Almost everyone has moved somewhere at some point in their life. Whether it be down the street, around the corner, across the country, or even halfway around the globe, it’s a common human experience.
But, that’s where the commonality usually ends. Why? Where? How often? How far? And, literally… how?
In an earlier Expats Move Home post, I recapped the madness of our adventures moving from Germany back to the US. I briefly mentioned what we did with all of the goods we accumulated in four years. Today, I want to shed some light on how we did that and if our method was effective or not.
The Container Conundrum
Most people moving overseas use a container to literally ship their home goods from one end of the ocean to the other. It’s the most practical (and often the only) way to allow you to sleep on the exact same bed in both South Carolina and Spain.
We didn’t use a container service moving to or from Germany. Why? Well, we simply didn’t have enough stuff to make the cost worthwhile.
Sea (or air) freight is very expensive, time-consuming, and full of paperwork. It’s really only worth the effort if you have an entire house to move.
When we first set out for Freiburg in 2010, we had no idea how long we would be there though we assumed it would only be one year. After considering the cost to store all of our belongings in the US, we decided to give away most of our American possessions and store only those items that would have been too expensive, sentimental, or difficult to replace.
We stuffed the remaining essentials into large suitcases which we checked as luggage on the airplane. For a trip down memory lane, you can read the turbulent story of when we – meaning me and only two boys – first touched down in Frankfurt five years ago here.
This is how “moving” looked the first time around – big piles of junk in our friends’ garage that eventually was organized into fifty-pound suitcases. Sorry for the awful photo – making things pretty wasn’t a priority; getting through it was!
Ship or Ship?
After four years in Germany, we cataloged our meager possessions and realized that by 2014 we had acquired more than we had arrived with in 2010. But despite numerous trips to Ikea and a mountain of fantastic hand-me-downs, we still did not own enough household items to ship a container.
We researched different options for getting our goods from point A (Freiburg) to point B (Florida). All air and sea freight options ended up out of our price range and not suitable for our circumstances anyway.
Schlepping suitcases wouldn’t work this time either because we would be traveling for several weeks before reaching our final destination in Orlando (you can read the summary of everywhere we went here). There was no way we could – or wanted to – lug a quarter of a ton of luggage around!
Ten, fifty pound suitcases equals five hundred pounds, and five hundred times four is two thousand, right? Correct me if I’m wrong – math has never been my thing – but that is just insane.
After talking with former Freiburg friends, we decided that the option best suited to our situation would be to simply post boxes with DHL.
Going with DHL is by no means the easiest or cheapest method. It’s just what we had to do given the meager amount of household goods.
Whittling Down and Weeding Out
Now, before I went wild with the tape gun, it was necessary to weed out what we didn’t want or need and whittle down the remaining items until we reached the true essentials.
This is a hallmark of any moving experience, but it’s trickier in Germany. Trash is a sensitive subject; one cannot simply leave their unwanted junk on the curb and have it picked up for free. And garage sales?! Please – there’s no such thing.
Yes, there are Flohmärkte, but that assumes that you (1) know of one that (2) fits your schedule, (3) you have a way to schlep your things to the prescribed location, and (4) you are able to haggle auf Deutsch with your customers. For me, a Flohmarkt just wasn’t happening.
Barter or Bestow?
I made a spreadsheet of all the items that weren’t going to earn a free ticket to America, and I divided that list into two categories: giving and selling. While in Freiburg, we made many amazing friends, and I was happy to give as many things as possible to those who wanted/needed it. Plus, I wasn’t going to sell my €3 IKEA salad spinner – I just wanted it gone!
But, moving continents isn’t cheap, so I had to sell big ticket items with lots of wear and value left. I added links to pictures and descriptions of the for sale items, and then I emailed the list to everyone I knew. I explained that the first person to email me about a particular item had dibs.
Additionally, I encouraged my friends to forward the list on to their friends. Expat networks are a beautiful thing, and word often travels fast in these circles. I really wanted to avoid having to hawk my junk on sites like ebay and Craigslist, though I did eventually have to do that for a few bigger items that no one needed.
In Germany, used goods sell for nearly the price of new items. It’s absolutely ridiculous. An expensive new pram, for example, retails for €800. A used one would go for €700 unless it’s in really bad shape, in which case it might be let go for €650. Yes, really.
In order to move things along as quickly as possible (pun intended), I priced everything at 50% off – or more – of the original price. However, I did not list any amounts on the spreadsheet I emailed out; instead, I simply gave the price to whomever asked about the item. I think this helped because (1) buyers were already interested and (2) the dirt cheap deal I offered made the bargain too good to refuse. Since prices were so low, I did not have to haggle at all. Score!
Using the small, yet tight-knit expat community ended up being an excellent strategy. Not only did I mostly escape having to bargain with strangers, but my friends and acquaintances were more willing to agree on a later date to transfer the goods rather than having to hand the items over right away.
I can’t stress to you how advantageous this was. It was incredibly beneficial to know that my washing machine was indeed sold, but I could use it up until a few days before we actually moved.
As you know, the process of moving takes an enormous amount of time. Here’s a snippet of what happened when I left my two year-old unattended in the living room while I packed… At least he put every.last.stinking.piece of our game and puzzle collection on the table instead of the floor. That counts for something… right?
With my remaining goods good to go, I consulted my former expat friend again, the one who had sent his own possessions home with DHL. He gifted me a few helpful pieces of advice.
First, he explained that I needed to list everything (yes, every.single.thing) that was in the box. Then, weigh the box + contents carefully, being certain to not go overweight. Finally, schedule the boxes to be picked up at home instead of dragging them to the nearest DHL office.
All simple tips, yet incredibly valuable.
