We're previewing the holiday shopping season with a series of articles on how to make the most of Cyber Monday -- online retail's answer to the day after Thanksgiving.

Your niece absolutely must have the Hannah Montana singing doll for Christmas this year, but does the thought of wading through throngs of tweens at the mall have you covered in hives?

You might be able to keep your sanity and your wallet intact. Many retailers plan to offer free shipping for online shoppers this holiday season, according to a study by BizRate Research. That's good news for the mall-weary. But to cash in without breaking your holiday budget, you need to pay attention to the fine print.

Avoiding the shipping charge blues
Most of this year's free shipping offers will come with strings attached. You'll have to meet a minimum purchase requirement, or purchase the right item, in order to qualify. That doesn't mean you won't get a good deal. Plenty of merchants will offer free shipping without conditions, discounted shipping, or free upgrades.

Some stores already have announced shipping deals for the holidays. L.L. Bean offers free shipping on orders of any size that are placed before noon Dec. 21. For the handymen and handywomen on your gift list, Home Depot (NYSE:HD) will ship orders of more than $49 free if you get them in before midnight Dec. 12. Sears will give you free shipping on orders over $49 placed before Dec. 18.

For everyone else, Circuit City (NYSE:CC) will ship most online orders of $24 or more for free. Selected items at eToys ship free when ordered by Dec. 5.

Look at the regular shipping offers at online stores, too. Amazon always offers free shipping on certain orders of $25 or more, for example. Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) offers a similar service.

As those examples make clear, you need to know the details to take advantage. Pay close attention to the ordering deadlines and purchase requirements. These purchases often go by the cheapest -- and slowest -- shipping method, so order early to get your gifts in before the holidays.

Here are a few more commonsense ways to maximize your shipping dollars:

  • Shop at as few retailers as possible to minimize your shipping charges. Buying from outlets with a vast array of merchandise, like Amazon or Overstock (NASDAQ:OSTK), or from gift specialists like Sharper Image (NASDAQ:SHRP) or Brookstone, may help you consolidate your shopping into a few major hauls and, overall, pay less in shipping.
  • Buying something extra just to get free shipping can bust a holiday budget faster than more eggnog can bust your belt. That's especially true if the hurdle for free shipping is particularly high. An extra $50 spent to get $6 in free shipping isn't a deal unless you're buying planned gifts, not just loading up the cart for a "bargain."
  • Big, bulky items will sometimes (but not always) cost more to ship than small, lightweight items. We all know good things come in small packages. So, buy everyone expensive jewelry this year! Or, if you can't afford that, at least bypass the big screen TVs and pool tables, unless you can find a good shipping price.
  • For gifts you need to mail to family and friends, ship them straight to their destination and avoid paying postage twice.

If you find your shipping charges getting out of hand, remember that the Internet makes a fine window shopping tool, allowing you to plan your purchases while at home in your pajamas sipping cocoa. Once you've got a strategy mapped out, you can swoop through the stores quickly and avoid most of the holiday madness.

If you need more help with your holiday budgeting, read on to:

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Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple does not own stock in any company mentioned in this article. She welcomes your feedback. Amazon.com is a Stock Advisor recommendation and Home Depot is an Inside Value pick. The Motley Fool has a shipshape disclosure policy.