Overnight Shipping: Comparing Speed, Cost and How it Works

Carriers like UPS, USPS and FedEx offer overnight shipping options. Here, we'll talk about how overnight shipping works, and compare speed and costs. 

What does overnight shipping mean?

In a fast-moving world that demands speed and efficiency, overnight shipping is usually the fastest way to get a package delivered. Overnight shipping may be referred to by many names, such as next-day shipping, express shipping or one-day shipping. No matter what you call them, overnight shipping services are ideal for sending urgently needed materials, time-sensitive documents and perishable goods. And because they transport primarily by air, it tends to be more secure than ground shipping and a better choice for sending high-value materials.

An overnight shipment must be scheduled and either dropped off or picked up by a specific cutoff time, usually late afternoon or early evening. It is then processed and transported during the night, so that it can be delivered to the recipient before the end of the next business day.

While all overnight shipping services are fast, the default delivery time is before the end of the next business day, or approximately 4pm, Monday through Friday. Some carriers offer a choice of earlier delivery times. The earlier the delivery, the higher the cost. Saturday or holiday delivery may be available for an additional fee, and some carriers will hold packages for Saturday or weekend pickup instead of delivery.

How does overnight shipping work?

Because overnight shipping has been a fact of life for decades, we tend to take it for granted. But a peek behind the scenes reveals that overnight delivery is a triumph of logistical planning, technology and ingenuity. Thanks to extensive nationwide networks of hubs, planes and trucks, a package shipped from Key West, Florida on Monday afternoon can arrive at its destination in Juneau, Alaska before the end of the business day on Tuesday.

In order to guarantee overnight delivery, shippers and carriers must adhere to a precisely calculated schedule and route. A delay or mistake at any point in the process may add a day to the delivery time. Shipping a package overnight must follow a step-by-step process like this:

  1. Shipper schedules the shipment before the carrier’s cutoff time for overnight orders.
  2. Shipper packages the items and affixes the correct overnight shipping label.
  3. Shipper arranges pickup or drops the package off at a carrier location in time for it to be collected that same day. Pickup times vary by location, so it’s best to either call ahead or check the carrier’s web site for the correct pickup time.
  4. Carrier picks up the package.
  5. The package is scanned, sorted and loaded onto a plane bound for one of the carrier’s primary hubs.
  6. Upon arrival at the hub, the package is once again scanned and sorted.
  7. If the package is still a considerable distance from its final destination, it is placed on another plane for transportation to a secondary hub. When it is within driving distance of the final destination, it is loaded onto a truck for delivery to the recipient’s door.

Who does overnight shipping?

As we have seen, providing an overnight shipping service requires massive resources and the high cost of entry limits the number of players. There are currently only three major carriers in U.S. market: FedEx®, UPS® and the USPS®. To compete in this lucrative market, carriers offer a variety of delivery options to address different customer needs. For example, businesses may need to receive materials or documents at the start of the business day, while a birthday gift is on time whether it arrives at noon or in the evening.

FedEx overnight shipping

FedEx, the company credited with inventing the overnight delivery business, offers guaranteed next day delivery on weekdays to both commercial and residential locations throughout the U.S. including Alaska and Hawaii. Saturday delivery may be available for an additional fee.

FedEx offers three delivery options: early morning, mid-morning and afternoon delivery. The earlier the delivery, the more you will pay. Rates are based on speed, weight and size (the greater of dimensional weight or actual weight) and distance. Dimensional rates do not apply to FedEx envelopes, paks, boxes or tubes. Maximum package weight is 150 lbs. and tracking is available free of charge.

Comparison of FedEx overnight shipping options
  Delivery to businesses Residential delivery Saturday delivery
FedEx First Overnight® 8:00am to 9:30am
or by 2:00pm (to extended locations)

Available in some areas for an additional fee.

Saturday hold at location available at no additional charge.

FedEx Priority Overnight® 10:30am to businesses or by 4:30pm (to some rural areas) 12:00pm
FedEx Standard Overnight® by 4:30pm by 8:00pm Pickup only. Saturday hold at location available at no additional charge.

