By Sam Wasson
Updated Nov 3, 2022
When homeowners think of moving, most picture a large truck filled to the brim with furniture, boxes, and bags. While this scenario describes many moves, others are, in reality, much smaller in scale. Many relocations, like those for college students, only require shipping a dozen boxes. In these situations, a moving truck is unnecessary, and a smaller, more affordable solution is preferable. This guide will go over all the best low-cost options for shipping moving boxes while analyzing their costs, restrictions, and benefits.
There are several factors to go over before choosing a shipping option. Not all services are appropriate for every move, and you’ll want to understand what factors can limit your choices.
The first major obstacle you may run into is cargo weight. Weight can affect the individual cost of your boxes and disqualify them from certain companies. For example, the United States Postal Services (USPS) only allows parcels of 50 pounds or less, so if you’re shipping an entire bookshelf worth of reading material, you will need to go elsewhere.
Most postal companies and shippers use a metric called dimensional weight to calculate the cost of cargo. Here is a quick video on it.
The second biggest problem you will run into is your item’s size, as large items can be challenging to pack, handle, and ship. Because of this, many package handling companies impose strict limitations on the physical dimensions of the packages they allow. If you’re transporting something bulky, you will have to check the allowed sizes of packages for each company.
Shipment size, or the number of boxes, is the second factor in the cost of your shipment. Many companies charge by the total weight and distance of an entire shipment, and their pricing structures may exponentially increase for larger shipments. On the other hand, some companies offer special rates and deals for more sizable shipments. Generally, if you’re sending less than five boxes, your best option is a parcel service like USPS or FedEx. But, you are better off going with a consolidated freight service for larger shipments, as their pricing models are not as impacted by cargo weight.
Your chosen mode of transportation can make a big difference in how you handle your shipment. If you’re flying, that means you won’t be able to bring anything besides what you can fit in a carry-on and a few suitcases. If you’re driving, you have considerably more leeway in what you can afford to bring. By taking the heaviest items along for the ride, you can significantly reduce the cost of your shipment. Furthermore, if you have a large number of boxes to send, you may be better off renting a portable trailer and driving your cargo.
When it comes to shipping boxes, there are plenty of options available. You can ship through a parcel carrier service, bring your parcels when traveling, ship by bus, hire professional movers, or use a consolidated transportation service. Each method has its own benefits, risks, and pricing models. Let’s take a look at each of these categories and see which best fits your move.
This shipping method only applies to those driving to their destinations but is one of the cheapest and most versatile options. Trailers can handle numerous boxes and have a high weight capacity, making them the cheapest option for larger shipments. Trailers are also an appealing option for those with bulky, heavy, or otherwise difficult-to-ship cargo. While a trailer might not hold an entire king-sized bed, furniture like small couches, bookshelves, and nightstands will typically fit.
Companies like U-Haul offer affordable trailer rentals. These trailers can hitch onto most vehicles’ backs and transport large amounts of cargo.
Here is a quick cost breakdown for trailer rentals.
|Home Size||Trailer Size||Weight Limit||Cost Per Day Local||Cost Per Day Long Distance|
|Studio/Dorm||4’x8’||1,650 pounds||$14.95||About $35.00|
|Studio/One Bedroom||6’x12’||2,480||$29.95||About $80.00|
Regarding parcel carriers, the USPS is typically the best choice if you are shipping a few lightweight boxes. The USPS is exceptionally safe, has above-average package handling, offers parcel tracking, and has flat rate options. The only major downside to these services is that they become more costly as your shipment weight increases. If you’re shipping anything larger than a few pounds or have more than half a dozen boxes, you’ll be better off going elsewhere.
The USPS has several options for shipping packages, but the two most economical options are flat rate and retail ground:
As a side note, USPS has different rates for packages sent from home addresses or post offices. To maximize savings, you should go to a USPS location and send your parcels from there.
Here is a quick cost analysis of USPS Flat costs.
|Box Type||Box Size||Cost||What Can this Box Ship?|
|Small Flat Rate||8-5/8″ x 5-3/8″ x 1-5/8″||$9.45||Documents, Small Books, Jewelry, etc.|
|Medium Flat Rate Option A||11″ x 8-1/2″ x 5-1/2″||$16.10||Pictures, stationery, collectables, etc.|
|Medium Flat Rate Option B||13-5/8″ x 11-7/8″ x 3-3/8″||$16.10||Books, electronics, shoes, etc.|
|Large Flat Rate Option A||11-3/4” x 12″ x 5-1/2″||$21.00||Large electronics, large shoes, small kitchenware|
|Large Flat Rate Option B||23-11/16″ x 11-3/4″ x 3″||$21.00||Posters, folded coats, etc.|
You can find the chart for USPS Retail Ground here. Keep in mind that a “zone” in shipping refers to the distance between the package’s start point and destination. If you’re unsure how much your total shipment will cost, you can use the price calculator here.