How Do You Do?
So, let me ask you, when you move, how do you pack? Super organized and careful at first, placing like objects together and paying attention to whether or not you can lift each box? With color coded labels for each room and the contents written in your best handwriting?
Okay, I usually start out like that – or intend to – but quickly devolve into “whatever” chaos – tossing in toothbrushes with toys and Tupperware. This madness is often performed alone in the wee hours of the night because my better half is often working on work or some other moving-related task.
But, friends, such packing behavior just isn’t going to cut it when you have to use a plane instead of pals to move your junk.
I know I already used this photo above, but I want to tell you the secret behind it. When I checked the max. measurements on dhl.de, I thought I would be clever and order some of that size. Well, apparently centimeters are not my forte, because THESE were the boxes that arrived! Our entire family might be able to fit inside (well, if we were contortionists, that is), but each box could only WEIGH 30 kilos… uh, yeah – major MOVE FAIL.
It Takes Two
Packing boxes for a ride with DHL ended up being a two-person job (give or take one eager helper to wield the tape gun). One person packed the box while the other typed each and every little thing that went inside the box and added it to a detailed spreadsheet.
When the box was full, the two of us weighed it using a luggage scale and a gigantic Ikea bag (high-tech, I know). If the carton and contents were too light, we added more things (being careful to add them to the spreadsheet, too). And, vice versa, when the box was overweight, we shifted the innards (ensuring we deleted these items from the spreadsheet). Sounds like a pretty awesome way to spend your evenings, no?
Each box received a number from us that we also listed in our spreadsheet. That way, if any of the boxes lost its way, we would know which box had gone astray and what exactly was inside (toothbrushes, toys, and Tupperware, naturally).
When we could finally see the floor in our apartment again – well, except the area underneath the tape-adorned boxes – I processed the shipping labels on dhl.de. To, From, Size, Weight… so far, so good.
When the required contents declaration appeared, I momentarily panicked when I realized that I could not just copy and paste my spreadsheet onto the DHL shipping manifest. Instead, I was given only six lines for each box… and, I was required to list a value and weight for each line item.
Germans love forms, rules, and those who conform. Delinquents who fill out forms incorrectly, ignore rules or decide to make their own, lose. Big Time. I knew that if I botched these forms, there was a good chance my bobbles and bits would never see the light of an American day.
I tried calling German DHL and asking. Though I somehow managed to find someone who spoke English, that phone call left me with more questions and even more paranoia than before.
Several deep breaths and a half a Ritter Sport later, it dawned on me. I could try and call US Customs in Florida, since that’s where my boxes would end up anyway.
I finally found someone to answer my questions, and she suggested I group similar items together and write descriptions like Used Children’s Toys instead of just Toys. She also urged me to indicate that the contents were personal household goods so as to not be hit with duty fees.
American customer service really is a beautiful thing. Even the grumpiest government worker in America can usually be coaxed into helping with a few kind words and a dash of appreciation. Maybe someday Germany will jump on the be-nice-to-your-customers-and-they-will-be-nice-to-you bandwagon…?
Feeling much better, I returned to the dreaded DHL website and followed her instructions. For the weight, I honestly just guessed on each category since I knew the total of the box. For the value, I kept the value for each box at or under €500 since this is the per box maximum amount of included insurance from DHL.
Expert tip: do NOT take your boxes to the nearest DHL location. Schedule a pickup instead!
Come and Get ‘Em
With the shipping labels completed (and the return of my blood pressure to a normal range), I then scheduled a pickup with DHL at my home address. Not only was this absolutely genius because I did not have to drag 30 kilo boxes to the post office, but generally the DHL drivers do not weigh the boxes.
Now, I don’t want to condone or encourage dishonesty, here. Doc Sci and I were very careful to make sure the boxes were as close to 30kg as possible. But, I did not want to argue with a postal clerk if the cartons were a few grams over or under the limit because my scale wasn’t calibrated exactly like hers.
Thankfully, the transfer to the DHL truck was smooth sailing, and I received tracking numbers and receipts for the boxes from the driver.
All right, you Nosy Nellies, I know you’re curious. How many boxes did we ship? Well, in the beginning, I had hoped to ship ten boxes – we ended up shipping fifteen. The packages took two to four weeks to arrive from Germany. I could track them on dhl.com but often the updates were nonexistent or happened all at once. When we finally set eyes on those brown beauties again, they were pretty bashed up.
Our beat up boxes, post ocean voyage and customs vacation.
The Fifteen-Box Miracle
As you can see from the photos above, most boxes were agape with holes or puncture marks. Some even had entire seams exposed. They looked really, really bad. This totally stressed me out, until I realized something.
Miraculously, all fifteen boxes made it, and not a single thing was lost though the dents and gashes.
I believe the reason every little knick knack made it is partly because within each big box, I packed our things in smaller cartons (such as diaper boxes). This nesting idea wasn’t for shipping purposes, though. We needed to fit the contents of the fifteen big boxes into nooks and crannies of our small existing storage unit since we did not have a place to live when we arrived. While it was a ton of work in the moment to sort of pack everything twice, this small act paid off in a big way.
So, would I use DHL to ship our household goods across the Atlantic again? The answer depends heavily upon the circumstances. In our case, no other option made sense.
All methods of moving overseas carry a certain amount of risk. Yes, insurance can be purchased, but claim funds and replacement goods are not the same as getting your beloved winter coat or your Grandma’s English tea cups back. I feel like we did the best we could in our situation, and thankfully, it all worked out this time.
If you’ve moved overseas, I’d love to hear your story! Or if you are thinking of moving abroad one day, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. Did you / would you go the container route? Check luggage? Ship boxes? Go minimalist and take nothing?