UPS overnight shipping

A leader in the overnight shipping business, UPS states that it delivers faster to more addresses than its competitors. Packages can weigh up to 150 lbs. and measure up to 108” in length. Online tracking is included free of charge.

The company’s three overnight shipping options are primarily focused on commercial delivery: however, geographic coverage varies somewhat from one service to another or even from one delivery time to another within the same service offering. This can make identifying the best service to use a bit complicated.

For example, UPS Next Day Air® Early delivers to by 8:00am to major cities in the contiguous 48 states, but delivery to other cities takes slightly longer, and delivery to “extended locations” can take until 2:00pm. UPS Next Day Air® delivers to all 50 states and Puerto Rico by 10:30am, noon or end of day depending on destination. UPS Next Day Air® Saver delivers to the 48 contiguous states, but is not available in areas where UPS Next Day Air® delivers by 10:30am or noon.

Comparison of UPS overnight shipping options
  Delivery to businesses Residential delivery Saturday delivery
UPS Next Day Air® Early 8:00am to major cities 8:30 - 9:30am to most other cities including Anchorage, AK Unavailable Both delivery and pickup are available in select locations.
UPS Next Day Air® 10:30am, 12:00pm or end of day Unavailable
UPS Next Day Air® Saver 3:00pm to 4:30pm in Continental US By end of day Pickup only

USPS overnight shipping

The USPS is the nation’s oldest delivery service, with the largest last-mile delivery network. It can deliver to both business and residential locations anywhere in the US, any day of the week. Both USPS overnight shipping options offer free pickup, package tracking and insurance coverage up to $100 at no extra cost. Flat rate packaging is available at no cost, and proof of delivery is also provided free of charge if requested at time of purchase.

Comparison of USPS overnight shipping options
  Delivery to businesses Residential delivery Saturday delivery
Priority Mail Express® 1-2 days by 6:00pm 1-2 days by 6:00pm No extra charge for Saturday delivery. Sunday or holiday delivery is available in some major markets for an additional fee.
Priority Mail Express® Flat Rate 1-2 days by 6:00pm 1-2 days by 6:00pm

How much does overnight shipping cost?

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that overnight shipping is quite expensive. It costs considerably more than slower shipping options: all three carriers charge more than as three times as much to ship a 1 lb. package overnight than they do for two-day delivery. Interestingly, the difference in price for faster delivery is significantly larger for lighter weight packages, presumably because many more of them are shipped. What does this mean for shippers? It’s important to weigh the need for fast delivery versus budget impact. This isn’t always easy, but multi-carrier shipping software like PitneyShip® or PitneyShip® Pro  can save you money by making it easy to identify the best combination of price and delivery options. You can start saving in just a few clicks:

  1. Choose your packaging type and enter the recipient’s name and address, plus an email to enable tracking and delivery notifications.
  2. Next, key in package weight and dimensions. You’ll see a list of shipping options, including deeply discounted UPS rates, that you can sort by price or delivery date.
  3. Select the carrier option that meets your needs and print a shipping label.
  4. Affix the label to your package and you’re ready to ship.

FedEx overnight shipping costs

FedEx offers three overnight shipping options that allow shippers to decide when during the day their package will be delivered. From lowest cost to highest they are FedEx Standard Overnight®, FedEx Priority Overnight® and FedEx First Overnight®. Costs are comparable to UPS overnight shipping rates.

UPS overnight shipping costs

Like FedEx, UPS has three different overnight shipping options that allow customers to customize delivery to meet their needs. UPS Next Day Air® Early offers the fastest delivery and is the most expensive of the three options, followed by UPS Next Day Air® and UPS Next Day Air® Saver, the lowest-priced option. Although UPS and FedEx overnight rates are very similar, it’s smart to compare options to learn which carrier can provide the lowest cost; this is especially true for high volume shippers.

