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What's the Cheapest Way to Ship a Package: UPS, FedEx or USPS?

Want to know how much each shipping service charges for standard and expedited deliveries? We did the math.

A child holds three differently sized boxes to the right of a decorated Christmas tree
The holiday season can mean lots of packages and lots of shipping.
Elva Etienne/Getty Images

It's almost that time of year again -- and for early shoppers, the holiday gift season is already in full swing. Deals for this year's gift-giving season started long before Black Friday, and bargain-conscious shoppers have reaped major savings from online sales at Amazon, Walmart and Target.

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Shopping online (with automatic wrapping and gift receipts, of course) has become the easiest way to send gifts to friends and relatives in distant lands, but what about homemade gifts or presents purchased from local merchants? Or gifts you simply want to wrap yourself?

You might also travel for the holidays and need to ship home your kids' cache of presents, especially if they're large or bulky. ( I've shipped home boxes of kids' presents from their grandparents' house several years -- we love board games.)

For all those cases, you're gonna need to pack a box and ship it, usually with the US Post Office, UPS or FedEx. Conventional wisdom (or maybe just my dad) says UPS is the cheapest for big boxes, but how much will it really cost you to ship boxes a cubic foot and up? Luckily for you, we did the math to find out which is the cheapest shipping company for different box sizes and weights.

How much does standard shipping cost at UPS, FedEx and USPS?

If you're looking to send a large package as cheaply as possible, and you're not worried about the timing, congratulations! You just saved yourself a lot of money. All of the delivery options at FedEx, UPS, and USPS are much cheaper for standard deliveries (five to seven days) than they are for expedited deliveries.

The blinking subtext here is obvious: to save yourself stress and money: send your holiday packages early.

Here's what it costs to send boxes of four common sizes halfway across America. All of these prices are based on residential deliveries.

Cost of mailing a package standard delivery with UPS Ground, FedEx Home Delivery and USPS Ground Retail from Berkeley, California to Lebanon, Kansas

Package Size Package Weight USPS Retail Ground UPS Ground FedEx Home Delivery
12" x 12″ x 12" 5 pounds $17.25 $32.51 $34.55
18" x 14" x 12" 8.75 pounds $40.55 $45.39 $49.59
18″ x 18″ x 16" 15 pounds $90.15 $68.68 $75.90
24″ x 24″ x 18″ 30 pounds $130.45 $122.85 $134.94

While it's clear that the Postal Service is much cheaper for the smaller 1-cubic-foot box, once you add a little size and weight the prices get more competitive. UPS Ground takes the lead with the cheapest prices for the 3- and 6-cubic-foot box, the largest of our examples. (I guess my dad was right.)

Even if you don't care when a package arrives, you probably want to consider delivery times. USPS Ground Retail estimates deliveries in about a week, while UPS Ground usually estimates four days, and FedEx Home Delivery can vary from 5-7 days based on distance.

How much does expedited delivery cost at UPS, FedEx and USPS?

You're gonna have to pay more to ensure that packages arrive sooner -- there's no question about that. But how much more? 

Here's what it costs to send the same standard packages through the same origin and destination as in our previous data, but at the next higher shipping rate of three-day delivery.

Cost of shipping a package with expedited delivery with UPS 3 Day Select, FedEx Express Saver and USPS Priority Mail from Berkeley, California, to Lebanon, Kansas

Package Size Package Weight USPS Priority Mail UPS 3 Day Select FedEx Express Saver
12-inch x 12-inch x 12-inch 5 pounds $21.35 $79.99 $98.15
18-inch x 14-inch x 12-inch 8.75 pounds $51.20 $109.24 $135.58
18-inch x 18-inch x 16-inch 15 pounds $99.10 $156.78 $214.80
24-inch x 24-inch x 18-inch 30 pounds $144.40 $297.44 $391.84

The takeaway on three-day shipping? If you have access to a US Post Office and you're willing to wait in line, you'll save quite a bit using Priority Mail to get your packages where they need to go in about half a week. The prices for three-day delivery increase significantly at UPS and FedEx, with the former listing prices three or four times higher for small boxes, about 50% to 125% more for medium boxes, and two to three times higher for the largest boxes. 

It's interesting to notice that Priority Mail prices for shipping larger than 5-pound packages are less than $2 more than the flat rate for a large Priority Mail box -- usually $19.95 -- even though our box has about twice the volume. 

