Most of us instinctively link the need to send anything with a trip to the Post Office. Yet for the price-conscious, the internet's changed all that. The bar's been lowered on courier service prices, so they're now accessible to all.
Use these quick tips to help decide when a web courier service works for you:
Royal Mail's generally still cheapest for sending cards, letters and small parcels under 1kg (use its Price Finder - check dimensions carefully). The price jumps for heavier parcels - anything over 2kg costs over £13, and that's without tracking. Yet you can buy a 3-5 day service which includes this for under £6. See the best buys below.
Courier services are speedy, and many offer same-day collection if you book early enough. So for urgent deliveries, they may be the most economical option.
This is a hidden way for you to access big courier firms like DHL or UPS, but only pay the amount large companies do. These discounted courier services work as middlemen, who bulk-buy postage slots from big delivery agencies, then sell them to the public.
They're usually online based and notable companies include Parcel2Go*, MyHermes and MyParcelDelivery*. Before you use any company read ALL our key warnings below and see our Best Buys to find out which one is best for your package.
You can usually book a pick-up for the next day, depending on how early you email the postage form. But same-day pick-up is often available, provided you meet the daily cut-off time. It's usually before or around midday, but can be later.
The cheapest place to buy these discounted mail services used to be via online auction site eBay*, but now many of the top sellers have their own websites. Remember you'll generally be dealing with the middleman company, not the courier itself.
At this time of year it's worth checking Royal Mail and courier services, UPS or DHL, against discounted courier services, as they may be offering a stonking deal that beats their price.
Couriers calculate costs based on the size and weight of items. However, discount courier companies tend to offer flat-rate prices based around DHL and Parcelforce's standard maximum dimensions. As a rough guide, these are are generally about:
Max length 150 cm, max weight 30kg.
Of course, it varies depending on the company, so check first as some may offer larger sizes. If your parcel outguns these measurements, you may have to use a specialist courier. Some services also go by volume. To calculate the volume of your parcel in cubic metres, it's width times length, times height (all in centimeters), divided by 1,000,000.
This isn't just for cosmetic purposes. Poor packing may void postal insurance and compensation claims, so package goods properly. You never know how much they'll be thrown around in transit, so take the following precautions:
Be sure to measure and weigh your parcel accurately when getting a quote. If the package is bigger or heavier than stated, you may have to pay a surcharge.
Plus if it exceeds size restrictions, it may not fit in the courier company's sorting machines and could be damaged, or even returned to you.
If you try sending something over 31.5kg it may not be accepted, as safety guidelines mean goods of this weight should be carried by at least two people. This means you may need a specialist service - these may be offered, but will generally cost more.
Note for international shipments: International delivery costs can sometimes be calculated based on 'volumetric weight'. To work out the volumetric weight of your package, the calculations are usually length times height, times width (all in centimeters), divided by 5,000. This gives you the volumetric weight in kilograms.
Couriers have a list of 'forbidden' items they won't deliver, so your items may be inspected on collection. Because of this, it's sensible to leave the top of your packing box open until it's been inspected.
Easily-breakable items such as china or antiques are generally only carried by economy courier services on a 'no compensation' basis. So if they're valuable, look elsewhere.
All good packing requires is a bit of common sense. Wrap delicate items tightly in bubble wrap and use free cardboard boxes from supermarkets.
If you run out of bubble wrap or the item isn't very delicate, pad with screwed up newspaper. Some even recommend using popped popcorn (buy kernels in bulk, cook the popcorn without oil and let it cool). Yet if you're sending internationally, watch out as some countries have tight controls on importing food.
If you live near a large post office, look inside for packing materials - forumites have reported special delivery plastic post bags may be available for free.
Courier services make you fill in a booking form for each box you send. These can generally be completed online, or downloaded from the web and printed out. If the form isn't filled in properly, compensation claims may be invalidated.
For international shipments only:
To send any items overseas you'll need to fill in a more detailed form for tax purposes. It's fairly straightforward, but if you don't fill it out accurately you risk delaying your package in customs, so be careful.
This sounds obvious, but make sure you're going to be in for the whole of the day if you can. If you miss it you'll probably have to repay.
Most couriers will attempt delivery about three times at the destination address before returning items to the sender, but always double-check. Also make sure you include a return address, to be on the safe side in case problems arise.
Since you're getting the equivalent of the courier company's full price service, you naturally get the same protection, which can be about £50 per item. It varies though, so always check.
Additional cover is generally available for a small surcharge, and if you've any concern you won't be covered enough, it may be worth adding. Always check any policy exclusions before you buy to ensure your item's covered.
For example, you may be able to cover your item up to £500 for an extra £5, and up to £1,000 for £10. If you pay for this, make sure it's on the order confirmation.
Make sure you read these key warnings before you buy:
While you're likely to be using big courier firms, this doesn't mean it's not possible your parcel could go missing. The fact you've done it through a discounter shouldn't increase the chance of this. Always think twice before sending irreplaceable items.
If the worst happens, it can be a bit of a pain as you should first go to the middleman - the discounter. The company should give you a claim form from the main carrier. It's up to them to deal with any enquiries. Sometimes they're understaffed so be sure to chase things up. Weigh this up before deciding what to do.
If one of these middleman companies goes bust after you've placed an order, it's likely to have little impact as long as your order has already been referred to the main courier (this usually happens a couple of hours after you've placed it).
However, should your parcel not arrive or be damaged in transit, sadly it may be impossible to make a claim for compensation, as these have to go through the account holder.
As with all parcel delivery services, unexpected problems can arise so it's about finding the best balance between lowest price and established reputation that you're comfortable with.
You're getting the same service as you'd get if you went direct. However, we've seen some negative feedback from MoneySavers as some discount courier services can be slow to respond to enquiries and sort out compensation claims.
Usually this isn't for want of trying; they're small operations and find it tough staying on top of things at busy times. Therefore it's a question of balance between price and service. This is a decision you need to make, depending on what you're sending.
Finally, make sure you only go with a delivery company you've heard of and are happy to use. If there are only a few pennies difference, it may be better to go with the established company with a reputation than a totally unknown name.