I've been playing for over 2 years now. As a trader with trade alts in most empire regions who regularly ships cargo all over the place I've tried a lot of different things to get things moved in the most efficient, most cost effective manner. This is about my experience with courier contracts and what that experience has taught me about using them effectively.
In the very beginning I didn't use couriers at all. Couriers just aren't cost effective until you're dealing with more valuable contracts. Personally I felt couriers weren't worth using regularly until I was at the point where I was moving half a billion or more. Even then they were barely worth it.
At this point I'm talking mostly about contracts between main hubs with the occasional contract between one of the main hubs and a secondary hub and very rarely a contract from a secondary hub to somewhere else.
Where couriers really started to be worthwhile for me was when I got to the point where my contracts where routinely worth 1 billion or more. In fact I often had 2 or 3 billion to ship out which I'd split up into 1 billion chunks and send off via private courier contracts with Red Frog Freight (RFF).
I used RFF exclusively then, paying their standard rates.
In my experience RFF contracts between the 5 main hubs usually got delivered within 24 hours and occasionally much faster than that but sometimes it took 2-3 days too. Contracts from a main hub to most secondary hubs usually weren't much slower though more of them took 2-3 days and sometimes one (usually to one of the more remote secondary hubs) would even expire.
Contracts from secondary hubs often took 2-3 days, getting reasonably reliable delivery times of 24 hours or less was possible by paying more than the standard rate but that wasn't very cost effective.
RFF doesn't take contracts to/from low or null at all. For low/null they do have Black Frog but BFF rates are much higher and IMO simply were not worth paying, especially not with their collateral restrictions too.
As I got bigger and had both more and more valuable shipments to make I had to wonder if there wasn't a better way of getting things moved around. The problems with using RFF were:
1. Relatively high rates compared to other courier corps and public courier contracts.
2. Collateral restrictions. Sure you could ship more than 1 billion worth but then the rates went up significantly plus contracts with over 1 billion collateral often took longer to get picked up and delivered too.
3. Timely Delivery. While delivery times were generally acceptable with RFF, they were often a bit on the slow side and unacceptably slow at times (I don't want to wait until Monday for the contract I made on Friday to get delivered).4. Not an option for shipping to/from low/null at all.
5. Unacceptably high rates for "rush" deliveries and for BFF in low/null.
6. Delivery times were frequently too long on contracts that didn't involve one of the main hubs on either end.
One option was using another courier corps like PushX industries but they're all basically just RFF clones with somewhat lower rates and fewer pilots. IMO that wasn't likely to be any better so I decided to give public courier contracts a try instead.
Several things I noticed almost immediately about using public courier contracts were:
1. Public courier contracts tended to get delivered more quickly than private RFF contracts, usually within 12 hours and often much faster than that. Very rarely did it take more than 24 hours even for contracts from low sec systems. About the only contracts that ever expired were a few low value contracts from remote, lightly traveled, way off the beaten path, low sec systems and the most dangerous systems. Even then it usually involved a bulky shipment containing packaged ships.
Note: I don't consider the largest market hub in a region to be "remote", "lightly traveled" or "way off the beaten path" no matter how far it is from Jita, at least not as long as it's in contiguous high sec.
2. Collateral wasn't a issue. I could ship up to 2 billion in cargo at the rate RFF charged to move just 1 billion and it'd usually get delivered faster too. Contracts much bigger than 2 billion did move more slowly but increasing the payout by 25-50% worked wonders for them too. A trip that RFF would have charged 20 million to make with just 1 billion in collateral I could send 2-3 billion collateral via public courier for 25 million and it'd get delivered faster too.
3. Often, especially on runs between main hubs, the pilot who picked up my contract was with RFF anyhow. Many of the rest were picked up by pilots with PushX or one of the smaller courier corps.
4. Public couriers were terrific for getting things moved out of low and null too. Especially for low volume cargos that could fit in almost any ship. But even big bulky things like battleships could usually be moved out within a few days if you were paying reasonably well. 1 million per jump practically guarantees quick delivery from most of low and null as long as the trip isn't very long or the cargo too big.
5. Even contracts from hell camps like EC-P8R, Aunenen, Amamake and systems behind them usually got delivered within a day or two though sometimes shipments over 1 billion had to either pay 2-3 mil per jump or better yet be split into multiple smaller contracts. I usually made those contracts to the nearest high sec station (for the most part just 1 or 2 jumps).
