Great Package Race 2017

And they are off…!

This year we are sending books for school children in Namibia.

The occasion was provided by Glynda Ratliff, who traveled last year in Namibia with Jason Nott of Ultimate Safaris. She writes “The Conservation Travel Foundation, through its support from Ultimate Safaris and the guests that travel with them, has a philosophy of enriching lives through creating viable economic development for rural communities based on the sustainable utilization of the natural resources in all the areas in which it operates. At the same time it provides support to communities and projects that operate through a non-bureaucratic and pro-active board.”

“Children from surrounding villages walk or ride a donkey to school and spend the week as boarders in the small dormitories. Their resources from the government are very limited. The government has decreed that they will all learn English so books in English are very welcome there.”

Photo of students in front of Gootberg Primary School

“At the Grootberg Primary School the Foundation has constructed a volunteer accommodation centre for volunteers. The volunteers stay at the school anywhere between one and three months and assist the children with literacy and computer skills, also dedicating their time to extramural activities. The computers were supplied by a former safari guest. Last year while we were there the school had just received a shipment of new mattresses for the bunk beds and we delivered some boxes of books from another former visitor. Also last year, a shipment of blankets was supplied and a Citrus Garden was planted.”

“Thanks so much for enabling us to share more books with these kids. They were purchased from Scholastic Books through a program that I work with in Franklin County, Florida called Bring Me a Book Franklin. Kids all over the world deserve the chance to own a book of their own!”

We heartily second that and are glad that the race can do some good as well as entertain.

The start: 27 February, 12:45 PM

We went on-line to fill out shipping forms for each shipment. Then we took the packages to a nearby branch of Intown Business Center, which accepts shipments for UPS, FedEx, and DHL.

And the winner is…

FedEx! They jumped to an early lead by getting to Windhoek, NA in only 4 hops, while both DHL and UPS required 6. By then FedEx was about 12 hours ahead of DHL, which was in turn about 12 hours ahead of UPS. The FedEx package was released from customs
in Windhoek at 4:30 pm local time on 2017-03-02, but just missed the truck. It was then held overnight at the local FedEx facility and delivered early on 2017-03-03. FedEx was also the cheapest.

To: Grootberg Primary School, Namibia
Carrier Service Cost Delivered Date Delivery Tracking # Comments
FedEx Priority International $419.97 2017-03-03 9:15 AM 85735879410 Only 4 hops to reach Windhoek: Decatur, GA to Memphis, TN to Johannesburg (ZA) to Windhoek (NA)
DHL Express Worldwide $495.97 2017-03-06 1:25 PM 4578228314 5 hops to reach Windhoek: Atlanta to Cincinnati to East Midlands (UK) to London-Heathrow to Johannesburg (ZA) to Windhoek (NA)
UPS Worldwide Expedited $441.13 2017-03-08 11:45 AM 1ZR3R9186795982292 6 hops to reach Windhoek: Doraville, GA to Nashville, TN to Louisville, KY to Koeln (DE) to Kempton Park (ZA) to Windhoek (NA). It took 4 days from leaving Kempton Park to delivery.

The routes

After local pickup, each package was driven to a local freight terminal, sorted, and then flown to one of the major sortation facilities the carriers operate in the mid-western US: UPS uses Louisville, KY; FedEx uses Memphis, TN; DHL uses Cincinnati,


  • Costs:
    • FedEx was the clear winner, with costs that were 95% of those of UPS and 85% of those of DHL.
  • Tracking:
    • DHL tracking seems closer to real-time than others, some of which are updated 24 hours after the events. Furthermore their website for tracking has more detail yet seems cleaner and easier to understand.
    • UPS seemed to report less frequently and with less information the closer the package was to its destination.
  • Delivery:
    • The UPS package spent longer at each stage of its trip. In particular, it sat in Kempton Park (near Johannesburg) for at least 28 hours and then in Windhoek for 4 days (part of which was a weekend).


Many thanks to Glynda Ratliff for providing a worthy occasion for this package race. Thanks to Andres Perez for help in preparing and sending the packages; and thanks to the recipients for documenting their arrival.

Great Package Race 2013

And they are off…!

This is the Holiday Edition of the Great Package Race and like many holidays it will be a stress test: We are sending our packages during the busiest few days of the year for package delivery. Our recipient is… Santa Claus, himself!

In November we received confirmation by email from “Cristina Elf and the Friday Elves” that Santa would receive our packages. On Friday 13 December, we sent four packages to the Jolly Old Elf himself, at Santa’s Workshop Village, on the Arctic Circle, 8 kilometers north of Rovaniemi, Finland. The packages will be received and held for Santa at Santa Claus’ Main Post Office, which is described as being “located in an impressive building of handsome natural stone and aged pine, with a splendid landmark of the Tower of the Christmas Elf in front of it.”. The address is:

Joulupukin Pääposti
(Santa Claus’ Main Post Office)
Itella Posti Oy

Here is some interesting information about Santa Claus Village, and here are some statistics on letters to Santa.

