(CNN) —  

You may have heard the murmurs about shipping delays this holiday season, or you may just be concerned since, due to shutdowns, more people are shopping online. And you’re not wrong to have questions.

Parcel delivery services are indeed struggling to keep up with shipments because of the surge in online purchases during the pandemic, and while these companies are increasing their services and capacity as fast as possible, with both UPS and FedEx reportedly adding tens of thousands of employees, it’s still a good idea to plan ahead for the holiday shopping season.

Start your holiday shopping now

Start your holiday shopping now.
Start your holiday shopping now.
PHOTO: iStock

The best thing you can do: Shop early.

“We advise in taking advantage of early deals so that packages arrive on time,” said Sara Skirboll, resident shopping and trends expert for Texas-based savings site RetailMeNot.

And you won’t be alone starting early. “According to RetailMeNot data in fact, 75% of Americans already prefer to complete all holiday shopping as early as possible,” Skirboll said.

Leaning into this longer holiday shopping season, an Amazon representative explained that this year’s return window is also longer than ever. Items shipped between October 1 and December 31 will be eligible for return until January 31, 2021. And to make returns even easier, more than 5,800 locations — retailers including Amazon Books, Amazon 4-star, the UPS Store locations, Kohl’s and, new this year, Whole Foods Market — will offer label-free, box-free returns.

Try curbside pickup

You can pick up in store or curbside at many retailers.
You can pick up in store or curbside at many retailers.
PHOTO: Walmart

There’s also the option of avoiding shipping altogether. For that, Skirboll noted the option to buy online and pick up in-store (BOPIS), as well as curbside pickup — especially, she said, “if you’re running late and costs are too high.”

“The surge in online shopping this year comes with some concerns for shoppers: shipping delays and inventory issues,” Skirboll noted. “BOPIS and curbside have risen to the top of our list as problem solvers. Buying online and picking up in store empowers shoppers to browse, shop and save money online, and then pick up their items in a safe and timely fashion — sometimes without even leaving your car. Many merchants even offer ‘contactless’ curbside pickup amid the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Big, holiday-friendly stores like Walmart, Target and Macy’s offer easy shopping online for items that you can pick up either in the store or curbside. How does it work? Do your shopping on the retailer’s site, then select pickup when checking out, and they’ll let you know when your order is ready. In an order we tested with Target, our purchases were ready to be picked up in under four hours. Not bad, and we didn’t have to deal with shipping or going inside the store.

Also, if you’re short on space but want to shop early, some stores will hold your gifts for you. “Most stores will hold your purchase for a certain amount of time, so be sure to read the fine print and check the store’s policy before purchasing to ensure you can make the deadline and see if you’d be able to get an extension,” Skirboll said.

Some retailers, like Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Sephora, are also trying alternative delivery options, including sending orders from local stores via couriers working for companies like Instacart and Shipt. Again, read the fine print, as these offers vary by location.

Take note of the 2020 holiday shipping deadlines

Take note of the shipping deadlines.
Take note of the shipping deadlines.
PHOTO: iStock

If you’re shopping for Christmas, and want your packages in gift recipients’ hands by Christmas morning, we’ve pulled together shipping deadlines for FedEx, UPS and the USPS, based on the USPS’s recently released dates, dates from FedEx and EasyShip. Of course, while these dates are a good starting point, they are subject to change as the demand grows during the season, so be sure to check the links posted or call for more information.

FedEx

  • FedEx Ground/Home Delivery: Tuesday, December 15
  • FedEx Express Saver: Monday, December 21
  • FedEx 2Day: Tuesday, December 22
  • FedEx Overnight: Wednesday, December 23

UPS

  • UPS Ground Shipping: Wednesday, December 16
  • UPS Next Day Air: Friday, December 18
  • UPS 2nd Day Air: Friday, December 18
  • UPS 3 Day Select: Saturday, December 19

USPS

  • USPS Retail Ground: Thursday, December 15
  • First-Class Mail: Friday, December 18
  • Priority Mail: Saturday, December 19
  • USPS Priority Mail Express: Wednesday, December 23

However, warned Satish Jindel, president of ShipMatrix, a company that helps retailers manage their shipping operations, these dates aren’t so straightforward. “Due to demand exceeding the capacity by 7.2 million parcels per day, it will add extra delivery days such that a three-day delivery schedule could be four days on many packages,” said Jindel.

Skirboll agreed, adding that “for the most part, retailers always try to stick to their word and policies on shipping expectations. Given this year has already presented its fair share of setbacks, especially in the shipping industry, it’s always beneficial to plan ahead.”

In other words, give your packages extra time by ordering early. (We can’t say this enough.)

Should you pay for expedited shipping?

If you’re shopping early — before December 18 — you don’t have to pay more for expedited deliveries, according to Jindel. Up until then, standard delivery options should get your package to the recipient in time.

“After that, depending on where the retailer is shipping from and where the consumer is located, it would be worth paying for express shipping using two-day service,” Jindel said.