Is expedited shipping worth the splurge?

Our experiment shows quick delivery doesn’t have to be expensive

Last updated: December 09, 2014 03:15 PM

Web retailing has made online shopping as easy as 1-2-3, but choosing from among the many shipping methods for that pair of shoes, tablet computer, or coffeemaker you ordered can be a bit puzzling. If you read the fine print, you’ll realize that delivery times are estimates based on multiple factors. Amazon, for example, leaves open the possibility that your order shipped free of charge might not arrive until a week or so later, so you’re at the company’s mercy.

So how much time will you really save by spending that extra $10 or even $30? Consumer Reports set out to learn about the differences in delivery options to find the sweet spot.

The experiment

On the morning of Monday Oct. 13, we logged on to four times, from the same computer, and placed four separate orders within minutes of one another. All orders were dispatched to the same address. Each consisted of two popular holiday toys: a Disney doll from the hit animated film “Frozen” and a Nickelodeon action figure from the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. The toys were available and in stock.

Check our tips for holiday shipping to save money and stave off disappointment and check out these bargains at big retailers this holiday season.

We paid a lofty $25.58 for next-day service, $12.78 for second-day delivery, and $5.51 for standard shipping (estimated delivery date was Oct. 17). The fourth order qualified for free shipping because we spent the required $35 in eligible purchases. The trade off for free freight? An estimated delivery date between Oct. 21 and Oct. 24. (Note: Amazon automatically selects standard shipping for all orders, unless you sign up for Amazon Prime, at $99 a year, which entitles customers to free 2-day shipping. So if you’re a penny-pincher, it’s up to you to deselect “standard” and click on “free” shipping.)

The results

Predictably, the next-day shipment came first, at 6:24 p.m., on Oct. 14, while the second-day package arrived on Oct. 15 at 11:36 am, about 17 hours later. Then three days passed with no sign of either the standard shipping or the free-shipping orders. After tracking the packages and reading that they had, in fact, been delivered, we ripped into our two boxes and discovered that Amazon, without notifying us, had squeezed our remaining purchases inside the second-day shipment, for which we’d paid $12.78. In effect, Amazon did us a favor: Both orders arrived ahead of schedule. We contacted Amazon for an explanation of their shipping strategy, but didn’t receive a response. (Here, hundreds of shoppers sound off on what they love—and hate—about Amazon.)

The bottom line

Unless you are a world-class procrastinator, there’s little reason to pay a fortune for next-day delivery. Second-day service proved much more cost efficient, with the order arriving just 15 hours after the next-day package. This experience is in line with what we’ve seen over the years. In fact, when we conducted a similar experiment in 2006, the package shipped for free actually beat its costly counterpart to our doorstep.

Of course, there are no guarantees—especially during the peak holiday season, when priority is likely to be given to customers who pay for freight. Hence one more reason to shop and ship early: the question becomes moot.

Which company has the best rates?

All other factors being equal, how do FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service stack up? That’s key if you’re the one doing the shipping. We compared the basic price of sending to a residential address a 3-pound package in an 18-inch-long x 9-inch-wide x 9-inch-high box from Yonkers, N.Y. (where Consumer Reports' headquarters are), to Plano, Texas. We booked standard-overnight, second-day, and ground shipping, with no extras.*

The rate winner? The good old U.S. Postal Service. See for yourself:


Standard overnight

Second day


U.S. Postal Service















Note: The figures reflect an update of a similar study published in November, which also showed the U.S. Postal Service to be the least expensive option and UPS the priciest.

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More holiday gift ideas and tips

Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

* Editor's Note:

The cost of shipping a package has many factors, including box size and total parcel weight, destination, arrival speed, special handling, whether a package is dropped off at a commercial or residential address, and delivery date (weekends are pricier). There are also potential extras such as insurance, delivery confirmation, the need for a recipient’s signature, and discounts (prepurchasing a shipping label online, for example, can sometimes translate into savings). Convenience—especially the availability of close-to-home drop-off and pickup options and after-hours deliveries—is another top consideration.

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