If you're reading this, you probably want to know a good way or two to send Christmas cards (or other greeting cards pertaining to your winter holiday of choice) expediently by way of the United States Postal Service. No, don't laugh, it can be done. Read on.

Before you get started on this, a few details. Almost all of your first class mail (letters, greeting cards, bills, etc.) is machine handled, especially sortation. When sorting, their machinery will attempt to read the address as printed on the envelope - if it can read it, the computer prints a POSTNET barcode on it sends it on its merry way. If however it can't read it, the item goes back for somebody to add the barcode by hand.

So without further ado, here's how to get your holiday cards from Los Angeles to New York in a few days during the worst possible time by bypassing the hand sortation people.

1) use your computer for addresses

The biggest bottleneck your letter will run into is the mass use of hand script, festively colored envelopes, and festively colored ink - sometimes any combination, or all of these. Remember, people won't display the envelope on their walls or hearths, and the computers used within the USPS cannot read handscript all too well. What's worse, they use red lasers to scan the envelopes, which renders red ink completely invisible when illuminated. So what you do is print labels using your favorite word processor, using a font such as Arial or Helvetica or another similar sans serif typefont. Use ALL UPPERCASE, and if possible, use the aforementioned POSTNET barcodes. (Most modern word processing programs can do POSTNET barcodes - consult the manual or help file for details.) This step alone causes your cards to get throughout the US in no more than three days, even during the worst of the rush. Alaska included.

(This has been tested. In 1997 I sent cards this way on the 21st of December to local addresses, which all arrived the next day. The next year I started sending interstate, and observed as every single US-bound card got to its intended destination on or before Christmas Eve. I have been sending my cards this way ever since.)

Remember too that the postal service is running on sort of a FIFO system, especially for hand sorts. If you think the purpose of these steps is to reduce the workload of the US Postal Service, you're insane; if you think that this will go past the enlarged workload, you're only half right. It simply goes into another crunch, but still gets out quickly.

OK, maybe if everyone does this, this'll help things.

2) Don't forget the return address

If it doesn't get to its destination for one reason or another, it has to go somewhere - preferably back to the sender so they know why it wasn't accepted at the destination. Make sure you provide a proper return address. See above. Otherwise, you'll have to go to your friendly neighborhood dead letter office.

3) Have all postage ready before sending

This includes everything you are sending through the mail. Have it affixed to your items before you mail it. Make use of the vending machines and scales available in many branches of the US Postal Service. Note, too, many of the USPS's vending machines now accept credit/debit cards - and quite a few of them accept pennies to allow the purchase of individual postage stamps. THE POSTAL SERVICE WILL NOT ACCEPT MAIL WITH NO MEANS OF POSTAGE PAYMENT AFFIXED UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. Currency, by the way, is not postage. Go to the post office, or buy from your rural carrier rather than taping coins to an envelope.

Also, if you really cannot get to the post office, the USPS will sell you postage by mail. Since you're also reading this, a postage meter might be an option, or you could probably go to outlets like stamps.com.

Remember that you must take your packages to the local post office due to heightened security - unless, of course, you have a postage meter, and your mail carrier likes you. Having postage preaffixed will save you loads of time, and might (emphasis on might) even earn you priority in line if you have to walk in.

Also note that many post offices have an automated kiosk that will allow you to weigh and ship your packages - these come with a postage printer, and take ATM and credit cards.

4) Send it before the recommended dates, and know how it goes to guess when it gets there.

Having said that you can get your cards from point A to point B in three days and specifically not giving a money back guarantee (simply because YMMV), this is conventional wisdom. If you can help it, don't procrastinate.

The USPS has dates outlined to tell you when to send a card to ensure its arrival before Christmas. These are important dates. If you do computer labels (see figure 1), you have a bit of leeway, but keep these in mind when sending your items through the mail.

Keep also in mind a few things - First class mail, express mail, and priority mail are flown. Parcel post is sent via ground routes, and can take up to ten days normally to get to their destination within the US - around Christmas, this is prone to extended delays, possibly owing to any of weather, backlog, or the phase of the moon. In both cases, the majority of mail is contracted to commercial companies (Amtrak, etc., and FedEx in many cases) to push it through.

A few other hints:

Knowing where your local processing and distributing facility is will help decrease the amount of time it takes to send a letter, but note that they are not equipped to accept packages. These facilities normally have a drop box on the location with pickups that are significantly later than the surrounding area.

Never use red anything on your envelopes, postage stamps excepted. Remember, the lasers they use to scan your mail are themselves red, which renders red ink completely invisible. Also, using green or red envelopes doesn't help. If you have to use a dark colored envelope, make sure you use a white label for your addresses so that your addresses are visible; where possible, use white envelopes, and if you insist on colored envelopes, try and stick with pastels.

Domestic first class postage remains at 37 cents for the first ounce, and 23 cents each additional ounce. After 13 ounces, refer to the pricing for priority mail. International rates tend to vary.

Any rates and post office locations can be found on the US Postal Service's website at http://www.usps.com or by calling the US Postal Service at (800) 275-8777.

EDIT, 14Oct2005 - Passenger airlines no longer carry US Mail - at this time, FedEx is carrying it.

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