The packages contain Georgia Tech paraphernalia: t-shirts (XXXL, of course, to fit Santa), baseball hats, and coffee mugs (also usable for egg nog, mulled wine, or other seasonal beverages). You can see the boxes being packed for Santa here.

The start: 13 December

We went on-line to fill out shipping forms for each shipment. We took the UPS, DHL, and FedEx packages to a nearby Kwik-Copy; and we took the USPS package to a nearby postoffice.

On Friday night we received an email notification that our UPS package had been delayed for want of a “commercial invoice”, even though we had filled out the form on-line. Unfortunately, our package sat all weekend. On Monday morning UPS phoned to ask that we fax a copy (even though it still existed in our on-line account at UPS).

The scorecard as of 2017 Saturday Atlanta time, 21 December

We have a winner: DHL delivered on Tuesday 17 December, two days ahead of the next competitor.

To: Santa Claus Village, Lapland, outside Rovienmi, Finland
Carrier Service Cost Delivery Tracking # Comments
DHL Express Worldwide $155.70 17 Dec 1501h local time: Winner! 9966224656 6 hops total: Atlanta to Cincinnati to Leipzig to Helsinki to Oumu to Napapiiri Rovaniemi
USPS Global Express $95.42 19 Dec 1102h local time 8398498334 Atlanta to Memphis to Paris to Vantaa (Finland) to Napapiiri Rovaniemi
UPS Worldwide Saver $99.79 19 Dec 1440h local time 1ZA5A2420490341738 Finally underway 16 December after being held up for paperwork mistakenly claimed to be missing. 9 hops: Atlanta to Hapeville, GA to Louisville to Philadelphia to Koeln (Germany) to Malmo Sturup (Sweden) to Vantaa (Finland) to Helsinki to Tampere (Finland) to Napapiiri Rovaniemi. Our package was signed for by “Elf”
FedEx Int’l Economy $162.70 23 Dec 1435h local time 875471244031 No updates from 1042 19 Dec,until delivery

The routes

After local pickup, each package was driven to a local freight terminal, sorted, and then flown to one of the major sortation facilities the carriers operate in the mid-western US: UPS uses Louisville, KY; FedEx uses Memphis, TN; DHL uses Cincinnati, OH.


  • Websites: The company websites varied in ease-of-use in completing shipping papers. USPS was especially easy; and UPS seemed straightforward (though with problems later, as you will read). DHL was confusing at first because it was very wordy and not always clear on what to do. At the FedEx website we filled out all the forms only to be told that we could not process an online shipment without an account.
  • Costs: FedEx stands out for being more expensive than the others. Generally, carriers estimated costs accurately, except for DHL, which had projected the cost as $108.38.
  • Start:
    • DHL got off to a very fast start and seemed to stay at least one hop ahead of the competition. Their package was already in Helsinki by Sunday night 15 Dec, Atlanta time. At this time, the others were only known to have departed their main sortation facilities in the US.
    • UPS somehow missed the fact that we had indeed filled out all the required paperwork on-line and held up our package over the weekend. On Monday morning, we opened our account and confirmed that our paperwork was indeed complete on the UPS system. However, customer service said they could not access it and asked us to print and fax a copy to them.
  • Tracking:
    • DHL tracking seems closer to real-time than others and their website for tracking seems cleaner and easier to understand.
    • USPS seemed quite slow in updating: there would be no information for more than a day and then suddenly a flurry of updates.
    • UPS removed all the tracking detail immediately following delivery.
    • FedEx updates ceased for four days after the package got close (Vantaa). Perhaps this was due to a subcontractor being lax about updates?
  • Delivery:
    • UPS might have been competitive but for its mishandling of the customer invoice, which delayed the start by two days.
    • We hope to hear more details directly from Santa himself.

Finally, it is worth observing that this year most carriers seem to have had problems with delivery during the Christmas holidays.


Thanks to Carole Bennett, Kathryn Raley, Meka Wimberly, and to my students for help in preparing and sending the packages; and thanks to the recipients for documenting their arrival.

Great Package Race 2009

And they are off…!

This is the Recession Edition of the Great Package Race: Only two destinations, but interesting ones. And after years of choosing ever more distant destinations, this time we chose one close to home. On Monday 05 October we sent packages to Opp, Alabama and Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

  • Opp, Alabama, USA, a small town (population 6,000) in southern Alabama whose economy is shaped by small textile and agricultural businesses, and the surrounding farms (cotton, peanuts, soybeans), chicken houses, and pine forests
  • Ulan Bator, capital city of Mongolia (Note: There are alternative spellings of the city name, depending on whether transliterating from Mongolian or Russian.)

We did not use DHL to send to Opp because DHL no longer offers domestic-only air or ground express services within the US (it still does import/export).

