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Holiday Travel Survival Guide: Shipping and Packing Gifts

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When you’re checking off your holiday travel list, and maybe even checking it twice, one task sticks out like a red, glowing reindeer nose: packing gifts.

How will you get them across the country to wherever the family is gathering? Or back home, for that matter? Will you Duct-tape gift-wrapped waffle irons and bowling balls to the backs of your own mini Sherpa, errr, kids? Brave the post office during its busiest season? Or maybe even just submit to airline checks bag fees?

With a little planning and some holiday illumination around packing gifts, shipping that tricycle from Sacramento to Seattle can and will be much easier (and cheaper) than riding it there yourself.

Packing Gifts As Carry-On And Checked Luggage

In a day when some travelers suit up in three coats and four pairs of pants to avoid bag fees, it seems a bit indulgent and counter-intuitive to pay for bringing your gifts on the plane, right?

Not always. Your specific airline may guide your choices around whether to check, carry or find another way altogether of getting your gifts from Point A to Point B. JetBlue allows passengers to check their first bag for free, while Southwest lets you check your first two bags at no cost. So if you have room to spare and gifts to give, why not stow them in the plane? Otherwise, most airlines charge about $25 - $35 for your first checked bag, at least as much for additional bags, and up to a few hundred dollars for overweight and oversize bags. On the other hand, Spirit charges $25 - $50 – and $100 at the gate – for carry-on bags alone.1

After checking out some of the other shipping options below, and depending on whether you have status with an airline that makes checking bags even more cost effective, you may find that the price may actually be right for hauling the gifts to Aunt Sally’s for the big holiday get together. Plus, if the gifts are traveling above your head or below your seat, it’s a relatively quick and hassle-free journey.

One more consideration: if you’re renting a car or getting picked up, it’s probably easy to carry an extra suitcase or two of gifts. But if you’re taking public transportation and are already short on hands for carrying your stuff, it may be a bit too challenging.

Getting gifts on and off a plane is pretty straightforward, but it’s what happens at the airport and in transit that may give you some pause. Here are some tips for packing gifts to avoid having them unwrapped by the wrong person, namely, TSA agents.

Checked Gifts

Hard shell suitcases are preferable to duffle bags and the like. It’s a good idea to pack gifts in a suitcase in the same manner by which you would pack them in a box. Appropriately distribute the weight and think of your socks and T-shirts as big, comfy packing peanuts. Consider saving the fragile packages for your carry-on. (One Plan B is to place delicate objects such as olive oil, camera lenses and wine in a clever, inflatable packing product called a VinniBag).2 Even checked gifts are subject to unwrapping and inspection by TSA, so even if you roll the dice, be sure to pack some extra tape and wrapping paper.

Carry-On Gifts

According to the TSA, fliers can bring wrapped gifts through a security checkpoint. However, officers have the discretion to unwrap gifts if they decide that they need a closer look inside. Clear bubble wrap may be one way to meet in the middle.3 That said, the TSA formally recommends wrapping gifts after reaching a destination or shipping them through another provider.4

Managing Mailing Your Gifts

If you’re ahead of the game when it comes to holiday preparations, mailing instead of packing gifts might make more sense when it comes to both value and convenience. For example, if you purchased all your gifts well ahead of time and are traveling, you can take advantage of the relatively low cost of going with standard USPS – insurance is advised to protect valuable gifts – or even UPS Ground or FedEx Home Delivery when you can get something somewhere in about a week. The cost rises, however, when you need to get the gifts there tomorrow. Shipping package coast to coast can cost a few hundred dollars depending on a number of factors – no matter what mailing service you’re considering. For example, shipping a 50-lb. 20” X 20” X 20” package overnight from New York to California overnight can cost about $240 via USPS, and that’s before you add insurance or other options.5

The other conundrum happens when your family receives gifts, perhaps unexpectedly, when you have a long way to travel and little room in your luggage. If shipping is the right option, the question is whether or not the kids can wait a week to take out their new goodies.

Perhaps the best way to control the cost of mailing or packing gifts is to get creative about what you give or when you give it. Consider gift cards, easily foldable items such as T-shirts and even books – or better yet – e-books and iTunes tracks. Bumping the gift-giving to before your trip or afterward is another way to avoid managing the logistics of gift transportation.

There are plenty of challenges and mini-crises to handle around the holidays, from how to fit in all the parties and concerts to how to split up the time among multiple extended families scattered throughout the country. It’s easy to minimize the stress around packing and shipping gifts by planning ahead and shopping early.

Who knew that Santa had it so hard?

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Dec 20, 2016