I’ve had a lot of questions recently from other members on how to ship frags. A number of people have told me they’ve always wanted to ship corals, but have always been too intimidated to try. I’ve also been told I am pretty kick-butt at packing/shipping corals, even better than some vendors.
So, for the benefit of the community I have attempted to compile everything I know about shipping frags. I know there are a number of existing threads that cover this topic, but I have not found any that cover the level of detail and tips and tricks I have picked up along the way. So I decided to create my own. I’ll treat this as a living document, as I’m sure there will be updates and additions.
Fedex vs UPS
This is a debated topic, and I am not going to recommend you use one over the other. I use Fedex myself.
The benefit with Fedex is they typically deliver in a climate controlled van. UPS typically delivers in their brown delivery van, where the cargo area is not climate controlled.
The benefit of UPS, in my opinion, is a more recent feature they offer called “Follow My Delivery”. Once your package is on the truck for delivery they provide a map of the driver’s location via GPS once you sign up for a UPS account. This is useful for the recipient, so that they can monitor the location and try to avoid a missed delivery if they live in an area where UPS will not leave packages unattended. Also, in inclement weather I have used this to track down the truck and take delivery when UPS was unwilling to ascend my snow covered driveway.
As far as which company is more reliable I cannot say, I have had plenty of issues with both over the years due primarily to weather events.
I always use priority overnight which delivers by either 10:30 AM or 12:00 PM the next day to most locations in the continental US.
Priority overnight is very expensive, especially if you are shipping across the country. If you sign up for a Fedex or UPS account they will give you a small discount.
There are a number of third party services out there that use a large account with the best rates to provide a more substantial discount. Shipnex is a well-known one. I have always been very hesitant to use these services because they lack customer support and are not tailored towards our hobby specifically.
I have recently started using a service like this that is run by a friend and fellow reef hobbyist. He’s incredibly reliable and even lets me know when there are delays at the Fedex hubs. His customers are vendors and reef hobbyists, so he understands their needs much better than any other similar service. He has saved me a lot of money on shipping recently, and even more importantly, has helped me avoid shipping when there were delays that most likely would have caused the loss of entire frag packs. If anyone wants to utilize his services just shoot me a PM and I can point you in his direction.
Weather Events / Holidays
It is very important to consider the forecasted weather at both the shipper’s and recipient’s locations. The package will spend the majority of the evening at the shipper’s location and the majority of the morning at the recipient’s location. Extreme temperatures and snow should be avoided at either location.
It is also very important to consider the weather at the main shipping hub the package will be travelling through. Holidays, extreme temperatures, wind, snow, rain, ice, etc. can all result in delayed flights at these hubs. Significantly delayed flights often result in an overnight shipment becoming a 2 day shipment and dead corals.
I don’t have much experience with UPS hubs, so perhaps another member can offer their wisdom. I can provide some information on Fedex hubs. The main hub for Fedex is in Memphis, TN. The second largest is in Indianapolis, IN. There are also hubs in Ft Worth, Newark, Oakland and Los Angeles.
When you generate a Fedex label, there is a code below the tracking number in large letters. The first letter of this code corresponds to the hub the package is planned to travel through. A package can be rerouted during transit for a variety of reasons, but in most cases it will travel through the designated hub. So, it is possible to anticipate which hub a package will travel through and avoid shipping if a weather event is expected for that region. The codes are as follows:
X = Memphis, TN
N = Indianapolis, IN
A = Ft Worth, TX
E = Newark, NJ
W = Oakland, CA
Q = Los Angeles, CA
ANY NUMBER = Package will stay within the state
Shipping during Thanksgiving week and Christmas week, as well as other major holidays and other periods of high E-commerce (Black Friday) should be avoided as delays are rampant.
Also, once a label is generated for a certain shipping and delivery date it can be used without an issue on another date. For instance, if a label for a specific date is generated but the shipper needs to hold off on shipping due to a weather event, that label can still be used on another date. You do not need to cancel shipment and generate a new label.
During the winter and summer months I recommend using solid, molded Styrofoam shipping boxes. The two biggest factors for insulation are thermal resistance and air intrusion. Since we are talking about only Styrofoam boxes the thermal resistance is equivalent to the thickness of the Styrofoam. So, the thicker the better. Air intrusion is equally important and often overlooked. The insulations effect is greatly impaired if gaps in the insulation allow exchange with ambient air. So, for extreme temperatures, solid, molded Styrofoam shipping boxes are much more effective.
I purchase mine from Uline, which delivers to me the next business day. This is very convenient if I am running low on boxes and fail to plan well ahead. They have a delivery time estimator on their website where you can put your zip code in and see how long delivery will take:
There are two box sizes I primarily use. The model numbers are S-7887 and S-9903. S-7887 is the smaller and has outside dimensions of 8”x6”x5”. S-9903 is the larger and has outside dimensions of 11”x9”x7”. The smaller has 1” thick walls and the larger has 1.5” thick walls.
