If it seems your mail is not reaching its destination as quickly as it used to, it’s not just your imagination. The U.S. Post Office recently announced delivery of some first class mail will take longer as the postal service tries to cut costs and improve efficiency.
But with the USPS now approaching its peak season – an estimated 850 million to 950 million packages will be delivered between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – how much longer should you expect your packages to take?
13 Investigates conducted a test to track mail delivery times across the nation. That test shows the USPS is, in most cases, delivering within its revised delivery standard, although the postal service’s tracking system is not always dependable.
The Test: What arrived on time, what showed up late
Over the past six weeks, 13News mailed 33 separate packages to cities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Colleagues at TV stations across the country assisted us, accepting the packages delivered from Indianapolis and then sending a return package to 13News.
13 Investigates sent some packages first class and others by USPS priority mail. We closely tracked both their expected delivery date and their actual delivery date to see if the postal service is delivering on time.
Of the 33 packages delivered by the USPS, 29 of them arrived on time or even a day or two earlier than scheduled.
The only exceptions included a priority mail package from Indianapolis to St. Petersburg, Fla., that took five days instead of four; a first class package 13News sent to Austin, Tex., took eight days instead of four; a first class padded envelope from Indianapolis to York, Pa., was delivered in seven days rather than four; and another first class package from the Minneapolis area that should have arrived in Indianapolis within three days took nearly three weeks. That final package arrived with a crossed out “Postage Due” message, suggesting why the USPS did not deliver the package for 19 days.
Overall, nearly 90% of the packages 13News mailed during our test arrived on time or early. The Post Office delivered most items within two to five days, which falls within its new delivery standard.
According to the Washintong Post, that new standard, which took effect October 1, means:
- First class mail delivery under 140 miles will take up to two days
- First class mail delivery between 140 and 930 miles will take up to three days
- First class mail delivery traveling between 930 and 1,907 miles will take up to four days
- First class mail delivery more than 1,907 miles will take up to five days
The postal service’s previous delivery standard for first class mail included 2-day delivery for packages traveling up to 280 miles, and 3-day delivery for items traveling further than 280 miles. The USPS new standard means some packages will now take one to two days longer than in the past.
Tracking Reliability: Tracking the Post Office’s tracking
The 13News investigation did not test only delivery times; we also tested how well the Post Office keeps track of your stuff.
Mailing a priority or first class package through the USPS includes tracking service so you can monitor exactly where your package is, but 13 Investigates discovered the postal service’s tracking system is far from perfect.
In each of the 30 boxes and padded envelopes mailed during our test, 13News included our own GPS tracking device so we could track it too. Those trackers showed four of the 30 packages were tracked improperly.
For example, the Post Office tracking system claimed the priority mail package we sent from Indianapolis to St. Petersburg, Fla., was located in Ybor City, Fla., on the morning of October 30. Ybor City is in Tampa, just 15 miles from the package’s delivery address. But 13News’ GPS tracker showed on the morning of October 30, the package was actually in Ft. Worth, Tex., which is more than 1,100 miles from its final destination. The discrepancy helps explain why the USPS needed three more days to deliver the package, which showed up later than promised.
Some packages showed only limited tracking information or were never tracked after their initial drop off.
One of our test packages was mailed from a Sacramento, Calif., Post Office on November 8. A month later, USPS tracking shows that package is still in Sacramento, even though it is not. The postal service delivered the package to the 13News newsroom in Indianapolis on November 10, two days earlier than expected.
Two other packages appear to be lost and have not been tracked in weeks. The Post Office was prepared to delivered them on time to an apartment complex near Austin, Tex., on November 1, but when the recipient did not respond to a delivery notification message, the USPS later designated the packages as “Return to Sender.” Those packages have not yet been returned to 13News, and the postal service has provided no tracking update since November 10. (The batteries on our tracking devices have since stopped working, so 13News does not know their whereabouts either.)
Asked about the postal service’s tracking system discrepancies, USPS spokeswoman Susan Wright told 13News: “[W]hile much of the Postal Service processing environment is completely automated, some parts still require human involvement. Some of those are scanning operations on the mail processing floor and sometimes there are errors.”
Holiday Deadlines: What about letters and holiday cards?
Even if the Post Office didn’t always get the tracking right, delivery times were usually within the 2-day to 5-day revised standard the postal service announced earlier this year. While some first class packages took an extra day or two compared to the USPS’s previous 3-day shipping standard, others arrived early in just two days instead of three.
Because the Post Office estimates it will also deliver more than a billion letters and holiday cards this month, 13News also tested delivery times for regular first class envelopes. Of the 12 first class letters mailed during our test, all arrived within one week.
The postal service says 61% of first class mail – including both letters and packages – will be unaffected by its new service standard changes.
It recommends the following deadlines if you are mailing items that you want to arrive by Christmas:
- First class — December 17
- Priority mail — December 18
- Priority mail express — December 23