only need to move something across town, rather than across the country, a crowdsourced option such as Roadie might be more economical.
Regardless of which service you use, remember that shipping rates may see increases if fuel costs don’t come down. The prices above are subject to change at any time.