Flat Rate Priority Mail: If it fits, it ships, but is it the cheapest option for military care packages?
There are certain numbers I prefer not to know, like the total calories in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream, or where the arrow points on the scale after eating said pint of ice cream. But when it comes to postage for military care packages, I pay attention to every single penny. After all, I’d rather spend my money on what goes inside a care package, not on shipping.
And until this summer, I was confident that I was getting the best deal for my postage dollars.
A postal clerk here in Massachusetts showed me otherwise, when she very nicely pointed out that I paid 35 percent more than needed on three care packages to Iraq. Ouch.
I have sent every one of my overseas military care packages by Priority Mail through the U.S. Postal Service because it’s both fast and cost-effective. But this summer — seduced by those “If it fits, it ships” ads for Flat Rate Priority Mail — I started sending care packages by Flat Rate Priority Mail instead of the traditional, zone-based Priority Mail, which determines postage based on a package’s weight and the distance it will travel. I figured that because care packages often feel like they’re heavier than a soldier’s backpack, the flat-rate pricing must save me money, right?
As my wallet learned the hard way, sometimes the answer is “No.”
Lessons Learned Part 1: CARE PACKAGES TO IRAQ
A few weeks ago, I sent three care packages to Iraq, all of varying weights. I used three medium-size flat-rate Priority Mail boxes.
After I lugged them to the post office, I asked the clerk to tell me what it would cost to mail the same packages using zone-based (or what I refer to as “regular”) Priority Mail. Because I live in the Boston area — and because military mail to Iraq (APO, AE) is processed through New York — my packages would have been charged Zone 3 rates. (See “Going Postal: Make sense of military addresses” for more details.)
So, did I get a good deal?
Verdict: I overpaid, and I hate overpaying. I spent $8.35 more using flat-rate Priority Mail boxes than I would have if I had chosen regular Priority Mail boxes instead. But I had already wrapped and taped everything up neatly, and I didn’t want to repack everything in the post office.
Lessons Learned Part 2: CARE PACKAGES TO SOUTH KOREA
Before you think “I’m never using flat-rate boxes again,” hold up. Let’s pretend that I was sending those same care packages to a military address at Camp Casey, South Korea, where my brother Patrick deployed for two years. Those packages would have had APO, AP addresses, and that military mail is processed in California, not New York. So the pricing scenarios would be different. My packages would be moving from Boston to California, which rates a Zone 8 charge.
So, what would get me the best deal?
Verdict: Flat-rate Priority Mail would have been my best choice, hands-down. It would have saved me a whopping $15.80 over zone-based Priority Mail.
IT PAYS TO COMPARISON SHOP
You can certainly ask the postal clerk to run the options for you. But because you must use the special flat-rate boxes in order to get the flat-rate pricing, it is helpful to run the numbers before you pack (and then potentially unpack and repack) your care package. Here’s how:
#2. Estimate your zone-based Priority Mail cost. Just follow these three steps:
- Weigh your package. Use a kitchen scale or a digital bathroom scale. Even if the weight isn’t exact, you’ll be able to do a rough comparison of prices.
- Look up its zone. Go to usps.com’s “Postal Zone Chart.” You need to know two zip codes: the one from which the package is being mailed and its destination.
- Determine your shipping cost using the Priority Mail Postal Chart.
Understanding how military addresses work — and where military mail is processed before heading overseas — is key to being able to choose the best care package shipping options. Because what is the least expensive to send from Boston may be the most expensive to send from California, and vice versa. See “Going Postal: Make sense of military addresses” for more details.
Note: The US Postal Service has simplified its website. To calculate the costs of different shipping options, use its Postage Price Calculator. The cost of Priority Mail has increased since we wrote this post. Regardless, it is still worth running the numbers to determine whether Flat Rate or zone-based Priority Mail is a better option when shipping military care packages.