Christmas means parcels, and many of us immediately think of a trip to the post office. But there are alternatives to Royal Mail which can beat it on price, convenience and speed. So it pays to shop around.
Collectplus.co.uk, for example, lets you drop off parcels at one of over 5,500 convenience shops, which often open late. You can also opt for a courier to collect from your home. You can book slots online and there are thousands of collection points across the UK.
In contrast to the simplicity of a trip to the post office, however, the alternatives to Royal Mail can seem confusing. Prices vary widely: send a 3kg parcel (a few novels, wrapped well) within the UK on a three- to five-day delivery service and you could pay between £4.25 for a drop off, where you deposit the parcel at a collection point or locker, and £7.99 for Parcelforce.
It is not just prices that vary; so do service standards. There are consumer complaints about missing parcels and couriers failing to collect on time, and in some cases customers are unable to access a full service in the private postal market. Royal Mail, for example, has an obligation to deliver to all postcodes in the UK, but there is no such thing in the private sector and you may find some companies refuse to deliver to remote addresses.
However, for most parts of the UK there are bargains to be had if you compare deals carefully. So, here's our guide to comparison sites, discount brokers and web couriers.
Cost depends on weight and the type of service: next day, two-day, or economy three- to five-day schedules, and destination. International deliveries are more expensive.
Comparison sites are perhaps the easiest way to kick off a bargain hunt. You enter the number of parcels, the destination and the weight (weigh them on kitchen scales) and the website will list your options from a range of suppliers. Sites include: myParcelDelivery, Parcel2Go and DeliveryQuoteCompare.The savings can be significant. MyParcelDelivery, for example, claims to find services that are an average of 52% cheaper than Royal Mail. A parcel weighing 2kg costs £5.60 to send second class with Royal Mail with no signature required and no tracking. On the comparison site, however, the deals start at £3.50 for a service which also offers tracking and a signature on delivery.
The difference can be even greater for larger parcels: a 10kg parcel sent first class via Royal Mail costs £21.25, one to two days with no signature or tracking. The cheapest alternative, according to MyParcelDelivery, costs £8.99 and is a next-day delivery with tracking, where the courier will collect from your home.
Many courier services, however, continue to offer the cheapest deals to business customers, which can buy in bulk. For the consumer, that is where discount broker sites come in. These companies bulk-buy postage slots then sell in dividual slots to consumers, passing on some of the discount. As a consumer it means you can access major international services at a discount of as much as 50%.
CourierPoint is a re-seller of international courier services at discount prices. A 3kg parcel to New Zealand on a three- to six-working-day service costs £50.77 plus VAT on its website, while DHL quotes £129.95 for the same thing. However, it is worth checking such sites directly because the companies sometimes offer promotion codes on their own websites.
You could also consider reverse auction sites, such as Shiply, which claims to offer discounts of up to 75%. You list the packages you want to send and providers compete to offer the cheapest prices. Your quotes are emailed and you then choose the service.
Packaging and insurance
Staff at post office counters can be pretty helpful when it comes to sticking a bit of extra tape on your parcel, but you're on your own with a courier service. Measure, wrap and correctly weigh parcels before you buy a postage slot, otherwise you may be liable for a surcharge.
Even if you've used a discount broker service you should still be entitled to the carrier's standard protections (typically, cover of about £50 per item). However, these vary and you need to check you are happy with the terms and conditions.
Make sure you keep copies of the forms you have filled in and the expected delivery dates. This is important because if you need to make a claim it can take longer to do so through a broker, as many operate with far fewer employees than the major courier services.
• This article was amended on 17 December 2013 because Collectplus lets you drop off parcels at one of over 5,500 convenience shops, not 5,250 as the original said.