USPS overnight shipping costs

In contrast to FedEx and UPS, the USPS offers only two express shipping options, both of which are competitively priced. Priority Mail® and Priority Mail Express® can both provide overnight delivery, it’s only available in designated areas. However, when you use the free flat rate packaging you don’t have to worry about what your package weighs, and there’s no additional cost for Saturday delivery.

Who has the cheapest overnight shipping?

The market for overnight shipping is highly competitive, and rates are roughly comparable from one carrier to another overall. However, the carrier that charges the most to deliver a 2 lb. package to Zone 8 may offer the cheapest rate on shipping a 10 lb. package to Zone 2. As a result, it’s highly unlikely that one carrier is going to be cheaper than the competition every time, so shippers who want to control costs have their work cut out for them. A variety of factors including package size and weight, the distance to the destination and your priorities (such as early morning delivery or a money-back guarantee) may make one carrier more or less expensive for an individual package.

Because shipping rates are so complex, tracking down the best rate for each package can be very time-consuming. Fortunately, multi-carrier shipping software makes rate shopping simple. In a matter of seconds, it identifies the cheapest overnight shipping option for your package, saving you time and money while helping to optimize the customer experience. The ability to easily compare rates is especially valuable if you are shipping overnight, when costs are already at a premium.

Which company has the fastest overnight shipping service?

When you’re shipping perishables or time-sensitive documents or supplies, you want them delivered as soon as possible. That’s why both UPS and FedEx now offer delivery before the start of the standard business day. FedEx First Overnight® and UPS Next Day Air® Early can both deliver at 8:00am for your most critical shipments. Additional morning delivery times from 8:30am to 9:30am are also available.

Although both services offer the same delivery times, their geographic coverage may not be the same. FedEx First Overnight® promises delivery to most areas by 9:30am. UPS Next Day Air® Early only offers 8:00am delivery in certain major cities in the 48 contiguous states: 8:30 to 9:30 delivery is available in most other cities. Both carriers may deliver to remote or less populous areas as late as 2:00pm.

For example, a 1lb. package shipped from Stamford, CT to Missoula, MT via FedEx First Overnight® would arrive by 9:30am. UPS Next Day Air® Early is not available to Missoula from Connecticut. The same shipment via UPS Next Day Air® would arrive by 10:30am. That’s why many smart shippers rely on multi-carrier shipping software to quickly discover the best combination of rate and delivery time for each package they send.

Which company is best for overnight shipping?

The answer to this question is simple: there is no company that’s best for overnight shipping in every single circumstance. Each of the three major carriers has its own unique benefits, and it’s up to you, the shipper, to identify which company’s service is best for each package you send. That’s exactly what shipping software like PitneyShip® or PitneyShip® Pro can help you do.

Why use overnight shipping for your business?

Although it is relatively expensive, overnight shipping can provide many benefits to your business when used judiciously. These include:

  • Time sensitivity – Get emergency supplies, medicines, just-in-time inventory or critical documents into the right hands at the right time, even before start of the business day.
  • Customer satisfaction – Many online shoppers expect to be able to receive their goods quickly. If fast shipping isn’t available, they may abandon their carts. Offering overnight shipping can reduce cart abandonment and increase loyalty.
  • Increase order size – When you set minimum order size to qualify for overnight shipping, it motivates customers to spend more.
  • Ability to ship perishables – Overnight shipping lets you deliver items like cold or frozen foods, cut flowers and plants to distant customers while ensuring freshness.
  • Lower storage costs – When you can move your inventory faster, you require less storage space.

Using overnight shipping with Pitney Bowes

Smart use of overnight shipping can help differentiate your brand and make your ecommerce business more successful. But first you have to understand where overnight delivery fits into your shipping strategy. That’s where Pitney Bowes can help. Our PitneyShip® multi-carrier shipping solutions help you to understand all the available options for every package. In just a few clicks, you can see which carrier offers the best combination of rates and delivery times for your shipping label. You’ll also get access to deeply discounted USPS and UPS rates, and can set rules to prevent overspending.