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We've all been there: You find the perfect present, wrap it up, and take it to the post office--only to discover that the shipping costs as much as the gift itself. As the price of gas has climbed, package carriers have more than doubled their fuel surcharges since last year, and we're left to foot the bill.

Sending your holiday cheer doesn't have to break the bank, though. Surfing to the right sites can save you time and money, and spare you needless frustration, so don't buy a single stamp before reading on.

Comparing the Carriers

Deciding on a carrier means navigating an alphabet soup of options: Even if you know the team colors for DHL, FedEx, UPS, and USPS, you may not have time to figure out which service delivers the best value.

Enter Shipping Sidekick, a service that simplifies the task: You tell it what you're mailing, where it's coming from, and where it's going; in response, Shipping Sidekick presents you with a list of all of the available options from the U.S. Postal Service and from three commercial outfits--DHL, Federal Express, and United Parcel Service. Some results might surprise you: The cheapest choice is "often the one you least expected," says CEO Jacob Lakhany.

Unlike other comparison sites, Shipping Sidekick takes its rates straight from the carriers and in real-time. It was the only service I tested that delivered reliable, accurate results, down to the penny. And speaking of pennies, Shipping Sidekick recently dropped its subscription fee and now offers its service for free. A quick tip: Select the ‘oversize packaging' option, which lets you input the specific dimensions of your box and thereby obtain more-accurate rates. But be prepared to scroll through a rather large ad before any results appear.

Deep Discounts

Now that you know how the carriers stack up, you might want to visit a site that can knock off up to 70 percent of the cost. A little-known service called eShipper offers discounted shipping that can save you serious dough. The trick? The company ships enough packages with each major carrier to get some of the best corporate rates. (FedEx, for example, says that most company discounts don't exceed 10 percent.)

"If you have a lot of volume that you're shipping, then your rates are going to be cheaper," says general manager Rick Wray.

Though eShipper's signup form lists a $20 enrollment fee, you can avoid it by clicking to the site from any of several partners, including Shipping Sidekick. Or jump straight to the appropriate eShipper page. In my test, which involved shipping a second-day FedEx package, I paid $32.91--39 percent less than the FedEx-quoted price of $53.80.

Here are some useful hints that I picked up along the way. Make sure that your package weight and dimensions are on the mark. If you're in doubt, round up to the nearest whole number. Also, note that only DHL provides free pick-up at the quoted price; the other carriers charge extra if you don't want to drop the package off. Finally, look for the link to print your prepaid label once you hit the confirmation screen. It doesn't jump out at you, and you'll definitely need it to get your box on its way.

Online Freebies

A couple of the carriers have freebies of their own that are worth checking out. The U.S. Postal Service offers free envelopes, boxes, and other supplies, which it will deliver to your door, free of charge. You can schedule no-charge package pick-ups, too; and if you pay for the postage at the USPS Web site, you'll shell out 11 percent less than you would at the counter.

Federal Express permits you to sign up online for free pick-up as well. Its most unusual feature, though, is a courtesy one-on-one phone-based packaging advice service. You can chat with a rep about the best way to secure your stuff from damage, and you can even send in a digital photograph to get more-detailed ideas. "They'll get a similar item, package it, take pictures, and send it back to you," says FedEx spokesperson Matt Ceniceros.

The service's phone number is a bit buried in the Web site. To reach it, dial 1-800-633-7019; press 5, and press 2 to get connected and start your session.

More Money Savers

A few final strategies to help you make the most of your shipping dollar:

• Ship to a business if you can. Carriers usually charge more for home delivery.

• Don't waste money buying boxes. Google "cardboard recycling center" with your zip code and you'll find mountains of them free for the taking.

• Find online retailers who offer free shipping. Sites like and list the latest offers by store. will help you find an inexpensive item of any amount so you can hit the free shipping minimum on Amazon.

• If you're a frequent snail-mailer, you might find a Web-based postage service such as or Endicia worth its monthly fee in saved trips to the post office.

The tools are at your fingertips. Put them to good use this holiday season, and don't spend more than you must to get your gifts where they need to be.

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