Moving from Vancouver to Belgrade
A friend of mine told me that however well you organize shipping of your stuff overseas, you are always on the losing end. It's an opaque arrangement where you simply have to accept some unexpected changes, cost increases, lack of information etc. I've heard it also from people who were shipping things overseas, but also within Canada or US.
My experience resembles this account, but of course there is much more to it. I am at the moment happy that all of my stuff arrived well, nothing was lost or broken (although the “not broken” part is largely due to my careful packing).
Anyhow, here is how it went in my case. I started researching shipping companies about 4-5 months before the moving date. I contacted a few and talked to some people that have done it before. Companies did not impress me. Big ones seemed expensive – one of them asked 10K for the whole thing. By the way, I wanted door to door service, meaning every single cost included. 10K seemed expensive, but now in retrospect I see that was not such a big figure. Basically, I was hoping to get by in the range of 4-5K. Some smaller ones seemed almost amateur (we pick your stuff, you pay us 5K, we deliver, there is not much more to it really).
I must say that one of the companies, in particular, its owner impressed me so much that I immediately decided to go with them. It's Astra International, located in North Burnaby, in Lake City industrial park. I found them on the Internet, and was preparing to contact them. But before that, one day on a lunch break I incidentally passed by their headquarters and decided to pop in for a 5 min introduction. Lady, the owner, although obviously very busy, spent with me probably an hour explaining every detail, producing forms, even took me to the warehouse and shown me how everything is done, what the packaging looks like, what some ready shipments look like. After that conversation I had an excellent picture of what I have to do. Later I've heard from some other people who took their service that they were very happy.
I wanted to ship a 2 bdr. household stuff and possibly a car, Honda Civic. It seemed that one 20 ft container would suffice. They make compartments in the container for the stuff and the car and can even build a platform above the car if necessary. They can pack it pretty tightly. However I found out that I cannot import the car, although it's practically new, because of the different emission standards in Serbia. So I thought that I'll need less space. Now that option is not much cheaper. When you're paying for the whole container, you pay a fixed price, say $5,000. But when you're using just a part of it, then you pay by cubic meter, and first cubic meter is double the price. Then, you need to buy wooden crates, each costing about 300-400. Crates are needed to protect and preserve your stuff. Especially if the shipping company takes a route where they change transportation. For example, one of the routes is to Hamburg Germany by ship, and then they load the stuff onto a train for further transportation. If they have a bunch of cardboard boxes they might lose or break some of them in the reloading process, while if they have crates or the whole container, it's much more secure.
So, if you have less than a container of your stuff, and go by cubic meter, the price will probably be just a bit smaller than if you take the whole container. In any case, you need to calculate that and see what's better.
Also, estimating how much stuff you have is pretty hard. The companies can come to your place and make an estimate, but they generally don't like doing that - they all seem to be to busy to make such a “journey” to your apartment. So what I did is I measured every box and packet and added all those values up and got the “net” volume. I couldn't get my company to explain to me how they measure volume (since the “net” is not final volume – there has to be some slack when loading the container), and I even didn't get that information after they packed it (as I said, very opaque industry). I could only guess it from the documentation, after everything was completed, but by that time I didn't care much since the bill was already presented to me. I think that you can freely double the “net” volume to get the final one which will determine what container will you need and how much you'll pay. But if you can, get them to make an estimate for you.
Anyhow, I figured, I'll get the whole container. In the meantime I found another family moving at the same time, so we got in touch and agreed to split the container. That way we get the whole container, no crates, no “pay by cubic meter”, hence, cheaper option.
Now, there were two problems we had. We didn't know whether we need a 20 ft or a 40 ft container, and we didn't know what is exact date of our departure. Companies didn't help us with the volume estimation, so we could make an estimate (“net” volume) only at the time when most of our stuff was packed, very close to the shipping date, at which point there was no changing companies. The second problem is related to the requirement at Astra International to book the ship one month in advance. Well, we didn't know the exact date one month in advance so we gave up on Astra. And I am very sorry about that because I think they are real professionals. So, my advice is, get one of those companies to make an estimate for you early, and decide on your container option. Then you can compare the prices of different companies and choose the best one. Second advice is set your shipping date early so that you can use services of a real, good company, not some that will tell you that they can arrange everything in a few days. It's not easy to set the date far in advance because if something goes wrong and you have to stay longer, they you have to find and pay for accommodation, or if you don't prepare everything in time, you have to work nights to meet the date. But it's worth it. Give yourself plenty of time, don't rush and don't make tight deadlines.