I often reference these as 2 lb and 5 lb boxes because that is their dimensional weight when shipping with Fedex. Fedex will charge you based on whichever is greater, the dimensional weight of the box or the actual weight of the box. The link below provides an easy to use calculator:
I ship primarily via Fedex, but UPS offers a similar calculator:
If your package weighs more than you anticipated, or more than is indicated on the label, it is not a problem. Fedex will simply bill you for the actual weight (rounded up to the nearest lb).
During more temperate weather I sometimes use insulated reptile shipping containers. These boxes require assembly but are much cheaper. Rather than a molded Styrofoam bottom, they are provided collapsed with 6 styrofoam sheets. The styrofoam is thinner and assembly can leave gaps at the edges. So for extreme temperatures they are not ideal in my opinion, but perfectly adequate for mild conditions. The Uline insulated shipping containers come pre-assembled, so they may be a better choice if you value your time more highly than saving a few dollars assembling insulated shipping boxes.
Here is one place to purchase these containers:
Heat packs are essential for shipping during the winter months. Considering you’ll most likely be dropping off to Fedex/UPS around 5 PM and the package will be delivered before 12 PM the following day, a 20 hour heat pack is ideal.
I use UniHeat 20 hour heat packs. There is even a tropical fish on the label, so it must be right! I typically use one per box, however, if overnight temps are below 40 F I will use two with the larger boxes.
Personally I try to avoid shipping coral when the overnight lows are less than the high 20’s. It can certainly be done, but at increased risk.
One very important consideration for the heat packs is that they require oxygen to work. When you first take them out of the wrapper, shake them to get them started. When using solid, molded Styrofoam shipping containers a few holes are needed in the lid to let the heat pack breath. Otherwise it will stop producing heat after a few hours. A screwdriver can be used to poke a few holes in the lid, however, this can be a bit inconsistent and messy. I prefer to use an old soldering iron which produces very clean, controlled holes in the lid.
When packing everything up be sure to put the heat pack right under the holes. Also, the heat pack should never touch the bags the corals are in. The same goes for cold packs. I use Styrofoam packing peanuts to take up the extra space in the box and provide a barrier between the heat/cold pack and the bags the corals are in. I try to recycle packing peanuts. I also prefer using the compressible packing peanuts, as they provide a tighter fit, and are made with biodegradable ingredients such as corn starch which is going to be much better for the environment.
For cold packs in the summer months one can purchase gel ice packs from Uline or equivalent. Personally, I just put some ice cubes in a sealed bag. This also lets me fine tune how much of a cold pack I want.
Bags / Sealers / Cups
My go to bags for shipping frags are 3” x 10” bags from Uline, model number S-10939. I also use 4” x 10” bags for larger frags, model number S-5378.
Thickness is a user preference. I prefer the 3 mil bags as I find these work well with my impulse sealer. I use an 8 inch impulse sealer on the “2” setting for consistent success. These can be purchased from Uline or can be found cheaper on eBay.
I’m not sure why more hobbyists and vendors don’t use impulse sealers. There is no leakage and it is much neater than tying a knot, rubber bands, or metal clips. Also, if you time it correctly, once the impulse sealer clicks indicating it is done heating, you can cleanly tear away the excess bag length. This is very convenient, as I always double bag, and it is much easier to do this without the excess bag length of the first bag. For really sharp, pointy coral like birdsnest, triple or quadruple bagging is recommended.
Recently I have also started using 1 oz ketchup cups to protect the frags. Delicate, thin branching frags can get really beat up just from rolling around the bag. The solution for this is to take a 1 oz ketchup cup and cut and “X” in the bottom. Frag plugs can be inserted into this “X” before being bagged. This prevents the frag from rolling around and rubbing against the bag.
When sealing bags try to get as much air out as possible. Frags are not like fish, they do not need a significant amount of air in the bag for respiration. Air will only create issues, if a large pocket of air gets trapped around the frag for a long period of time the coral will not be happy.
I also highly recommend labeling all the bags with the recipient’s names and the name of each frag in advance of the ship date. This helps make sure you don’t miss anything, and also lets the recipient know which are which.
Final Packing / Drop Off
Once all the frags are in their cups and bagged up it is time to close everything up. I typically put the frags at the bottom of the box, cover them with packing peanuts, then put the heat or cold pack at the top directly under the lid. Again, care should be taken so that the heat or cold pack does not directly touch any of the bags with the corals in them.
Then, the lid is placed on and taped in place. The cardboard box is then taped shut and the label is applied to the outside. I typically cover the shipping label entirely with tape. This is especially important if you print your labels with an inkjet printer. The last thing you want is a package lost in transit due to a wet, illegible shipping label.
Finally, the box is dropped off at UPS or Fedex. I do not recommend using drop boxes as drivers often pick up earlier than the advertised drop off time. It is much safer to drop off at a staffed location. It is important to drop it off prior to the last pickup time for your shipping service. Both Fedex and UPS publish these times for the locations on their websites. Getting your package there at least 15 minutes in advance is always a good idea in case the driver is a few minutes early.