If you’re like me, you collect tons of literature while you’re traveling. Travel brochures, maps, tour books: they all come in handy once you get home and you need some detail to use in a photo caption or an article about your travels. But, if you’re flying, getting it all home can be a hassle. That’s where the USPS Flat-Rate box comes in handy.
Paper Is Heavy
On my last trip—eight days flying and driving around Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Washington—I accumulated eight pounds of literature. Combined with a couple of tripods, my clothes, and all the other travel essentials that I pack into my big bag, I would have been far over the weight limit for checked-in baggage. So, I packed as much as I could into a flat-rate box and shipped it home.
The flat-rate boxes are free at the post office. The shirt-box sized package can be stuffed to the gills and shipped anywhere in the U.S. for only $9.80 $10.35. ($9.30 $9.85 if you have access to the internet and a printer so you can buy the postage online at usps.com.) This is an excellent deal. Mailing the same 8-pound package via regular Priority Mail would have cost me $17.15 $18.80.
There is also a shoe-boxed size flat-rate box available that is 50% larger. It costs $12.95 $13.95 to ship.
(NOTE: this article has been updated as of 12/24/2009).
A Few Rules
There are a few rules to follow which are explained on the USPS website and printed on the box itself.
- The box can’t be so full that the built-in sealing tape won’t hold the contents. The USPS website says, “The box must close securely and retain its shape when taped with adhesive.”
- It must be handed to a post office worker rather than deposited into a package receptacle (more on this later).
- It must have a return address.
- Cash and hazardous materials are prohibited.
Some of the rules may be variable depending upon which post office you ship from. When I bought the stamps at a post office in Idaho—I can’t remember the city—the clerk there was adamant that the box would be returned or end up in the dead-letter office if the rules weren’t followed.
But when I later dropped it off in the downtown Spokane, Washington post office, the woman there cheerfully accepted it without question. Her only comments were about the unusual stamps that she had not yet seen.
On past trips, I’ve been asked to verify that the box did not contain any prohibited materials before they would accept it. I get the feeling that in some places you could get away with dropping it in a package receptacle, but I’ve never tested this theory. This would be very handy if your flight left before the post office opened.
Update: since I wrote this article, I’ve shipped many more packages via USPS Flat-Rate service. I have found that despite what some postal service clerks told me, you can drop them into the package receptacles at the post office. There is no need to hand them in person to a clerk.
What to Pack
Besides all the glossy literature, I often have room in the box for other stuff. And I always fill it up: no sense in paying for empty space. I’ve sent souvenirs, tour books that I brought with me from home, dirty clothes, and even a small hard drive with a backup of all the images from my trip just in case my laptop got “lost” on the way home.
The USPS flat-rate box is an excellent way to lighten your luggage load. Shipping time may vary: the USPS website says it takes two days to ship from Spokane to San Diego, but it took a full week for my package to arrive. It looked like it had been opened for inspection—it was re-sealed with packing tape—so maybe that slowed it down.