Air cargo: The best way to ship your stuff

My experience shipping packages via Alaska Air Cargo and becoming a TSA Known Shipper was amazing, and I’d recommend it for everyone.

A few years ago, I had a need to ship a bunch of boxes from my mom’s house in Philadelphia to my home in Portland.

At the time, I found that two different shipping methods suited my needs:

  1. Media Mail. This handy shipping class allows you to ship books, CDs, and other “educational” material for dirt cheap. They’re strict about the educational part; magazines, for example, are strictly verboten, and they will open your boxes to check.
  2. Amtrak. They offered a package express option that was the sweet spot of reliability and cost-effectiveness.

(Yes, I know Greyhound also has a Package Express, but knowing that they use the same under-bus space as everyone else, frankly, I’ve logged too many hours on Greyhound buses in my life to trust that.)

I sent as much as I could by Media Mail, and everything else, I used Amtrak. It worked great, and my boxes arrived quickly and it perfect shape.

Now, a few years later, with a similar need, I went to check in with my old stalwarts.

Media Mail, which has been around since 1938, was still a viable option.

Amtrak, on the other hand…

Well, damn.

Shipping via normal USPS rates wasn’t a viable option. And UPS and FedEx? Forget it, way too expensive.

So what was I to do?

The answer came in a surprising form: I could ship my boxes via cargo. Air cargo.

That’s right, in order to make this happen, I was about to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of fishermen and commercial shippers.

This was going to interesting.

Alaska Air Cargo

Alaska Airlines is my airline, and it has been since US Airways got eaten by American in 2014.

I don’t know exactly where I got the idea got in my head, but I think I recall looking up how much it would cost to check a bunch of boxes as luggage.

This wasn’t fruitful, but it somehow alerted me to the presence of a parallel site: Alaska Air Cargo.

I never knew this existed!

Alaska Air Cargo is their freight shipping arm. They use space on existing flights, or use their own specialized freighter planes, to get your stuff from here to there.

Cargo pricing

Sending boxes via cargo is cheap. Really cheap.

They have three options for shipping, General, Priority, and Gold Streak, the latter of which is for getting it there yesterday. I didn’t need it yesterday, or tomorrow, or even next week, so I chose the General option.

The site has a price calculator, and I fiddled around with it, and found that while one box cost around $80, the cost to send four boxes was practically the same. I could get behind this!

Commercial shipping only?

Poking around on the site, it surely seemed like it was for commercial service only. I own a business (financial coaching, in case I haven’t mentioned it) but I was sort of hoping not to have to get it involved.

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When I called, the options on the automated phone tree weren’t promising:

“For Live Animals, press 1; for seafood, press 2; for all other inquiries, say Cargo.”

But when I spoke to a human, it turned out to be fine. Despite looking like a commercial service, you could be a standard rube like myself and still use air cargo. Anyone was eligible.

Oh, just one small thing though. You have to be a TSA Known Shipper.

TSA Known Shipper

A TSA Known Shipper is an entity (business, person) who is authorized to ship cargo on airlines. Like all things involving the TSA, you just have to abide by their rules.

When I pressed for more details, they told me that it was straightforward process to become a TSA Known Shipper though. I had to fill out an application (of course) and then subject myself to a “site verification visit”. This was what it sounds like: an authorized representative would come to my house, and verify that…well, I wasn’t sure what.

But once I did this process, and paid a fee, that was all I needed.

I was confused at this site visit requirement. I explained that I was shipping boxes that I would pick up from the airport and take to my storage space. At no point would the boxes ever touch my place of residence. Why did I need someone to come look at my home?

“TSA rules”, was the answer, of course.

Sighing, I signed up. Even after accounting for the fee, it was still significantly cheaper than all my other alternatives.

Site verification

I scheduled a visit via some third-party company in Ohio (don’t ask, I don’t know). A guy showed up on the expected afternoon, and I let him in.

The visit was over in under 10 minutes, and consisted mainly of me filling out a form with him watching over my shoulder.

I couldn’t resist. “What exactly are you looking for in a site visit, anyway?”

The guy said, “drugs, usually. We just want to make sure that nothing untoward is going on.”

I continued, “and have you ever found anything like that?”

“No,” he said.

This didn’t surprise me. If you’re scheduling someone to come visit your home, presumably, you’d hide the drugs, right?

I filled out the appropriate paperwork, and the guy was on his way.

The next day I received an email saying that my application was approved. I was now a TSA Known Shipper, and ready to ship whatever I wanted, across the country.

Good to ship!

Dropping off

I flew to Philly to visit my mom, and assemble the boxes for shipping.

When all was finished, I had 12 full-case boxes, which weighed in at a little over 300 pounds.

(I don’t do affiliate marketing, but if ever there would be a time for it, it would be now, to sing the praises of The Container Store’s “Our Best Box“. Yes, it’s stupidly expensive for a box, but they are indestructible and last forever.)

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The best box in the world

Since PHL wasn’t strictly an Alaska Cargo station, Alaska recommended I call to make a “shell” booking with them, so that when I walked in the door, they would have a rough idea of what I was going to send.

And as for that door, we’re talking about Cargo City, an industrial zone behind the airport that I have passed by for decades but never ventured into.

Cargo City

I walked in and was treated with the warmth I’ve always expected from people in Philadelphia. But they processed my paperwork, after initially being skeptical that I was authorized. (Why yes, I am a TSA Known Shipper, thank you very much.)

They opened a loading dock for me, and I backed my mom’s car into it and placed all twelve boxes on the dock.

Bon voyage!

And that was it. Since I was shipping the slow way (“General”), my boxes were on standby, meaning that they would fly when there was space for them, and not before.

Would it work? I didn’t know, but it was out of my hands at this point.

Picking up

I flew home and waited for updates. There is a tracking page online, and I entered my waybill number and saw that my boxes arrived in Seattle not long after I did.

And after a day’s rest at Sea-Tac, my boxes were loaded onto a plane, where they touched down at PDX one day later.

They generally give you 72 hours before they start charging you for storage, but I didn’t wait that long. I showed up at the PDX Cargo area, and hoped for the best.

The guy opened a loading dock for me, and there they were, intact and in great shape, only a little worse for wear.

There you are

The guy was so nice, he even helped me load up the boxes, unlike the guy in Philadelphia, who literally sat in a chair and watched me the entire time.

The whole thing was pretty anti-climactic, which is, of course, how it should be.

With my car filled up, I drove to my storage unit, off-loaded them, and that was that.

Total cost

To ship my 12 full-case boxes 3,000 or so miles on Alaska Air Cargo, it cost:

$122.00 Site Verification Visit
$221.39 Shipping Fee
= $343.39 Total

Now compare that to any other service (aside from Media Mail), and just see what it’s going to cost. FedEx was double that, and UPS was even more. Both shipped ground, and would have taken much longer.

The best way to ship your stuff

I was incredibly impressed by the whole process of shipping via air cargo, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who needs to ship lots of heavy items any amount of distance.

And if Alaska Airlines doesn’t suit you, I’m pretty sure all of the major carriers offer a cargo service in much the same way:

With the whole TSA Known Shipper thing, it’s not as simple as going to the post office and dropping off a box. But I’d still wager that it’s the best way to ship your stuff.

And seafood. They’re good for that too.

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