Fastest, Lowest-Cost Holiday Shipping

If you still haven’t sent your gifts to friends and family around the country, don’t worry—the carriers are ready to whisk your packages to their destinations in time for Christmas Day. But which one should you use? FedEx, United Parcel Service , and the U.S. Postal Service all seem pretty similar. They deliver to nearly every address in the U.S. and they'll all get your parcels to more than 200 countries and territories. But there are some key differences:

Price. If cost is your main concern, the USPS is usually the way to go, but it pays to check around. We compared shipping costs offered by FedEx, UPS, and the USPS between 30 pairs of cities around the country for a medium-size package insured for $200 and for a larger package insured for $400. The USPS prices were best for next-day, second-day, and third-day delivery in almost all cases. But in fewer than 7 percent of the city pairs we looked at, either FedEx or UPS was cheaper.

To get the best price at the USPS, you must pay for shipping online by visiting the USPS website and also use the boxes provided by the USPS. If you don’t do either, you’ll pay more.

Packaging and delivery options. All the carriers offer ways to reduce shipping costs, even for speedy delivery. At the USPS, your best bet is to choose the flat-rate box deal; you’ll pay one price regardless of the package weight. A medium-size package costs $15 for second-day delivery.

There are ways to cut costs at the other carriers too. At UPS, the "Next Day Air Saver" option was, unsurprisingly, less expensive than the “Next Day Air Early” option. But the difference in price was significant. Sending a medium-size package for delivery by the end of the next day costs $95. But to deliver that same package by 8 a.m. the next day, costs much more, $130.

At FedEx, you can lower your costs by choosing the One Rate option, which is typically cheaper than its Standard Rate service. With One Rate, you select a standard box size, choose the kind of service you want (one-, two-, or three-day delivery) and pay the same fixed rate as long as the package is worth less than $100 and weighs under 50 pounds. The Standard Rate, by contrast, takes the package weight and dimensions into account.

Dependability. While FedEx and UPS usually charge more, we also found that their services were more dependable. Both carriers delivered more than 97 percent of their packages on time all year round, including during the hectic holiday season, according to ShipMatrix, a shipping software company.

The USPS, however, was not as dependable. It delivered just 77 percent of packages on time from October through December 2014, according to its own quarterly performance filing. (ShipMatrix did not have sufficient data on USPS deliveries.) However, those numbers do not include the Parcel Select or Priority Mail services, which are commonly used for holiday shipping, says Sarah Ninivaggi, a USPS spokeswoman. Taking those into account, Ninivaggi says more than 90 percent of USPS packages are delivered on time.

Delivery days. If you’re really leaving things to the last minute and you need a service that delivers on Christmas Day, your best bet among the three carriers is the USPS. While FedEx and UPS deliver only 307 days of the year (no Sundays or holidays), the USPS’ Next Day Priority Mail Express and guaranteed delivery service operates 365 days per year to select ZIP codes. Be prepared to pay a $12.50 surcharge.

There’s one more thing to keep in mind. The USPS can work all kinds of magic to get your package to its destination on Christmas Day. But it’s up to you to get it to the post office. You’ve got until noon on Christmas Eve.

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