Christmas Shipping: How to Beat the Rush

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

Stacks of boxes holding cards and letters are seen at the U.S. Post Office sort center in San Francisco, California.

For holiday gift-givers, the clock is ticking. Dec. 16 is the last day packages can be sent via the U.S. Postal Service's no-frills parcel-post shipping in order to make it in time for Christmas, and the first in a series of deadlines for last-minute shoppers.

Most of us have already bought our holiday presents, of course. USPS shipping hit a high-water mark on Monday, Dec. 14, when post offices processed a whopping 800 million pieces of mail, a 40% spike over the typical load. A FedEx spokesman said the 14th was also that carrier's busiest day; the delivery service processed and sent out 13 million packages. Why Dec. 14? FedEx calls the date a "perfect storm" — packages were backed up from the weekend, and shoppers were rushing to beat the end of many retailers' free-shipping offers. The carrier says Dec. 14 has the potential to be the busiest day in its 36-year history.

If you still haven't found that special something for Grandma, don't fret — you can still sneak in a little last-minute shopping. For procrastinators, UPS may be the carrier of choice — despite a volume spike on Dec. 14, a UPS spokesman told TIME the company doesn't anticipate their shipments to peak until Dec. 21, when they expect to process 22 million packages (a typical day, by contrast, involves only 15 million). And if you really want to push it, major carriers will accept holiday shipping as late as Dec. 23 — two days later than the deadline for first-class and priority mail shipments through the USPS. For the privilege of overnight shipping that arrives at your destination on Christmas eve, you can expect to pay a hefty premium.