Desperate to send a last-minute package or parcel to friends? If it weighs more than 1kg, it's possible to save an absolute packet (sorry) by using a discount web courier service instead of Royal Mail - and even have the goods collected from your house.
In this guide
When should I use a courier service?
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:
Are you sending something weighing more than 1kg?
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.
Do you need it there fast?
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.
What are 'discount courier services'?
This is a hidden way for you to access big courier firms like DHL or UPS, but only pay the amount large companies do. It works via middlemen, who bulk-buy postage slots from big delivery agencies, then sell them to the public.
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, though it 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.
How big can my parcel be?
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 centimetres), divided by 1,000,000. See best buys for options.
Get your packaging right
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 centimetres), divided by 5,000. This gives you the volumetric weight in kilograms.
Banned and 'no compensation' items
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. The Royal Mail website also has useful tips on how to package items safely and securely.
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.
Collection and delivery times
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.
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Do I need insurance?
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.
Warning! Check before you send
Make sure you read these key warnings before you buy:
1. If parcels go missing, you've few rights
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 anyway (and consider insurance).
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.
2. What if these companies go bust?
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.
This system hasn't been tried and tested, so we can't guarantee it works this way - please let us know how you've got on in the forum discussion.
3. What about the service?
You're getting the same service as you'd get if you went direct. However, we've seen some negative feedback from MoneySavers (see the forum discussion) 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.
4. Always check who the delivery company is
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.
For an idea of customer service, an MSE poll run in January highlighted which of the big delivery firms have the best and worst feedback.
If you have delivery problems and are forced to take extra time off work for redelivery, it's possible to get compensation.
See the Failed Delivery? Fight Back guide for more.
Best buys: UK delivery
Though we've given best buys below as a guide, always check the delivery company for yourself before buying and make sure you're happy with it first.
Here are the top deals based on price, and also forum feedback. Prices include VAT and are based on a 30cm x 30cm x 30cm parcel - prices can fluctuate so always check. If you find any issues, or services no longer available, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crucially, make sure you've read ALL of the key warnings before using any company.
Standard delivery services
Items under 5kg: From £5.48 (3-5 days)
If it's under 1kg, Royal Mail's generally still cheapest for sending cards, letters and small parcels (use its Price Finder - do check dimensions carefully though).
For items over this, the cheapest is generally MyHermes, who runs its own delivery service directly. Its basic 3-5 day service costs £5.50 for items between 2-5kg. If you've a lighter parcel, it's £4 for 1-2kg items, or £3 for items less than 1kg.
It's owned by Hermes UK, whose network delivers for online retailers including Next Directory, Debenhams and QVC. Feedback's mixed though - please let us know how you get on in the forum discussion.
Up to 10kg: From £8.39 (3-5 days)
Online discounter myParcelDelivery*, is generally cheapest. It bulk buys to get get discounts from the major couriers.
As standard it only includes £20 cover for lost items, but you can upgrade up to £1,000 for a fee. Handily the website also provides instant online tracking for every delivery.
For a 10kg parcel, the cheapest price comes up at £8.40, which is collected and delivered via Yodel in two working days. Yodel has iffy feedback however (see below), so be careful if choosing it.
Up to 30kg: From £11.99 (2 days)
If you've a bigger parcel, online discounter P4D* is a reseller that sells slots from delivery firms. It offers these via Parcelforce at £11.99 for a 30kg parcel, with 48-hour delivery.
Alternatively, online discounter Pharos Parcel charges £13.13 for a 30kg parcel, sent via delivery firm UPS in 1-2 days, and has good feedback.
bidding delivery services
Let the couriers bid for your custom
Several sites are handy for arranging cheap delivery of larger items. Anyvan*, Shiply and uShip allow couriers and deliverers to bid for your custom, which can mean good deals on moving big parcels.
These services work the same way; they allow couriers and larger-scale hauliers to sell spare capacity in their vans and lorries. This means extra efficiency and cash for them, and a cheaper, greener service for you.
While Anyvan and Shiply don't charge any fees to users, uShip does so always make sure you factor these in before you accept a bid. See uShip's fees.
Anyvan and uShip generally have good feedback from forumites but Shiply's feedback is mixed. Please share your experiences in the Cheap Parcel Delivery discussion.
Alternative delivery services
PayPal Royal Mail service
The main selling point of eBay's Royal Mail postage is convenience rather than price; if you've a printer at home you can print postage labels straight from your Paypal payment page, paying conveniently by PayPal. For items that'll fit in a post box it works brilliantly, as you can just print, stick and post. See more info.
Collect+ also offers cheap parcel delivery which may occasionally undercut the best buys in this guide by a few pence. Rather than having the parcel collected, you drop it off at a local shop that's registered with the service. Forumites who've used it report being impressed with its prices, which start from about £4.89 for up to 2kg.
Please don't see its inclusion here as a recommendation. It's worth noting the company behind it, Yodel, has poor feedback. While some forumites use it, others report problems. See the MSE news story Yodel named worst parcel delivery service again, and if you've used it, please share your feedback.
It's also possible to shave a few pence off the price with MyHermes if you're prepared to drop off your parcel at its parcel shops, check its site for prices. Other carriers sometimes also offer cheaper prices if you can drop off your parcel at the depot, so do check.
Best Buys: International delivery
Though we've given best buys below as a guide, always check the delivery company for yourself before buying and make sure you're happy with it first.
The cost to send parcels internationally depends on the destination. With international postage, Royal Mail's generally cheapest for small packages, but gets expensive for items over 2kg. This varies depending on the company and where you're posting to though, so do check.
The following services are usually the cheapest, or among them, and we've also based these on forum feedback. We've used examples of delivery costs based on a 30cm x 30cm x 30cm parcel, though these can vary depending on size and destination and prices fluctuate rapidly, so always check. Make sure you read the key warnings before sending this way.
It's worth noting that if you're sending or receiving parcels from overseas, you may have to pay extra tax or duty charges, depending on what you're sending. So always check this first - find more info on the HMRC website.
Cheapest Europe delivery:
Berlin, 2-4 days, 10 kg
For a Berlin-bound parcel, online discounter Worldwide Parcel Services* comes in generally cheapest at £20.39. It doesn't send the parcel itself - it resells delivery slots with other big firms, here via its European Road Service (collected by UPS and delivered by DHL) in 2-4 days.
Then online discounter Pharos Parcel is £21.22 in 1-5 working days, sent via UPS's delivery service, while Interparcel (also an online discounter) is £22.80, again sent via UPS delivery again in 2-5 days.
Cheapest Worldwide Delivery:
New York, 2-5 days, 10 kg
For a New York parcel, online discounter Worldwide Parcel Services* generally comes up cheapest at £29.99, delivered via DHL's Air Express Service in 2-5 days.
Then online discounter Transglobal Express is £36.43, which sends the parcel via UPS Express Saver in two days. Alternatively another online discount service, Pharos Parcel, comes in at £40.62, sending via delivery company UPS's Express Saver service, delivered2-4 working days.
If you use any of these, please let other MoneySavers know how it goes in the forum discussion.