What’s the Cheapest Way to Ship Packages?

A young woman opens a package she received quickly with overnight shipping
Photo by Syda Productions / Shutterstock.com

Whether it’s a birthday present or important documents, we all need to mail things from time to time. And we all have the same question: What is the cheapest way to ship a package?

As you might guess, the answer depends on a lot of factors that are hard to generalize, most of which we don’t have time to puzzle over the moment we need to mail something.

So, here’s a quick rundown comparing sample prices and restrictions among the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx, so you can always guess the cheapest shipping company even on your way out the door.

The cheapest way to mail a package overnight

If speed is the top priority, you know you’re going to pay a premium. How much depends on what you’re shipping.

The USPS’ guaranteed overnight service is called Priority Mail Express. Don’t get that confused with regular Priority Mail, which has an expected (but not guaranteed) delivery date of one to three days.

Priority Mail Express includes “overnight scheduled delivery by 10:30 am, and Sunday and holiday delivery available in many major markets for an additional fee,” tracking and up to $100 of insurance.

Packages must weigh 70 pounds or less, and have a combined length and girth (distance around the thickest part) of 108 inches or less. Size and shape matter a lot: Anything you can fit in a flat-rate envelope only costs $26.35, which is also the price at which larger packages start. For a sample self-packaged box of 6 by 6 by 6 inches, weighing 20 pounds and shipped from Seattle to Indianapolis, USPS quoted a price of $147.25.

The UPS guaranteed overnight service is called UPS Next Day Air, which comes in Early and Air Saver options. Early arrives by 9:30 a.m., while Air Saver arrives before 4:30 p.m.

For a half-pound package the same size as the largest U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail Express flat-rate envelope, the UPS website quoted a price of $68.60 for end of the next day. For our 6-by-6-by-6-inch sample package, it quoted a price of $199.12. Note that UPS also offers senior discounts on shipping for AARP members.

FedEx’s guaranteed overnight service comes in First Overnight for next-morning delivery (except to some remote areas), Priority Overnight for delivery by 10:30 a.m. (or later in the day for more remote areas), or Standard Overnight for delivery by 8 p.m. Packages must weigh 150 pounds or less, be up to 119 inches in length and have a combined length and girth of up to 165 inches.

For FedEx, our half-pound letter was quoted at $73.68 for Standard Overnight, while our 6-by-6-by-6-inch sample package came in at $205.43.

Based on these quotes, the Postal Service appears to be the cheapest way to ship boxes overnight to another state and the cheapest way to ship a small package or letter. But what if overnight isn’t a priority, or if you need to send internationally? Let’s look at those cases separately.

Cheapest way to send a package overall

If you take the “it gets there when it gets there” approach, the cheapest place to ship packages shifts dramatically.

Looking at a similar 6-by-6-by-6-inch package, this time from San Diego to New York City for variety’s sake, UPS can offer a Simple Rate for UPS Ground of $11.50, which should arrive within four days.

For the U.S. Postal Service, if the same 6-by-6-by-6-inch package can be squished into an 11-inch-by-8.5-inch-by-5.5-inch Priority flat-rate box, the price is $15.05 and arrives within three days. If it can’t fit and you’re forced to ship by Retail Ground, the price jumps to $64.10.

The best FedEx One Rate quote for the same package was a FedEx Express Saver rate of $21, arriving within three days.

At the time of this writing, it looks like in some cases, the cheapest way to send small packages domestically is UPS, especially if you’re eligible for the UPS senior discounts on shipping and products.

In other cases, USPS is cheaper. And if you can take advantage of the limited sizes that Postal Service flat-rate boxes come in, you can save even more for certain types of packages. Check out the dimensions of all USPS flat-rate boxes with pictures before you make a decision.

The cheapest way to ship internationally

If your package is headed outside the U.S., the calculus changes once again.

Our trusty, well-traveled 6-by-6-by-6-inch package would cost about $310 to ship from Miami to Tokyo via FedEx International Economy. It could take up to six days to arrive.

It’s about $323 via UPS Worldwide Expedited, also within six days. The senior discounts available to AARP members could make UPS slightly cheaper than FedEx.

But via USPS Priority Mail International, it’s as low as $77.50 if we can squeeze into a flat-rate box, or about $121 if we can’t. The time averages six to 10 business days, although it may be longer.

So if price is the primary consideration, the Postal Service wins another round. But if you need speed, FedEx wins this one.

To wrap it all up, it actually turns out we found a best-use case for each of the three major services, with quotes for completely random examples. But if time is on your side and you can fit your shipment into flat-rate boxes, the Postal Service is often the best deal.

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