In the end our combined net volume was something under 30 cu meters, and I was trying to figure out whether 20 feet container would suffice. It wouldn't. So we got a 40 feet one. A 20 feet container can hold about 30 cubic meters, but they usually load it up to 28. You also have to take into the account that it's not very healthy for your stuff to be packed all the way from floor to ceiling – lots of pressure on the bottom boxes. So, you can't really be conservative there – you have to pay the price.
I was told that the packing material will cost me about $500. That seemed awfully lot to me. I mean when I moved before I didn't pay anything, got some boxes from the liquor store and Safeway, and that was it. OK, this is a bit longer journey, so there is a price. Generally liquor store or Safeway boxes are not recommended or even allowed – and I can understand that. But I figured, I can buy the material myself right at the source, and it'll cost me less. So I found a good source – “Great Little Box Company” (“Mover's Box”) on Mitchell Island, and I was happy to find good prices there. However, after everything was done, the price for the material approached $500. So I didn't really save much, but I am not sorry I paid that. I was told right at the beginning to pay attention to the fact that there is no cushioning in the container, that all the people handling the stuff, even if careful, still cannot be too careful – they don't even know what's in there. So, make sure yourself that everything is protected. So, I bought double-wall boxes for glasses and china (“dish barrel”), lots of plastic foam (air foam) and bubble wrap (I found plastic foam to be better than bubble wrap) for glasses and china and other fragile stuff, lots of corrugated cardboard for furniture (single-wall is enough, double it where necessary), stretch wrap (the best invention ever), styrofoam peanuts for filling empty spaces, pink stickers with “Fragile” or “This side up” or “Glass” on them. And I'm happy now, all of the items, including thin wine glasses survived well except a single ceramic bowl that I've put under a stack of plates – my mistake.
Make sure you can lift every box you pack. Not necessarily carry it easily, but you should be able to lift it and move it. Otherwise, if it's too heavy, the risk of someone dropping it along the journey is higher. If it's clothes inside, it doesn't matter, but for fragile stuff it's important.
Don't use newspaper to wrap fragile stuff like glasses – it's not a good protection.
Use dish barrel for really fragile stuff. It's a firm box that will not bend or break. It's also tall so you can't put a lot in there. I've put mostly glasses and cups in 5-6 layers. Make a mesh out of bulk corrugated cardboard so that every glass has it's own compartment, and wrap every glass in foam (or you can use some soft piece of clothing). Then put a foam sheet on top, cardboard sheet and then you're ready for another layer. The mesh can be purchased, but it's easily made as well, no need to pay for it.
Plates and other bigger and heavier dishes are best packaged in small boxes (I've used 1.5 cu. ft) You can make a double wall box out of it by padding the box wall with a layer of corrugated cardboard that you cut from the bulk cardboard roll. It's not as good as dish barrel, but it's good enough. Put foam and possibly cardboard between plates of pans, and you should be good.
Use stretch wrap instead of packaging tape wherever you can. It doesn't leave any glue or marks, and it's durable. I've used it a lot.
Buy packing tape dispenser, be a pro and save yourself a lot of nerves.
Also buy a picture box if you have pictures / paintings. It's not so much for protection because you'll have to protect and pack the paintings yourself very carefully anyway. It's more because that box is different than others, it's thin and clearly marked with big red letters, and makes it obvious what's in it. That way you'll ensure that who ever moves your stuff doesn't mistake it for a bag of peanuts. Think about it, if you are a mover and you have 100 boxes to move, you won't inspect each one of them to make sure you don't break something, you'll just assume the owner has protected everything well. Packing pictures is tricky, especially if you have different sizes; I've spent some time just figuring out how to fit them nicely.
The following are all the costs that we incurred. Note that companies usually tell you only the Ocean Freight price at the beginning, like that is all there is. I guess they assume all the other costs to be just “collateral”. But see for yourself how it all pans out:
● Pickup, moving (in Vancouver), packing and loading: CAD$ 3,500
Moving of your stuff from your apartment to where the container is and loading into the container. They usually bring the container to your place, but in our case, since there were two families, it was easier to bring the stuff to a warehouse from the two locations and load the container there.