The packages to Ulan Bator include the usual Georgia Tech paraphernalia, but are also packed with peanut butter, oatmeal, books, and favorite candies for an international team of volunteers working to improve the public health system in Mongolia.

We sent books and personal supplies to VSO volunteers in Mongolia.

We sent books and personal supplies to VSO volunteers in Mongolia.

The start: 05 Oct

This year we did not pre-announce the start, lest that tempt competitors to anticipate and plan for the race. Also, we took the packages to Kwik Copy, a commercial shipping service that feeds UPS, FedEx, and DHL. However, they were not able to accept our packages intended for USPS: After 9/11 all large packages to be mailed through the postal service must be presented for inspection at a postal facility. We immediately drove to a nearby post office to mail the USPS packages.

In both Kwik Copy and the post office the clerks seemed quite matter-of-fact about accepting parcels to Ulan Bator, but they expressed some incredulity about whether Opp is a real place. It is.

It was challenging to fill out paperwork in the post office because of an unhelpful clerk and because the usual forms had all been changed since last year.

The scorecard

CarrierCostDeliveryTracking #Comments

To: Ulan Bator, Mongolia
DHL Estimate by DHL: $134.32/wp-content/uploads/sites/589/2017/10/2009-Mongolia-DHL.pdf First! 12 Oct at 1333 8066308250 Generally regular updates to tracking
UPS Estimate by UPS: $319.04 13 Oct at 1113 46851522573 After departing Incheon, KR on 08 Oct, there were no
updates for six days.
FedEx $227.74 14 Oct at 1000 862815443400 Sent, mysteriously, from Japan south to Guangzhou, China and
then back north again to Korea. Only one update to tracking between
12 and 16 Oct.
USPS $68.25 04 Nov at 1135 CP072663035US No visibility between leaving Miami (why Miami?) and arrival
at the local post office in Ulan Bator.
Opp, Alabama, USA
USPS $6.95 First! 07 Oct at 1356 03090330000171326776 Cheap and surprisingly fast
UPS $16.82 07 Oct at 1641 46851522582 A ceramic mug was broken during shipment.
FedEx $17.58 08 Oct at 1624 828519026728

The routes

After local pickup, each package will be driven to a local freight terminal, sorted, and then flown to one of the major sortation facilities the carriers operate in the mid-western US: UPS uses Louisville, KY; FedEx uses Indianapolis, IN or Memphis, TN.

DHL was first to Ulan Bator.

DHL was first to Ulan Bator.


  • USPS was the only carrier to quote the full cost when the package is delivered to them. The other prices will not be known until the credit card bill is received weeks from now.
  • Our package to Ulan Bator seemed to have disappeared within the postal service(s), with no visibility other than recording acceptance of the package. Tracking was lost altogether beginning 10 Oct as the system was down for “system upgrades” until 13 Oct. Even then, there was no visibility until delivery — or rather, pick up. The package was sent to a branch post office, which phoned the consignee to pick up the package, despite the fact that the main post office was within 3 blocks of the consignee’s address. The consignee reported that this package “showed more wear and tear” than the others, but nothing was damaged.
  • The FedEx tracking system showed our destination in Mongolia as “Maanbaater”, which is likely an error in data input (a reliable source of problems in past races). We think this may be responsible for the fact that, from Japan, our package was sent south to Guangzhou, China, which seems to be going in the wrong direction. After three days in southern China, the package was returned north, to Incheon, South Korea.

Thanks to VSO workers in Ulan Bator for their help!

Thanks to VSO workers in Ulan Bator for their help!


  • USPS priority mail was first to Opp and was the cheapest by far to both destinations. But for destinations outside the US you must sacrifice visibility and speed. Another advantage is that the USPS prices are known in advance of shipping.
  • DHL was first to Ulan Bator, more evidence of their strong international network. UPS phoned the same day to ask for directions, but did not deliver until the next day, despite being only 500 meters away.
  • For most carriers, visibility diminished as the package got closer to Ulan Bator, which is presumably near the edges of their networks. It was not unusual to go 2-3 days between updates to the tracking system, and one gap was 5 days. USPS provided no meaningful visibility. DHL seemed best of the group in this regard, with the most frequent updates.
  • While the tracking systems displayed the actual day of delivery, several listed times that were hours earlier than reported by the recipients. Perhaps the packages were marked as delivered when they were loaded on local trucks.
  • The tracking systems of two of the four carriers (USPS and DHL) were nonoperational for at least part of the time.
  • A regular source of problems is the transcription of paperwork to the carrier’s IT system, when the destination may be garbled.

Stand by for the eventual price of the DHL and UPS packages.

The US Postal Service was first to Opp, AL.

The US Postal Service was first to Opp, AL.


Thanks to Michelle Powers and to my students for help in preparing and sending the packages; and thanks to the recipients for documenting their arrival!