Post Office Review

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The holidays bring the cost of shipping into sharp relief, as shoppers splurge on gifts for far-away family and friends and scramble to meet that Dec. 24 deadline. But consumers crave reliable, convenient, and cheap shipping options year-round. We've evaluated the three major carriers -- FedEx, United Parcel Service (UPS), and the U.S. Postal Service -- with the goal of identifying the best cheap shipping provider. We compared factors including cost, reliability, selection of services, and overall customer satisfaction.

A comparison of prices at UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service revealed that the Postal Service offers almost all the cheapest shipping options. Rates in our post office review ranged from $4.33 to send a 5-pound package from New York to Chicago via Media Mail (which can take more than a week and is limited to books and other educational items) to as low as $39.95 to overnight a 10-pound package from coast to coast. For most shipments, Priority Mail Flat Rate service is the least expensive option. It promises to get packages to destinations within the contiguous U.S. in one to three days. Faster services are more expensive but cost less if you go on USPS.com, print your own shipping label, and arrange for free pickup instead of visiting the post office.

In our post office review, we found that flat-rate boxes, available in several sizes for Priority Mail (one to three days) or Priority Mail Express (overnight to most locations), offer the greatest potential for savings. Items that fit in one of these boxes ship for the same price no matter where they're going or how much they weigh, up to a maximum of 70 pounds (20 pounds for international shipments). To give one example, it would cost less to send a 70-pound package across the country in a medium-size Priority Mail Flat Rate box than to ship a 5-pound box to the same place with FedEx or UPS.

Price was not the only consideration in our post office review, which also took account of factors such as reliability, customer satisfaction, and convenience. The Postal Service claims on-time delivery of 87.2 percent of parcels tracked internally in 2012 in its Package Services category, which includes Media Mail and Standard Post. That's up from 76.7 percent in 2011. While UPS and FedEx guarantee on-time delivery of all packages or your money back, the Postal Service provides guaranteed delivery times only for Priority Mail Express and generally offers fewer options for urgent and time-specific delivery. The Postal Service does provide free Saturday delivery, where FedEx and UPS often charge an additional fee, and now most Postal Service shipping options include tracking.

Customer satisfaction has dipped in the past year, according to a post office review by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, to 77 out of 100 compared with 81 in the 2012 report. UPS and FedEx sit at 84 and 85, respectively. In the Postal Service's own survey, conducted by an independent research firm, 88 percent of residential customers reported high levels of overall satisfaction in the third quarter of 2013. However, only about 61 percent said they were mostly or very satisfied with their most recent contact with the Postal Service.

The U.S. Postal Service is the oldest and largest domestic shipping provider, maintaining brick-and-mortar post offices even in small towns and rural areas (although it has cut back business hours and threatened to close many of those locations amid recent efforts to balance its budget). It counted 31,250 retail offices in 2012, fewer than the year before but still far more than FedEx or UPS. Given that it also beats its private-sector counterparts on price and effectively competes in areas such as reliability, the Postal Service is our top pick for cheap shipping despite its customer satisfaction.

Louis DeNicola

Louis DeNicola is a freelance personal finance writer who specializes in credit, debt, and practical money-saving tips. He loves stacking savings opportunities to get amazing deals, traveling for free using credit card rewards, and teaching others how to do the same. Connect with Louis by visiting louisdenicola.com.

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