Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Interim Update

So! Nana and I are a boring, old, married couple now. Instead of just boring and old. Many thanks to all who joined in the festivities.

In the meantime, you might find posted here a couple rough drafts of "Guides to Living Abroad" we'll be working on from time to time. We're hoping to cover all kinds of annoying little things no one tells you about moving overseas, like how confusing shipping is. Eventually, if the best laid plans etc, you'll be able to find links to a bunch of said guides down the right side of the page.

But that will be after I've written thank you notes until my hand falls off. (Seriously, I never knew people liked us so much . . . ! Or maybe they're just excited to see us go.)

Quick Guide to International Shipping and Moving

(This is a School of ROK Quick Guide--less of a blog post, more of a tutorial. I mean, why should you have to learn the hard way what someone else has already found out? You can find our other guides on our sidebar. Enjoy!)

*This guide is incomplete. Check back for updates and corrections!

So you've finally landed that expat dream job--you're teaching English in Korea, or monitoring elections in Budapest, or shepherding rich kids through the Italian Alps, or writing glassy-eyed travelogues from some remote corner of the world. But there's a problem. You have no idea how to get your precious accumulated junk from wherever to therever, and you're afraid to ask around, 'cause you wouldn't want anyone to think you've never done this before. All the while, your new HR guy or exchange liaison or mail-order-bride is throwing around terms like "letter of credit" and sending you intimidating links to Maersk Ocean Lines, whose site doesn't even have a shopping cart, for-darn's-sake. It's almost enough to make you want to curl up, get a job as a bank teller back in Hoboken, and camp out in your parents' basement for a couple more years.

Well, the good news is you're not an idiot: international shipping is extremely opaque. The bad news is, well, that international shipping is extremely opaque. But have no fear! This nifty School of ROK Quick Guide is here to help you learn from our mistakes!

Step One: Know What You Need

Forget just about any big name you've ever heard in shipping. Shipping, apparently, isn't the industry term for what you need. Neither is freight. What you need is freight forwarding or international moving. These freight forwarding agents are the folks who will wrangle the shipping companies for you (since shipping companies deal mostly in commercial contracts). If your shipment is smaller than a standard surface shipping container, they'll combine your shipment with those of one or more other clients. They'll get you in touch (and keep you in touch) with the folks who'll handle customs at your destination. And they give you one company as your point of contact for the whole move. Which is nice.

As for all the different flavors of service, you'll probably want door-to-door, which means pretty much what it says: they send someone to your old place, they drop your stuff off at your new place, and they take care of pretty much everything in between. They can even pack your stuff for you (for extra $), and, if necessary, they can store your belongings at your origin or destination port (again, for extra $). (Well, more accurately, they're contracting out to other people to do most of this, but you get the point.)

Other options include 1), door-to-port, which leaves you responsible for arranging ground transport in your destination country (say, if you'll be living near the port and will have easy access to a truck or a van), 2) port-to-door, which leaves you responsible for ground transport in your origin country, and 3) port-to-port, which leaves you responsible for ground transport on both ends. In many cases, choosing the port option on either end of your move will also leave you responsible for navigating customs, which can itself be a reason to choose door-to-door.

Step Two: Know Who You Need

So where can you go to find these freight forwarders and international movers? FIDI is a good place to start (FIDI is like a crediting agency plus a better business bureau for international movers--and don't ask what FIDI stands for, it's French). They have a strong stable of freight forwarding agents in the USA. (Note: You'll probably want to get in touch with agents closer to home first--since it's easier for them to send someone out to see your shipment in person, you're much less likely to get an inaccurate quote.)

Other options for finding an agent include International Movers--which doesn't carry quite the quality guarantee that FIDI provides, but which allows you to fill out one form and field multiple quotes--and Forwarders.com--which has extensive listings, but doesn't separate personal from commercial-only forwarders.

