updated 11/28/2008 3:15:05 PM ET 2008-11-28T20:15:05

If you're looking for a deal on holiday shipping, your mail carrier may be able to deliver.

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The U.S. Postal Service offers several boxes and envelopes at fixed prices ranging from $4.80 to $16.50, regardless of their weight or destination in the country.

You can even go online to have your mail carrier drop off and pick up the boxes at your house. Print the postage at home and you'll also get a 3.5 percent discount on priority or express mail.

"It's just like having a post office at your fingertips," said George Flood, a spokesman for the agency.

In fact, a recent test by Consumer Reports found shipping with the post office was generally a better deal than using FedEx or UPS for local and long-distance shipping.

That's because the post office already has a vast delivery network in place that operates regardless of any additional business.

"If you're shipping to a small town in the middle of nowhere, you know the post office is delivering there. With FedEx or UPS, you have to pay for a truck and gas for the driver to get there," said Mark Perton, executive editor of ConsumerReports.org.

Flat-rate boxes and envelopes travel fairly quickly, too; priority mail is delivered in two to three days and express mail is guaranteed overnight.

Boxes come in three sizes:

  • 12 inches by 12 inches by 5-1/2 inches
  • 11 inches by 8-1/2 inches by 5-1/2 inches
  • 11-7/8 inches by 3-3/8 inches by 13-5/8 inches

In contrast, FedEx and UPS charge based on weight and distance, so costs can add up.

The test by Consumer Reports, for instance, found big differentials when shipping a book for next day delivery from Yonkers, N.Y. to Oregon.

The Postal Service charged $16.50 for a flat rate envelope, while UPS charged $62.87 and FedEx charged $54.57.

If you're not using a flat-rate box or envelope, however, mailing packages through FedEx or UPS may be slightly cheaper between certain cities. One example provided by UPS, for instance, would be shipping a 10-pound package from New York to Los Angeles.

The cost would be $17.05 with UPS ground delivery, versus $27.55 for priority mail with the postal service.

The test by Consumer Reports also found sending a 5-pound package from New York to California through ground was slightly cheaper with FedEx ($10.06) than with the postal service ($10.58) or UPS ($13.99).

Additionally, FedEx and UPS include tracking in prices and automatically cover packages for up to $100 of declared value. Tracking and insurance at the post office cost extra.

FedEx and UPS also offer a few services not available at the post office. Procrastinators, for instance, could opt to have packages delivered the same day or by early the next morning to certain areas (albeit for a very steep price).

For those who opt for FedEx or UPS, there are a few ways to keep costs down:

  • Drop off the package at a FedEx or UPS store. There's a $4 charge for scheduling a pickup from your home.
  • Pack items yourself. Otherwise, you may be charged for packing materials.
  • Discounts are available for account holders. At FedEx, clients get between 8 percent and 16 percent off certain shipments, said to Carla Boyd, a company spokeswoman.

Packaging shipments properly to keep its weight down will also reduce costs, she said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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