If you packed your stuff then you should save in packing costs, but don't be surprised if they tell you that they had to repack some stuff as they told me. (although when the shipment arrived I've seen that they actually haven't repacked anything - everything was in the original packaging) They also might make dividers, compartments, they need to load stuff and so on.
● Packing material: CAD$ 500
● Moving of the container in Vancouver: CAD$ 350
This means moving from the port to where it's loaded and back.
● Preparation of the documentation: CAD$ 300
To prepare Bill of Lading, export papers etc. Some companies charge this as a separate item and some don't. I haven't paid it explicitly, but I assume I have it as a part of the total cost.
● Ocean freight: US$ 5,000
This is the actual cost of the ship and other transportation (train etc). In my case container traveled via waterways all along, along the west coast of America, across the Atlantic into the Black Sea and then along Danube. They changed three vessels, one for overseas, one for Adriatic and Black Sea and yet another one for Danube.
● Taxes in Constanca: EU 100 plus US$ 90
Port taxes, custom taxes and what not.
● Moving of the container in Belgrade: EU 50
From the ship to the warehouse (it might be just 20 meters away, doesn't matter)
● Warehouse charges: EU 90
They'll book the warehouse for a week for you, and then extend it if needed. This is the one week charge.
● Receiving company in Belgrade: EU 120
This company receives your stuff and does all the paperwork and the procedure with customs and port. They are essential help.
● Belgrade custom and administration fees: EU 30
These are just the fees, not the customs duty, in case there are any. In our case we didn't pay any duty since our goods are personal household goods under the limit of 5,000 (or 10,000 for a married couple) euros. In case you are a married couple make sure you declare half of the goods under husband's and other half under wife's name in order to utilize the double non-paying-duty limit.
● Moving from port to your house. EU 150
● Insurance: CAD$ 500
Insurance is calculated based on the declared value of your goods, and is usually 2.5% of that value, depending on the coverage.
So the total comes to about 10K. Some of the costs were common for our two families and some of them were charged on each. After splitting the cost, I actually paid what I was hoping for at the very beginning (about 5K), but given that I haven't shipped the car and that we split the container I was thinking the figure would be even lower. I still think that in a case such as ours the fair and achievable price would be up to 4K.
As I mentioned, my experience with Astra International is that my first contact with them was very professional, and that I've heard some other people recommend them. I suggest definitely checking them out.
We went with Sea Trade Shipping from Yaletown Vancouver. As I mentioned, all of the stuff arrived in Belgrade well, nothing was lost or broken. The packages and boxes were in very good shape, nothing broken, pressed, bent or deformed in any other way. However, I wouldn't recommend this company. As I learned, they are more of a bulk or commercial shippers, I guess dealing with lumber, material, commercial goods or what not. They don't seem to be accustomed to dealing with individuals and their personal goods. Their customer service, although reachable and generally responsive, is extremely poor in the sense that they did not clear up or resolve any of the issues we've raised. A number of questions we've asked remained unanswered. They've also had different people provide different and even contradictory information about the same issue. But generally, they just kept repeating that we're wrong. They even told me after I insisted in clearing up an issue that they don't have the time for such discussions, since they are managing such and such number of ships and shipments. I guess that “measly” 10K is not worth their time. And the issues were not small – price increase, significant change in the documentation without notice or permission from our side, parts of the procedure that were not included at all (especially those in Belgrade).
To avoid the troubles, try to do one thing that I haven't: sign a contract in which it says clearly what is included in the service. Have it in paper, otherwise anything can be denied or changed or misunderstood.
Here is a list of problems that you may run into
1. Services at the destination.
Many companies don't include and organize everything that is needed at the destination. Yet they say it's “door to door” service. In our case, our “door to door” bill included stuff done in Vancouver and ocean freight. We found out, to our big surprise that none of the services in Belgrade were organized and that we have to pay them all ourselves on top of the “door to door” bill. The only thing that was supposedly organized, but fell through due to an error was moving from port to a single location in Belgrade (they refunded us $300 for that). So make sure you clear this up. On the other hand, even with a signed contract, when you travel so far away and discover that something is not done right, it's hard to do anything about it. You are probably just anxious to have everything done and over with. But at least try your best and with a bit of luck, you'll be fine.