I was very happy with the initial results, within a month all my contracts except the ones between main hubs were public courier contracts. Not long after that I started using them for main hub contracts too. For over a year now I've used public courier contracts exclusively (no more private courier contracts at all).
Granted a lot of my contracts are high value, low volume. They don't take up much cargo space, so they can be picked up and delivered in just about any ship. Well ok, a lot wouldn't fit into an interceptor with a mere 120 m3 cargo space but most would fit into 250 m3 comfortably and a speed fit blockade runner (no cargo mods) can carry the vast majority without even coming close to filling it up.
That means almost anyone can pick up most of my contracts regardless of what he's flying at the moment. Covert Ops frigates, Bombers, Blockade Runners, T2/T3 cruisers or w/e.
Sometimes I do move ship hulls around though which does require something with more cargo space than a BR.
In the more remote and most dangerous places it's often the local gankers, pirates and pvpers delivering my contracts for me. It might take a few days but the gate camping pirates of Rancer aren't going to shoot their own corpsmate when he decides to make an easy couple million by spending 1 minute moving my half billion ISK collateral contract 1 jump in his Manticore, Cheetah, Loki, or w/e he's flying atm.
I recently had someone dump 3.6 billion worth of implants on me a jump or two behind Amamake. There were no takers on a 3 day, 2 or 3 jump contract to Osoggur with 4 billion collateral and 10 million payout. So I redid the contract with a 20 million payout but again no takers. Finally I broke it up into 3 or 4 smaller contracts with a total payout of 20 million and going all the way to Rens. When I got up the next morning (less than 12 hours later) the implants were all sitting on Rens waiting for me.
1. Using standard RFF rates for public courier contracts practically ensures speedy delivery (usually faster than RFF would be) for most contracts. You can even get away with paying a fair bit less and still get service equal to or better than with private contracts to RFF.
2. Contracts that take less cargo space can fit into more ships. They generally get picked up and delivered much faster than larger, bulkier contracts. This is especially true for contracts to and from low or null. If the cargo isn't much over 10k m3 it'll fit into a max or near max cargo fit Blockade Runner. If it's not much over 3k m3 it'll fit into a speed fit BR and if it's 250 m3 or less it'll fit into just about anything other than interceptors and some of the smallest frigates. The more ships your cargo fits into the more potential courier pilots there are to pick it up.
3. For contracts out in the middle of nowhere it might take a little longer before they get picked up but if you're paying even close to RFF rates they'll usually get picked up and delivered within a few days. I find this works great for getting small loads of valuable goods that were purchased in low sec.
4. If you want even faster service paying 25-50% more than RFF standard rates works wonders. This also works well for contracts in remote places that are bulky enough to require very large ships to move them. The more you're paying the more quickly it's likely to get picked up and delivered.
5. If you're having trouble getting things shipped in or out of low/null try paying a little more or in the case of contracts with collateral well in excess of 1 billion break it into multiple smaller contracts with collateral around a billion each. For very short trips (1-3 jumps) paying 2-3 million usually gets the job done no matter where it is.
6. It's often not cost effective to courier ships around unless you're talking about T2, T3 or faction ships. At least not by themselves. A great way to work around that is to send some smaller more valuable cargo along with the ships. A stack of 10 packaged Drakes for example takes up 150k m3 but is only worth about 500 million, hardly worth couriering by itself, but if you add another 500 million worth of implants or faction mods it becomes much more cost effective and doesn't take a freighter to move it either.
7. Keep the maximum cargo capacities of different ship classes in mind. IMO the most important cargo capacities to be aware of are roughly 800k m3 for freighters, 300k for jump freighters and 10k for blockade runners. Also keep in mind not all courier pilots fit for max cargo. The bigger the cargo the fewer ships can carry it and the fewer pilots will be able to move the contract.
8. Don't lowball on the collateral, always ensure your collateral is at least equal to the value of the cargo or better yet a bit more. I generally set collateral 10-20% higher than what I expect to sell it for in the end. That way if the courier ever does steal or lose one of my shipments (hasn't happened yet that I've noticed) I'll actually make more than expected and get paid sooner to boot!