Here's what you need to know, where to find the cheapest services, and how to make sure your packages arrive intact and on time.
When is a courier cheaper?
Generally speaking, letters, cards and parcels under 1kg (depending on the dimensions of the package) will come in cheapest at the Post Office. The Royal Mail will also send packages from 2kg up to 20kg, but the size restrictions can be limiting, and prices from £2.60 are for a second class delivery with no tracking facility. Add a next-day delivery and insurance on the package and the price soars.
The likes of DHL and UPS are usually confined to business deliveries, but these days there are courier firms that act as middlemen, effectively buying chunks of space from the big name firms and selling them to you and I.
These services can often be booked online, and if you book early enough, you can have the package picked up on the same day. You will still need to stick to the end company's maximum size restrictions though, so do check before you book.
Given that your package is no more than 30cm x 30cm x 30cm in terms of size, MyHermes is likely to be the cheapest service if you are not in any hurry. For a package between 2kg and 5kg on their basic three to five day delivery within the UK, it'll cost around £5.40, or £4.20 for smaller items. The firm is owned by Hermes UK, who deliver for the likes of Debenhams and QVC.
Heavier parcels of up to 30kg can be delivered via UPS within just one to two days with Interparcle, where you'll pay a very reasonable £12.59, though P4D, who use Parcelforce, are another option, with a charge of £13.19 for a 48-hour turnaround.
Meanwhile if you have a large package weighing more than 30kg, sites such as Shiply, Anyvan and uShip could be the answer. In much the same way as the discount couriers, these companies buy spare capacity from the large-scale shippers, who then 'bid' for your custom. UShip does, however, charge a fee for their service.
Obviously prices rise considerably for delivering packages abroad, but according to Money Saving Expert, Worldwide Parcel Services and Pharos Parcel are two of the better options. The same firms also ship worldwide, while Transglobal Express is another company to try. They all offer very reasonable prices with reliable firms like DHL or UPS, though you should be aware that deliveries are usually within a two to four-day time period.
You will obviously need to weigh your parcel, including the packing materials, before you book a service. But don't be tempted to squeeze in a few extras, as you'll have to pay a surcharge if you're overweight. Use bubble wrap or screwed up newspaper to limit the possibility of damage, but save money on boxes by taking freebies from supermarkets.
Also check the courier firm's site for items that they either can't deliver, or that will only be sent on a 'no compensation' basis (generally easily breakable or highly valuable items). If you don't want to take a 'no compensation' risk, delivery might be better left to a specialist courier firm. It's also an idea to leave the packing box open so that the contents can be checked before you send.
You will also need to fill out a delivery form for each parcel, which can usually be filled out online or downloaded and printed at home. International shipments will require a more detailed form that lists the contents (this is for tax purposes), and you must be honest as compensation claims will be invalid if the contents don't match.
Lastly, always check that the country you are sending to doesn't restrict the import of the contents you plan to send, ie food or untreated wooden items.
Things can get a little tricky should your parcel go missing or be damaged in transit. If your package had already been referred to the major courier firm when the problem arose, you should get a claim form from that main carrier. And because you will need to go through the 'middleman', it can take time to make a claim. If your parcel is valuable, consider getting insurance on the package. It will cost you more, but could well be worth the extra £5 or £10 - but do check for policy exclusions that may not cover some items. Remember to always check who the final delivery firm is before you book a middleman service.
Have you found a cheap but reliable discount courier service? Let us know below...