I sent a box to Buenos Aires for a client and found it’s nearly cheaper (and definitely faster) to fly myself to Buenos Aires than to ship a 13-pound box.
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I Needed To Send A 13-pound Package
This week we have more than 50 passengers (on a 150-passenger ship) traveling to Antarctica. I needed to send a package ahead of their trip. It was a simple gift of branded hats, it weighed just under 13 lbs, and the package measured 18″x12″x14″.
The options presented to me at my local UPS store were either a 4-day or 5-day arrival from Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires and the cheapest option with insurance for $900 (only accounted for $28 in added cost) was $1,060.
You read that right.
I checked with the counter employee as I was certain that she was mishearing how much I wanted to insure.
“Oh no, I am just insuring $900, not $1,000.” – Me
“Yes sir, the cost of shipping is $1,060 but you’re insured for $900 for the contents.” – Employee
[Long pause, deep breaths]
“You’re telling me that to ship 13 pounds as slow as you can in this box [taps box] of $900 in hats is going to take five days and cost more than the hats are worth?” – Me
“Yeah, that doesn’t seem right, let me check again.” – Employee types on computer, guides finger along screen to follow numbers. I research the prices online and confirm what she will find.
“Yes, $1,060 and 83 cents.” – Employee
“Ok, no thank you.” – I said as I walked off in the calmest tone I could muster. Frankly, I was proud of myself for not losing my mind, even if UPS has.
Shopping Flights Instead
My mind wandered for a moment in the rage and I started to wonder: what would it cost if I were to fly to Buenos Aires on no notice with this one package under my arm? I pulled up Google Flights and had a look. Given that I had seven days before I needed it to be there I shopped five days out returning on the seventh day from Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The result that came back was on United Airlines and was a reasonably easy route. The itinerary stopped in Washington Dulles with a connection in Panama City, Panama connecting via Copa Airlines. The cost was approximately $1,320 roundtrip. In my incredible anger, I contemplated the notion and the benefits.
One benefit was the peace of mind that my parcel would clear customs and arrive on time, in the condition it was intended. Last year, I shipped a laptop to an employee in Armenia and despite best efforts, tracking, insurance, and actively watching it, the parcel took more than 30 days to arrive (guaranteed in 3-5 business days) and required a monumental amount of effort.
Another benefit is that I would be able to greet our traveling clients and surprise a staff member by personally delivering it. When it absolutely, positively has to be there on time, take it yourself.
I would also be able to stay just long enough to tick a country off my list that has long been a target for me. I initially intended to study abroad in Argentina 20 years ago, but due to turmoil at the time, I switched to Lima, Perú instead. Buenos Aires as a city and Argentina remains high on my list of countries I’d like to visit.
Lastly, I’d earn miles and start a climb toward an elite status level that I am not altogether entirely enthusiastic about, however, I have expiring United MileagePlus “Plus Points” that could help me attempt to secure an upgrade and it seems like such a waste to see them die on the vine.
Doing The Math
On the surface, you don’t have to be a professor of quantum physics to surmise that $1,382.75 is more than $1,060.75 (with added insurance coverage), even if the difference is slight. But as any reader of this site knows (and miles and points collectors the world over can attest) loyalty program math can be an exercise in very creative calculations.
First, we would have to remove the proposed shipping cost to find the balance ($322) and then start any add-ons. For example, I would earn about 10,800 United Miles in the process worth about $151.20. That reduces the gap to $170.80.
But wait, there’s more.
I’d earn six United PerksPlus points per dollar spent because it’s a “last minute” fare (even though the class would not be ticketed business.) That’s 7200 PerksPlus points worth about $80. That reduces the gap to $90.80.
I would charge the ticket on an American Express Platinum Credit Card and earn 6,600 points at a value of about 1.5¢/point or $99. That actually puts me in the black by $8.20. When I take into account the meals that United would feed me (if I clear into business class, the value would be closer to $50 roundtrip in the lounge and onboard.) If these flights were on United, I might have to deduct some value based on Matthew’s recent United catering experience.
I’d likely spend about $150 for my one-night stay in Buenos Aires or offset with points so I am more or less even on the trip compared to shipping it and going about my life. The benefit of the visit to a new country balances out with the cost of my time to get there and at that point, we are just horse-trading.
Pirate Ship To The Rescue
As exciting as heading to Buenos Aires with a single package under my arm to prove a point, I do actually have better things to do with my time. I explored my options and found PirateShip.com which appears to have hijacked shipping rates and dropped the price of my shipment by nearly 75%.
I could save even more money by using Priority Mail from the USPS but doing so would not have guaranteed the arrival date I needed (shown below.) The guaranteed option was more expensive at just above $350, a far cry from $280 shipping with UPS but by printing my own shipping label at home, USPS would still save me a fortune over the UPS price at the counter.
I’ve tracked my package to the US departure point within a day of dropping it off and it’s slated to arrive even before the stated time.
