The Care Package Post Office Survival Guide

Care Package Post Office Survival Guide
Stacks of care packages await distribution. (Eric Liesse/DVIDS)

So you just spent a whole week sweating over what to put in a care package for your spouse. You’ve finally stuffed the box full, taped it up and put it in your car. The job is all but done.

But now comes the un-fun part … the post office.

Long lines. Complicated customs forms. Screaming children. Sounds dreamy, huh?

I believe there’s a reason “going postal” is a thing. Working at a post office seems to be a pretty thankless job. Day in and out you sift through a never-ending line of people with overflowing armfuls of packages. All of the customers are in a hurry and many of them haven’t filled out their forms right, or packaged the box wrong, or … you get the picture.

And let's be honest: you don’t want to be there either. Your kids are impatient. The guy behind you smells really bad. You have a million errands to run. And when you finally make it to the counter that clerk gives you grief about your customs form.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. There is a better way. Give our little post office survival guide a whirl, and while we may not be able to make hitting the post office fun, hopefully by following our advice visiting that place won’t make you want to stab yourself in the eye with a shrimp fork anymore.

1. Know what can go in your box – and what can’t. The US Postal Service hates fun. Just kidding. But when you see the list of the stuff you can’t include in the box for your service member, you’re going to think they do. In addition to not being able to send weapons or explosives (which is pretty much common sense), you can’t send anything “hazardous.”

And their definition of “hazardous” is waaaaay different than mine.  A few banned items you may want to take special note of: nail polish, matches, batteries, glues and … wait for it … perfume.

Once upon a time, I thought it would be a fabulous idea to include a bottle of my perfume in a box so that my hubby could smell me whenever he wanted. A post office employee shot that one down, and fast.

The other item you should really pay attention to on that list is batteries. That means ANY battery – including, as of May 16, lithium-ion batteries, like those in laptops, iPhones, portable DVD players … and more.

So that idea you had about loading an iPod with your servicemember’s favorite songs and sending it over? Nope, can’t do that. Battery-powered digital photo frame? Forget about that, too.

Nov. 10, 2012 update: Great news! The Post Office is now once again allowing lithium batteries to be shipped -- that means you can send pretty much any electronics you want. Go to town.

See this post for more information on the new battery restrictions.

See the tab "hazardous materials" on this site for a complete list of banned items.

2. Be prepared. Use the right box – and make sure it’s taped tight and right. The post office will supply, for free, special APO/FPO only flat rate boxes. You can make that sucker basically as heavy or as light as you want and they will still charge you “only” $13.45 at the post office -- $2 less than the “normal” rate. (The actual weight cap for the box is about 70 lbs. … so don’t try to ship bricks or anything). You can pick up that box for free at the post office or order them from the post office's website. Those will be shipped right to your door, also for free.

After you finish putting everything you want in there, make sure you tape it up well for shipping. No one ever promised to be gentle on these boxes.

And while you’re at it? Make sure you use the correct tape. If you choose to use the tape available for free at the post office with “priority” stamped all over it, the post office will require you to ship your box “priority” – and NOT flat rate. It’s like a punishment for using free tape. The result? Much higher shipping cost. Use your own clear tape and save yourself the argument with the mail clerk.

Edit: I based this tape knowledge on the experience of myself and a friend. Apparently, we were taken for a ride. We'll be getting more info on this particular point and adding it to the story later.

Order post office boxes  here under “APO/FPO Large Box.”

Oh, and bonus tip from the headlines of my life -- if you are sending anything worth more than $100, consider insuring it. If they lose all of your stuff (as they did last week with a box I had mailed my sister-in-law) and you do NOT insure it, they will only refund you the cost of shipping. Sigh. Bye-bye $400 in baby clothing and supplies. ::: tears :::

3.Know how to fill out a customs form – and do it BEFORE you get to the post office. Nothing is worse than standing behind someone in a really long post office line only to realize you’re going to have to stand behind them even LONGER because they failed to fill out their customs form correctly.

Oh no, wait, there is something worse than that … being the person who is causing the hold-up.

Do yourself (and the people behind you!) a favor and have that form squared away before you waltz in the post office.

Visit this awesome, illustrated customs form tutorial to know how to make that happen. The people who wrote this know what they’re doing – listen to their advice.

Are you still having trouble with the form? Try hitting the post office before you are ready to mail your package and get a lesson from the clerk. I promise they will appreciate your desire to fill it out correctly.

4. Pick your post office wisely. Most cities have several post offices to choose from. Do yourself a favor and figure out which one is the least busy – and go there.

The secret may be in finding a local post office contractor store. Here at Fort Campbell the US Cav store is also home to a postal counter run by store employees. There is never a line and they accept packages seven days a week. The post office down the street has a line constantly out the door. And both locations do virtually the same things.

If you do choose to go the contractor route, however, make sure they accept packages. Not every contract location is created equal.  And some, like the one in Lakewood, Wa., only accept cash payments. Uncool.

5. Put on a happy face. Do you know what’s hard for a disgruntled post office employee to ignore? A happy, well prepared, kind customer. So put on your happy face, be nice to your local postal worker and thank your lucky stars that we get to mail our spouses packages at all. Those post office folks have spent their whole day dealing with people who didn’t bother to read this guide. No wonder they are grumpy! Try to make their day a little easier.

Happy packaging!

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