Step Three: Get Quotes

Once you have a list of about 4-8 forwarders (preferably, but not necessarily, in the geographical area of your point of origin), you're ready to start fielding quotes. Sites like International Movers will make this fairly easy, though many agents will want to follow-up with a phone call or an e-mail to ensure the most accurate quote. To get a quote, you'll need to know the following:
  • Origin and destination address. (If you don't have a destination address yet, they'll probably want an employer's address, though for an estimate they can make do with a city or region.)
  • Description of services required. (Door-to-door? Packing? etc.)
  • For surface freight (i.e., boats), an estimate of shipment size by volume. (Note: for most agents and most destinations, there is a minimum surface freight shipment size of 65-85 cft--anything under this will cost the same as 65-85 cft.)
  • For air freight, an estimate of shipment by weight.
  • A general description of contents. (Helps with weight estimates, which are important for insurance.)
  • Contact information in both your country of origin and your destination.
Keep in mind that these quotes are pretty complicated--in many cases, the agent will actually contact some of the contractors who will be doing the shipping and solicit quotes from them. Most quotes will take at least one full business day.

Step Four: Understand And Compare Quotes

Again: international moving quotes are complex. Once you have your quotes in hand, you'll want to take time to dig a little deeper before choosing an agent: it's not quite so easy as choosing the folks who give you the lowest quote.

First, you need to take a good look at the quote (usually an e-mail) and the extra information it contains. These questions will help:
  • What's the rate per cubic foot (cft)? Since it's really easy to estimate cft, knowing this figure will help you estimate a new quote on your ownif your shipment grows or shrinks (but probably grows) as you pack. Know that volume is what matters in ocean shipping--many moving-advice sites will warn you against accepting estimates based on volume, but that advice only applies to domestic overland shipping. Ocean shipping agents only care how much container you'll fill. (Note: For air freight, you won't want rate per cft, but rate per pound.)
  • Is the rate good? Rates can vary drastically from country to country and week to week--they're very sensitive to fuel costs, local fees, local geography, and seasonal weather. For our July 2007 move from Pittsburgh, PA to Seoul, SK, quotes ranged from $10.10/cft to $15/cft, making the total cost of shipping 65-85 cft roughly equivalent to the cost of a round-trip economy-class plane ticket. Just to give you an idea.
  • Is the rate too good? Some agents--the shady ones--will quote a low rate that applies only to an artificially low density, then revise their estimate upwards when it's too late for you to switch movers. If you get a quote back that's a lot lower than others, ask the agent why their quote is so much lower. (Note: agents with physical offices close to your point of origin will often offer much lower rates than those further away.) Even better, see if the low-quoter can send someone for a visual estimate ASAP.
  • What services are included in the rate? Given how long ocean freight takes to arrive in port, some agents won't include overland costs in your destination country when offering a quote--too many variables--but will often be able to give you a rough estimate when pressed. Also ask about insurance: most rates include comprehensive damage and loss insurance, which you may or may not want. And finally, many movers will charge extra if they have to carry stuff up or down more than a certain number of floors (if there's no elevator).
Step Five: Double-Check Your Short List

By this point, you've probably found three or four agents who stand out from the pack. Now's the time to make sure no one on that short list is too shady--so don't call any of your other agents off, as you may need them yet.

Here's the good news: any agents you found through FIDI are almost certainly clean. If your lowest quote came from an FIDI mover, then your choice is made. If not, you'll want to check with the Better Business Bureau for any past shenanigans. (Note: If a business has no entry, it's not necessarily a bad thing, but you're likely safest with a BBB member.) This About.com article also outlines a few websites devoted to consumer complaints (and, sometimes, rebuttals). If any of your short-listers show up on these sites, you might want to think twice about hiring.

Step Six: Hire

By this point, your agent will be able to guide you through the rest of the process, so you probably don't need any more help from me. But in the interests of (un)common courtesy, you might want to send a note to the forwarding agents you won't be using, just to let them know they can stop any work on your case. Also, don't get caught out thinking you're done before you're actually done--be sure to leave a few extra hours before pickup for unexpected paperwork, especially those pesky bills of lading. And even if you're agent doesn't explicitly ask for it, take the time to prepare a detailed list of your shipment contents by box--in English and in the language of your destination, if you can. A copy for your agent and a copy for you can ease many worried minds.

Step Seven: Hurry Up and Wait

Allow 2-4 weeks for your shipment to arrive in port, at which point your agent (or a counterpart in your destination country) will get in touch to arrange pickup or drop-off. In the meantime, your job is to get yourself to your new home in one piece!

(If you've enjoyed this School of ROK Quick Guide, you can find more on our sidebar or on our homepage at schoolofrok.blogspot.com.)