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Guide to Cheap Shipping

Overall we found there is no contest when it comes to price. In our shipping cost comparison, the Postal Service offered the cheapest rates almost across the board, from ground shipping to speedier options.

It also stands out with free Saturday delivery and generally keeps up with its private-sector counterparts in areas such as on-time delivery and tracking. However, consumers who need same-day delivery or overnight shipments delivered first thing in the morning must turn to FedEx or UPS. The Postal Service has also fallen farther behind the private sector in customer satisfaction.

All three couriers offer a range of shipping options, some cheap and others not so much. You can send books across the country for less than $5 with U.S. Postal Service Media Mail or pay more than $150 to have FedEx or UPS rush a 10-pound package across the country with guaranteed delivery at the start of the next business day. In between these extremes are options for regular ground shipping, two- or three-day service, and less urgent overnight delivery, all priced according to size, weight, origin, and destination.

Our research into cheap shipping options drew on several sources of information. We read dozens of online customer reviews, many harshly critical, but weighed these comments against the knowledge that the three providers handle billions of packages every year, and the vast majority arrive undamaged and on time. We also factored in customer satisfaction and reliability surveys, retail presence, and perks such as complimentary supplies and free Saturday delivery.

The U.S. Postal Service is the oldest and biggest of the group, dating back to colonial times. It processed 160 billion pieces in 2012 and would be a Fortune 100 company if it were private. Package deliveries decreased about 4.75 percent since 2012 and the agency continually threatens to end Saturday delivery in the face of budget shortfalls. Currently the Postal Service has about 31,250 retail offices. UPS claims more than 18,700 facilities, as well as 40,000 drop boxes. The 106-year-old company delivered more than 4.1 billion packages and documents worldwide in 2012. FedEx, formed in 1971, handles an average of more than 10 million shipments every day and provides a little more than 45,000 drop-off locations, most of which are drop boxes.

We focused primarily on cheap shipping within the continental United States but also took a brief look at international shipping, as well as options for overweight packages. E-commerce accounts for much of the volume these carriers handle, so we put together a bonus guide to free and cheap shipping for online shoppers, including an in-depth look at Amazon's Prime service.

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