If you still haven’t sent your gifts to friends and family around the country, don’t worry—couriers are ready to speed your packages to their destinations in time for the holiday.

But which company should you use? And which level of service will you need?

Consumer Reports analyzed prices for delivery between 30 pairs of cities, using FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service.

Our results are below. But if cost is your main concern, we found that the Postal Service is often the way to go, though you should still shop around. And unlike the others, the Postal Service also offers a premium service that can deliver on Christmas Day in major markets.

For second-day delivery, FedEx was almost always the best deal, though UPS was often within a dollar.

And depending on the cities, we found much cheaper ground service that said it would deliver by the next day, and for a fraction of the overnight delivery price. 

All three couriers deliver to almost every address in the U.S., and they can get your parcels to more than 200 countries and territories. There are some key differences worth considering, however, when planning your holiday shipping. (Read our breakdown of holiday shipping deadlines for 2017.)


Visit Consumer Reports’ 2017 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more. And be sure to check our Daily Gift Guide.
 

Price

We compared prices (including any applicable surcharges) for delivery to residential addresses quoted on the websites of FedEx, UPS, and the Postal Service between 30 pairs of cities around the country for a 5-pound medium-sized package.

We used the most economical service when we had a choice. For next-day delivery, for example, we used FedEx Standard Overnight instead of FedEx First Overnight, and we researched prices for FedEx Standard Rate and One Rate; the latter was about $20 cheaper on average for next-day delivery of our sample package.

Here are some of our key findings:

• Postal Service prices were best for next-day delivery in 73 percent of the cases and for third-day delivery in 87 percent of the city pairs studied.

• FedEx was the least expensive courier for second-day service in 97 percent of the comparisons. However, in a bit more than half of these head-to-head comparisons, FedEx was less than a dollar cheaper than UPS. 

• UPS had the lowest prices in only 3 percent of the cases for second-day delivery. 

• FedEx had the best deal in only 27 percent of the 30 trials for overnight delivery and in just 13 percent of the cases for third-day delivery.

Our analysis found several instances in which less expensive FedEx Home Delivery and UPS Ground said it would deliver as swiftly as more costly overnight or second- or third-day services. 

For example, the most economical FedEx and UPS overnight delivery from New York to Boston would have cost us $48 to $49, but FedEx Home Delivery and UPS Ground said they’d get the package there the next day for $10 to $11. 

This bargain tended to turn up when the sending and receiving cities were within a couple hundred miles of each other, and USPS Ground service was not offered in the cases we examined.

“Our rates are competitive,” says Kyle Peterson, a UPS spokesman. “We are confident UPS’ solutions portfolio continues to offer the industry’s best value: more service options, outstanding reliability, and industry-leading technology offerings to help balance customer service and cost.”

The Postal Service pointed out in a statement to CR that it provides extra service without extra surcharges.

“The Postal Service doesn’t have surcharges like other shipping companies. We don’t do surcharges for Saturday delivery, don’t have fuel surcharges, and don’t have holiday-season surcharges. That can make an important difference in the final price customers pay,” says David Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman.

FedEx did not offer a comment for this report.

Package and Delivery Options

All the carriers offer ways to reduce shipping costs, even for speedy delivery.

At the Postal Service, the Priority Mail Flat-Rate Medium Box was a couple of bucks cheaper on average than the Priority Mail 2-Day price for our example package. But the Priority Mail 2-Day Regional Box A and B rates were typically cheaper still. 

Regional box prices were available only via the Postal Service Click-And-Ship online service, which lets you pay postage, print labels, and schedule pickup using your home computer. 

However, be aware that you can’t always take the Postal Service names at face value. For example, the post office estimated that those “2-Day” packages would actually be delivered on the third day. So we counted those in our third-day delivery comparisons and not in the second-day matchups.  

That misnomer also means that, in our comparisons, if we wanted to ensure that our package got there in two days, we would have had to either pay for more costly USPS Priority Mail Express 1-Day service or turn to more economical FedEx or UPS second-day service.

At UPS, the Next Day Air Saver rates were—unsurprisingly—less expensive than the Next Day Air Early prices. Saver gets delivered by the end of the day, and Early is delivered by 8 a.m. The difference in price was significant. Saver would have cost us $99.95 to send our medium-sized package from Seattle to Miami, for example, while Early would have cost us $137.50.

At FedEx, you can lower your costs by choosing the One Rate option, which is typically cheaper than the courier’s Standard Rate service. Both rates take the delivery destination into account, of course, but with One Rate, you select one of 12 package options, choose the kind of service you want (one-, two-, or three-day delivery), and pay the same fixed rate as long as the envelope weighs less than 10 pounds or the box, tube, or other type of package weighs less than 50 pounds. The Standard Rate takes the package weight and dimensions into account.

In our comparison, One Rate prices were typically lower than Standard Rate.  

Dependability

None of the three couriers we compared would divulge their on-time performance data. Nevertheless, FedEx and UPS delivered 98 and 96 percent of their packages on time, respectively, during the hectic holiday season last year, according to ShipMatrix, a shipping software company that tracks millions of packages sent each year by thousands of small to large businesses. (ShipMatrix did not have sufficient data on Postal Service deliveries.)

Christmas Day Delivery

If you’re really leaving things to the last minute and you need a service that delivers on Christmas Day, your best bet among the three carriers is the Postal Service.

FedEx and UPS deliver 307 days of the year (no Sundays or holidays), but the USPS’ Priority Mail Express money back guaranteed delivery service operates 365 days per year—including Christmas Day in many major markets. There’s a $12.50 surcharge for this. But remember, it’s up to you to get it to the post office. This year, you have until Friday, Dec. 22, for Priority Mail Express to deliver by Christmas Day.