As you're putting together your packages to send to troops overseas during the holidays, don't forget about easy, cheap, priority-mail flat-rate boxes.
The flat-rate boxes are free at your local post office or from www.usps.com. They come in various shapes and sizes. More important: It always costs the same to ship the boxes, regardless of how many pounds you stuff into them.
If you use a large flat-rate box to ship to an APO or FPO address, you'll get a $2 discount on your mailing cost — so instead of the usual $14.50 domestic shipping rate for the priority-mail large flat-rate box, you'll pay $12.50.
You can use the priority mail APO/FPO flat-rate box, which comes only in the large size and features the "America Supports You" logo and an APO/FPO addressing block. But if you can't find the APO/FPO flat-rate box, you can use the regular large flat-rate box and get the discount as long as you're mailing to an APO or FPO address, U.S. Postal Service spokesman Dave Lewin said. The box measures 12 inches by 12 inches by 5˝ inches.
You can receive additional discounts for printing your priority-mail postage labels online through the Click-N-Ship service at www.usps.com. That would bring the price of shipping a large flat-rate box down to $11.95. You can also print customs forms online.
Also remember when mailing:
• There are specific restrictions for each military ZIP code, but there are additional prohibitions for packages going to troops in some places, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Those include: no obscene articles, no materials depicting nude or seminude people, no bulk quantities of religious materials contrary to the Islamic faith, and no pork or pork byproducts. For specific restrictions related to a military ZIP code, visit http:// postcalc.usps.gov/Restrictions .aspx and enter the ZIP code.
• Flat-rate boxes are strong boxes for mailing, but remember to place enough cushioning around your items, remove batteries and wrap them separately, and include a card inside the box that describes all the contents of the box as well as the sender's and recipient's addresses. Tape the box opening and reinforce all seams with a 2-inch-wide clear or brown packaging tape, reinforced packing tape or paper tape.
• When it comes to the holidays, mail early! The recommended deadline for sending priority mail to APO or FPO addresses is Dec. 10, except for mail going to contingency locations, which should be sent by Dec. 4. To get it there in time for Hanukkah, which begins Dec. 1, subtract 24 days from the recommended deadline.