International shipping prices are outrageous and it should never be even in the same pricing realm to fly an entire human with the package and up to 100 pounds in checked bags for a similar cost as a 13 pound box. I was fortunate to find Pirate Ship, but remain disgusted at the markup. Maybe I should have taken the chance to fly to Buenos Aires just to deliver this package, but instead I’ll be at home watching football with family and that beats 57 hours of travel time any day.
What do you think? Can you believe it’s cheaper to fly to Buenos Aires than to ship a small package?
Buenos Aires is a city not a country
I read back through my post and can’t see where I stated Buenos Aires was a country, but I did find several mentions of Argentina and one of Buenos Aires, Argentina. If I overlooked something, can you let me know where?
Hi Kyle, it’s in this sentence: “Buenos Aires remains high on my list of countries I’d like to visit.”
@Jake K – Thanks for that, I clarified in the post and updated.
Shipping anything using Fedex, UPS, DHL or USPS is comparable to armed robbery. Every year I ship a box to my sister in MA for Christmas. It is always the same size of box with similar weight. For years I never paid more than $12. Last Christmas, $36. Same f….ing package!!! It is simply extortion. What you experienced is the norm. I have family and friends in Latam and many times they flew to Miami to buy something that they tried to buy online and ship there and it was cheaper to travel and grab themselves.
Thank you for sharing this experience. I had a similar one recently where I was trying to ship a 25 lbs. box to Beijing via DHL, and was wondering if I was missing something 🙂
I recently had a similar issue trying to ship a 45 lb. box to a Hawaii client from SoCal. Fedex & UPS wanted ~$555 for 2 day and ~$880 for next day, even with our corp. discount. I ended up sending one of my junior staffers there with the box as free checked luggage for $300 (all in) on a same day turn around. Even paying for his mai tai and time, it was cheaper. Plus I got a more reliable delivery, and thrilled employee.
For our family trip to Chile later this year, I’m intrigued by the exciting opportunities that await for shipping cases of wine back to myself and my children here across the US. Stay tuned! 🙂
Retail rates with FedEx and UPS are insane. Luckily Pirate Ship exists. I’ve used it a bunch and it works great!
@Kyle, every city pair is different, so it is possible that PIT is different from my neck of the woods.
With that said, I was very surprised when I rolled into my FedEx Office Store to ship a box to friends in Zurich and was quoted an outrageous amount of money to ship him a graphics card that he wanted and it was way cheaper in the States that in the CHF.
When I questioned it, the employee mouthed to me, go to the airport staffed location.
I was shocked, the quote the airport staffed location gave me was almost $400 less than the FedEx Office Store quote.
I don’t understand why it was that much cheaper, my only thought is that the package would have had to be driven to the local FedEx distribution point, sorted and then driven to the airport to be sent to MEM before it would go to the UK, by driving it to the airport, it cut out that and thus was c
It’s a way to make you go away – they don’t want the business, retail customers are too much hassle for them. Even sending an item within the EU can be pretty slow and it often costs ridiculous amounts of money. On the other hand, the same logistics firms work with the likes of Yoox who can get one’s new clothes and accessories delivered from Italy to England within a couple of working days (including customs clearance!) for less than £10!
The same approach is taken by insurance firms wanting to rebalance their risk portfolio away from certain customer profiles, I have received car insurance quotes well into five figures when the cheapest firms had been around £300.
Super interesting story. Given your detail and how steamed you were I presume you looked into why the price was so outrageous. I’d love to hear what you learned.
Prob cheaper still to ditch the hats lolllll. Sounds like a good gig you landed! Nice one
I do wonder the immigration and customs issues if you were to try to deliver it yourself. It may be a moot point for Argentina as it seems they include business, and not just tourism, in the visa-free access for US passports, but I would be a little unsure over exactly what the categorization would be. Long way to go to risk an issue.
Pirate Ship is quite popular in Ebay circles as it gives individual sellers access to the bulk USPS shipping rates that normally require much higher volume to gain access to. Hadn’t thought about its use for international shipping like this but not surprised. They’re great.
It astonishes me that Amazon (or Walmart) can ship almost anything I desire (from a toothbrush to a frying pan) to my front door, overnight, for free. But I can’t send a box from Southern California to Wisconsin for less than $100. What gives?
(I have figured out that if you handle the labeling, etc… for a UPS shipment over the web on your own you do save a lot of money over walking into your local UPS store. But it’s still crazy expensive).
Try using Great Rates with FedEx. Typically 80-90% off published rates. I’ve used it many times to ship to Argentina, Japan, Hong Kong, etc.
UPS Store and FedEx Office locations levy a significant markup on their shipping prices. This is in addition to the list rates they charge. This is why airport locations, and other corporate-owned locations have cheaper rates; there is no markup.
USPS rates are fixed and generally represent a better value (especially the GXG service, which is FedEx from end-to-end)
Overall, agree with the comments that the best value is to use a 3rd party, such as Pirate Ship, Parcel Monkey, etc, to print your own label, and just drop it off at the shipping provider.
Pirate Ship rocks. For more than 30+ years I’ve been shipping packages all over the world. They blow all others out of the water.