Instead of cramming all your gifts into the 12.25-inch x 12.25-inch x 6-inch large Priority Mail flat-rate box from USPS, you can spend just a few dollars more to send a box that's significantly bigger. Just watch your weight on the lighter packages -- bumping up our 12-inch x 12-inch x 12-inch box from 5 pounds to 10 pounds for its trip from California to Kansas increases its Priority Mail price by almost 50%, from $21.35 to $31.50.

How do UPS, FedEx and USPS calculate their shipping prices?

The standard rates for sending packages with all of the three services are based on a combination of weight (or dimensional weight) and distance. Each shipping company divides the country up into eight to 10 shipping "zones" that determine the cost of your shipment and how long it will take to deliver. The farther your package has to travel, the higher zone level you'll need to pay for.

UPS, FedEx and the US Postal Service all offer zone charts or spreadsheets that show which zone you'll need to use when you send your package.

The services use weight and zone to calculate shipping prices, but for large boxes, weight often becomes "dimensional weight," or how much space the box will take up. To calculate dimensional weight, determine the volume of your box in cubic inches, divide by 166 for UPS and USPS or 133 for FedEx, and then round up.

The billable weight of your package will be whichever number is higher -- the weight in pounds or the dimensional weight. For example, in our 24-inch x 24-inch x 18-inch example, the weight was 30 pounds, but the dimensional weight would be much higher -- 63 pounds for UPS and USPS, or 78 pounds for FedEx.

Once you have a billable weight and a zone, you can simply match up your numbers on the pricing charts for FedEx, UPS and the US Postal Service to see how much your package will cost.

How I calculated shipping prices for UPS, USPS and FedEx

For boxes, I started at "small big" and got bigger. I selected standard dimensions for boxes from 1 to 6 cubic feet. These boxes are all bigger than the largest USPS Priority Mail flat rate box of 12.25-inch x 12.25-inch x 6-inch, but the largest is smaller than a wardrobe box.

12-inch x 12-inch x 12-inch (1 cubic foot.) I call this one the "smaller large box." It doesn't look big, but you can fit all kinds of presents into it. Great for a large batch of baked goods or a huge cache of homemade candies.

18-inch x 14-inch x 12-inch (1.75 cubic feet) This one is my "standard moving box" --  the sort in which you can stack plates lengthwise. It's a good size for shipping an entire family's load of presents (if small and packed tightly).

18-inch x 18-inch x 18-inch (3 cubic feet.) - Imagine a box for a large blanket, or a big batch of thrift-store T-shirts. If your shipment is bigger than what fits in a standard moving box or you'd like to provide extra wrapping and cushioning around large fragile presents, put it in here.

24-inch x 24-inch x 24-inch (6 cubic feet) - Here's your "toss everything in it" box for shipping all your kids' presents home from the grandparents' house (particularly if said grandparents tend to buy gifts that are too big to carry on a plane).

I set a standard weight of 5 pounds per cubic foot, so our boxes weigh 5, 8.75, 15 and 30 pounds, respectively, although the sizes of the boxes generally mean that dimensional weight will be used. 

I calculated shipping rates for the US Postal Service, FedEx and UPS for sending packages from my town of Berkeley, California, to Lebanon, Kansas (the geographical center of the US).

I calculated prices for both standard (five to seven days) and expedited (three days) deliveries using the online shipping calculators for FedEx, UPS and the US Postal Service. (Once you get into two-day and overnight deliveries for large packages, you're approaching shipping rates that rival airfare.)

What's the cheapest service for shipping holiday packages?

The biggest conclusion to glean from this survey of holiday box shipping prices is that you want to start mailing your packages early. The faster you need your packages delivered, the more you're going to pay, and the costs of overnight and two-day shipping increase exponentially -- if you want to send that largest box above overnight? That'll be $709.22 with FedEx or $605.78 with UPS. (USPS doesn't offer one-day service at that size and route, but two-day delivery will cost you $444.15.)

The other conclusion is that my dad was basically right. For standard delivery of your largest packages, UPS is probably going to be your cheapest option. For smaller packages, the Postal Service offers a distinct cost advantage. Your packages of intermediate size are where the real competition begins. If your packages are in that gray zone, be sure to calculate your shipping costs exactly using each of the service's online tools to figure out which offers the best savings for you.