En español | When Emilia Jankowski mails holiday gifts to family in England and Poland, she likes to use colorful ribbons, include a personal note and attach whimsical stickers.
"Part of the fun,” says the 65-year-old Sacramento, California, resident, “is preparing the package."
Jankowski — and millions of other Americans who ship holiday packages — also want to ensure contents like homemade peanut brittle arrive undamaged.
This year delays in shipping are expected, so make sure you send gifts early enough to get there at the right time. And whether you're sending presents to Mississippi or Mali, here are some packing tips to ensure they arrive intact.
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Best practices for packing and shipping
A container-within-a container method is a good way to keep gifts secure in transit — think Russian nesting dolls.
What you ship usually determines the packaging. A small box containing earrings can fit into a padded envelope. Bigger items may need larger, stronger containers.
If you recycle old packing boxes, make sure they're sturdy and remove or cover all bar codes, labels and logos. You can buy boxes (in person or online) and related materials at many retailers. Some shipping companies, like FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), provide some packing materials for free.
Fragile items such as glass vases need special care. Stuff them with foam peanuts or newspaper to avoid breaking, and wrap the exterior with padding such as bubble wrap, says Kim Frum, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service. For framed photographs, remove the glass and wrap it separately, she adds.
No matter what you ship, stack larger, heavier items on the bottom. Place gift packages in a paperboard or corrugated box, leaving space inside for more padding so the contents don't move when you jiggle the box.
FedEx offers advice on how to pack many items.
Federal law bans or restricts the mailing of certain items, such as alcohol and ammunition. Foreign countries also may have separate restrictions, prohibitions and size/weight standards, so check with your shipping company.
Food gifts need special care
With many people spending the holiday apart, Greg Sarley, senior vice president of merchandising revenue for iconic food retailer Harry & David, expects more food gifts to travel by mail this year. People are looking for ways to connect with others and express caring thoughts more than ever,” he says.
And no one wants their homemade Christmas cookies and other goodies to fall apart in delivery.
Fresh cookies tend to be more fragile, Sarley says, so let them cool to room temperature or freeze them before packing. Wrap individual cookies in plastic and pack them in a zip-seal bag or other airtight container.
To keep perishables cool, use insulated coolers or containers with gel packs (to maintain 32 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit) or dry ice (for frozen goods). Line the bottom with plastic and absorbent pads or paper towels in case the contents thaw. Some shippers have dry ice warnings or restrictions.
What about seafood, liquids and goods that may melt? Shippers recommend putting containers of those items in two plastic bags at least 2-millimeters thick, with the bag folded over but not sealed for venting. Skip dry ice for live seafood like lobsters.
Be detail-oriented when addressing packages
Addressing your package correctly is important to ensure it arrives on time or at all.
Verify and clearly print the recipient's address and the return address on the shipping box (and include a copy inside as an extra precaution). You can look up zip codes on the USPS website or call 800-ASK-USPS.
For international destinations, the Universal Postal Union's website provides address formats by country. Packages bound for another country will go through that nation's customs process, which may require you to complete a customs declaration and attach it to the package's exterior in an envelope marked “Customs Documents.” Keep in mind that packages traveling to other countries may take longer than expected to arrive, so mail with plenty of time to spare.
Putting on the festive touches
Senders also want their gifts to look merry. While outer shipping boxes shouldn't sport wrapping paper, twine or baubles -— which can be a shipping hazard or get damaged — you can adorn them with playful stickers, drawings or sayings.
Inside, you can go to town decorating gift packages with colorful ribbons, ornaments or greenery. “A little extra tissue paper and ribbon can go a long way in transforming your home-baked goods into a very special gift,” says Sarley of Harry & David, which has turned decorating gift boxes into an art form.
Place your decorated gifts inside the shipping container, leaving plenty of room for extra cushioning for stabilization. Tape all box seams and flaps by using packing or wide adhesive tape.
If needed, mark your container as “Perishable” or “Fragile” to help protect the contents during shipping. The recipient will truly appreciate the special touches.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association's website.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 3, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.