One of the cheapest ways to ship packages long distance is by using interstate busing companies. Busing companies like Greyhound allow you to rent out compartment space inside its luggage-carrying compartments. Since these buses are traveling interstate anyway, renting out this space is incredibly cheap. Greyhound Package Express shipping is more lenient on large boxes, as it allows packages up to 100 pounds and a length and girth of 30″x47″x82″. It also offers pickup and drop-off services for an additional fee.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the most reliable type of service out there, with numerous online complaints detailing damaged, lost, or otherwise mishandled packages. Furthermore, the company does not offer any form of insurance for your cargo, so if something does happen, you’re out of luck.
If you decide to go with one of these services, we recommend only shipping replaceable, non-fragile items — Greyhound Package Express costs between $1-$3 per pound, with reduced rates for bulk shipments.
This option is a riskier proposition but one that, if navigated correctly, can save you massive amounts of money. Similar to interstate buses, freight companies and private truck drivers rent out the extra space on their trucks. This system is called consolidated shipping, or consolidated freight. If your destination is along their route, you can purchase this space for a low price.
The major downside to these services is that you must get ahold of the driver directly and negotiate your price through bids. Because of the personal nature of these transactions, the experience, price, and handling of your cargo will vary wildly depending on the driver.
There are a few consolidated shipping marketplaces out there, but our recommendation is Uship. Uship offers a verified vendor system that ensures that its truck drivers are all verified and reliable. It also provides customer reviews for each driver, allowing you to carefully vet your bidders.
While most moving services come with a hefty price tag, there are plenty of ways you can use professional movers without breaking the bank. Some moving companies, namely local movers, offer consolidated moving options. You can ship your belongings alongside those of other customers at a significantly reduced rate. Consolidated moving offers the same professionalism and reliability as traditional movers but with lower rates of consolidated freight.
For any moving company, full service or otherwise, your moving quote will be determined by cargo weight, the total space it takes up, the company’s rates, and seasonality. The major downside of consolidated moving is that you have less control over the delivery, travel, and arrival times – since your moving company has to deliver to multiple locations, each stop brings a higher chance for delays.
Shipping large or heavy boxes (over 70 pounds) is particularly challenging. Most package handling companies have strict weight limits, and those that offer specialty item handling (like those for heavy parcels) charge through the nose. One look through the USPS, UPS, and FedEx price chart shows prices ranging from $100 to $400 per parcel, depending on its weight and destination distance. Here are some of the best options for shipping these high-weight items:
Overall, we think the best option for those with large shipments is renting a trailer and transporting the packages themselves. Cargo trailers have the best cost per package due to their large size and relatively cheap cost. This cost-benefit only increases when you consider package weight, as trailers can transport larger, heavier cargo with no price change. The only major downside of cargo trailers is you have to transport the cargo personally, which may be impossible for some.
USPS is the cheapest and most reliable option if you only have a few packages to send. USPS has reasonable prices, especially for its flat rate services. While its rates for heavy packages can get expensive, utilizing its Retail Ground service can still get you a reasonable price. We also compared its pricing model with other parcel delivery services like FedEx, DHL, and UPS. We found that USPS is, on average, the cheapest option.
The most cost-effective option, going purely by the numbers, goes to bus shipping. However, we cannot overlook the litany of issues with these services. The online reviews for Greyhound Package Express are less than inspiring, ranging from mishandled packages to lost cargo and damaged items. The time frames for these services also seem inconsistent, with customers waiting days after their scheduled pickup dates for packages to arrive.
Other bus shipping companies like Busfreighter have higher online reviews but carry a Better Business Bureau score of D-, with no accreditation and several unanswered complaints. Greyhound is easily the better option of the two, but we recommend caution when using these services and only shipping durable, inexpensive, and replaceable cargo.
If you need to ship something oversized, like furniture, your best option is consolidated freight. While the experience with consolidated freight service providers may vary, they carry the potential to save you tons of money. Specialty item shipping services, while more consistent and convenient, will cost you an arm and a leg, so if you’re willing to sift through bids and do some negotiating, it may be worth it. We recommend carefully vetting your potential trucker beforehand, and having several backup options, especially if you’re moving to an out-of-the-way location.
Amtrak, while for a time was an excellent and economical option for package shipping, has suspended its package transportation services since October 2020. While some online suspect this was a temporary suspension due to COVID-19, Amtrak has not made any statement confirming this, nor has it shown any signs of reopening its shipping services. If Amtrak does reopen shipping services, it’s a great option for large shipments, only charging around $50 to $100 for up to 100 pounds of cargo.
Postal zones are a system redeveloped in the 1960s that determines how far a package travels from its point of origin (Zone 1) to its destination (Zone 2-8). The further your package’s destination, the higher the zone number and the more expensive it will be to ship. Here is a quick breakdown of relative miles traveled to zone distance:
|1||50 mile or less radius|
|2||51 – 150 mile radius|
|3||151 – 300 mile radius|
|4||301 – 600 mile radius|
|5||601 – 1,000 mile radius|
|6||1001 – 1,400 mile radius|
|7||1401 – 1,800 mile radius|
|8||1,800 or more mile radius|
Shipping insurance may be worth it, depending on the number and contents of your packages. If you’re only shipping a few boxes of low-cost items, it can be hard to justify its cost. However, it is usually a good investment if you have high-value items or a large amount of cargo.
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