2. “Door to door”
Don't let them tell you that they did not organize delivery to the second address because “door to door” is singular and not plural. (When I've got this answer to my inquiry, I was speechless for a while)
3. Travel time
Be prepared to delays, it's just part of the deal. Our total travel time from pickup in Vancouver to delivery to our apartment was 3.5 months. It looked like it's going to be quick because the ship was advancing nicely (we tracked it on the shipper's, Hapag-Lloyd's website), but it took some more time to clear up and reload the shipment in Italy and Constanca, and some 10 days to receive it and clear the customs.
Make sure you pack and protect things nicely. The insurance covers obvious cases, like if the ship sinks, or the whole box or package is damaged, but if stuff inside breaks, I doubt you can claim it. Note that if you let the company pack your stuff then even the breakage inside should be covered, but if something dear is damaged, you can't really recover the true value.
5. Price increase
Ocean Freight is set by actual shipper company (such as Hapag-Lloyd), and they change it every month and sometimes more than once a month. So chances are that the actual price will be different from the quote you get earlier. The difference shouldn't be much, in the range of couple or few hundreds of dollars, but it's still significant. What can you do – try to see with your company how that changes and what difference can you expect.
The company will prepare and handle most of the documentation for you. Here is the list that I know of:
● Bill of Lading
Prepared by the shipping company and you will be asked to sign it. I've been asked to sign it only after the container was loaded onto the ship, at which time it was too late to change anything. There isn't much to change anyhow, but it was still a skunky move by the company. In my case, I have asked them (several times) to prepare two Bills so that each family would be an official shipper / receiver to avoid one family take responsibility for all the stuff. Only after they've done everything and loaded the container (and I think the ship has already departed at the time), they've sent me one Bill under only one name and said there was nothing they could do. So, I signed it. There was no issue later with this, so in the end it didn't matter.
● Insurance contract
This is a simple document that you just sign. Insurance is usually done with one of the big companies like Axa.
This one you have to make. You'll need a box list and a value list plus some modifications for different purposes, such as customs, insurance, shipping company, yourself, etc. You better use your computer and spreadsheet instead of paper to make changes easier.
● Box list
This is the enumeration of boxes (and other stuff - packets, furniture pieces, etc). Each piece should be clearly marked with a number and it's also a good idea to mark them with some unique sign such as your initials or such. In the list write down the description of the content of each piece. It's a good idea to make the description detailed for yourself - after a few months of voyage you will forget what is where. But for the company, a short description is enough plus the quantity. Use phrases like shoes, 100 pcs (approx of course, don't count them), TV 1 pc, china - 3 sets, tools - 3 toolboxes, clothes for 2 adults, clothes for 3 kids, part of the coffee table, shelf frame, etc... Also ask the shipping company what's the best way to describe this.
This list will be probably required by the receiver company at the destination, and possibly any intermediary in between. They are supposed to circulate this documents among themselves, and I guess they are, but still each of them also asked me to send them the list anyway.
● Value list
Value list differs from the box list in that you don't enumerate boxes, but items: furniture, clothes, equipment, everything you have, and you attach a value to each of them. The value is the current value if you had to buy it (as is) right now. This is fairly low value, basically what you would get if you sold it on Craigslist.
You need one value list for the insurance and another one for customs. Of course for the insurance, you would like to increase value, while for the customs you would like to decrease it. I've created one for the insurance at the beginning assuming it'll be used for the customs as well, but when I arrived in Belgrade I was told that I need to prepare a new one for the customs. So I just used the one I had, slightly modifying it because the customs asked for clarification of some items. And the values are not that important really. You are insuring used goods, so if your container falls off the ship, you will not get enough money to replace everything properly, especially the important and dear (priceless, master card) stuff. For the customs, they don't really care much unless you are importing many new items. Also, the customs are mainly interested in technical stuff, electronics, not so much in clothing or furniture. I've declared my stuff just a bit under 5,000 euros and that was fine. If there is a limit, such as in Serbia, related to charging of the duty, leave some room in case they decide that the value of some item is larger in their opinion. So with the limit of 5,000 try to make an estimate somewhere around 4,000 euros.
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