Special Delivery: Holiday Shipping Tips

Few things in life more annoying than buying a friend a nice gift, only to learn that it won't reach the recipient by his or her seasonal holiday of choice. But there are a few things you can do to avoid that annoyance.

Ship direct

If you're shopping online, have your gifts shipped directly to the recipients. Many online vendors offer free shipping on at least some popular items. You may have to pay for gift wrapping, but most companies will let you include a free gift message and will provide gift receipts that don't show the price in case the giftee wants an exchange.

Shipping times

If you're relying on standard shipping policies to figure out delivery times, check the fine print for what a specific retailer's shipping times really mean. Often, you need to add a day or two for order processing. For example, Buy.com's complicated shipping policies say you should tack on an additional five days for products purchased using Google Checkout.

Vendor deadlines

Some major retailers post ordering deadlines for guaranteed holiday arrival on their Web sites. The folks over at DealHack have collected a list of these deadlines for 170 major retailers, based either on their standard shipping policies or special holiday commitments (which DealHack notes).

Guaranteed deadlines typically come with a promise of compensation of some sort if the gift arrives late--a gift card, perhaps, and a refund of any shipping charges. These vary by retailer, so read the fine print.

Apple doesn't make any holiday shipping guarantees, but it does offer detailed explanations of what time frames to expect for its various shipping options (standard, 2-day shipping, 2-3 day international shipping, and next business day). If you're thinking of doing your holiday shopping at Apple's online store, check out its Gifting page, which tells you where you can send gifts paid for with a U.S. credit card, as well as its packaging and card options.

Shipper deadlines

If you choose to ship gifts yourself (perhaps you want to wrap them personally), check the holiday shipping deadlines for the U.S. Postal Service, United Parcel Service, and FedEx. If you want to compare prices, Shipping Sidekick has a bunch of calculators to help figure out costs based on destination, package type, and other variables.

Prepare for overseas

If you are sending gifts to friends or family overseas, all sorts of additional hassles apply. You'll have to fill out customs forms, and your recipients may well be stuck paying taxes on your gift. Better to buy overseas and ship from there. E-tailers outside the U.S. (especially Europe) are much more common than they were even a few years ago, and many offer English-language versions of their sites. (Check the home page for a US or British flag if you don't see the word "English.") You and your gift recipient may be much happier if you go that route.

One way to find a foreign retailer is to look up the country's top-level domain (e.g. .de for Germany), then go to Google's Advanced Search page. There, enter the gift you want to give as a search term and put the country domain in the Search Within a Site or Domain box. Amazon has sites for most major countries, which accept U.S. credit cards in payment. And there's always iTunes electronic gift certificates, which are good anywhere that iTunes sells music and video.

[Yardena Arar is a freelance writer in San Francisco.]

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