T+L’s personal finance columnist, Jean Chatzky, answers your questions. This month: Shipping shopping finds from abroad.
Q: My husband and I are heading to several European countries this fall. If we find pieces—large or small—on our travels, what's the best way to get them back to the United States?—Susan Simpson, Los Angeles, Calif.
A: Susan, I've also had my share of shipping anxieties. I once traveled to Positano and, at a little store, spent two hours picking out a set of hand-painted dishes. Once I started exploring shipping options with the manager, it quickly became apparent that not only was shipping likely to cost more than the dishes themselves, but there was no way to guarantee that half of them wouldn't arrive broken. Frustrated, I left the entire stack on the counter. That's a scenario I'd prefer not to repeat, and I don't want you to experience it, either. The good news, according to Ron Krannich, who, with his wife, Caryl, writes the Impact Guide series of books on shopping, is that it's easily avoidable. Here, a few options, roughly in ascending order of price and hassle:
Use Your Baggage Allowance Usually each person is allowed two pieces of checked luggage. If you bring home your purchase as part of your allotment, you can do it for free. So, if you suspect you'll be doing some shopping, take an extra suitcase and load it up with a few rolls of packing tape and bubble wrap—which can be tough to find in some parts of the world. If the objects you buy need to be boxed instead of carried in a suitcase, you can have them packed for shipping at the store where you purchase them, then check the box through as luggage. "If you're buying things at multiple locations, ask the concierge at your hotel for a local boxing company," Krannich, who also hosts the Web site www.ishoparoundtheworld.com, suggests. "They can consolidate your packages, typically for a $20 to $25 charge."
Bring It Home As an Extra Piece of Baggage If you're over your allotment, you can pay to have your purchases flown home as luggage. Avoid having to buy an extra bag abroad by bringing along a collapsible suitcase (such as a duffel bag) inside one of your other bags. To guarantee that the extra items are on your flight, pay for them as accompanied luggage. Typically, the charge will be computed per piece, and, depending on the airline and your route, can range from $50 to $125. Note: If you're boxing your items, make sure to check with the airline for acceptable dimensions, so you're not turned away at check-in.
Forward It As Freight Companies that arrange shipments by sea and air (usually as cargo on major airlines) are called freight forwarders. Ask for price quotes for both air and sea freight. While shipping by sea is typically cheaper for heavier items, air can sometimes cost less for lighter purchases. And don't let what looks like a low- ball sea-freight quote deceive you. These days, it costs about $6 per cubic foot to ship something by sea, but there are also charges for packing, filling out paperwork, transporting the item to the dock, and, if necessary, delivering it to your address. "By the time you're finished," Krannich notes, "your $200 item may cost an additional $600 to $800 to make it to your door." Time is another consideration. Items shipped by sea could be out of your hands for four to six weeks, and things like textiles can get moldy. You may decide it's worth a premium to pay more for air shipping and receive your package within a week.
Try a Traditional Shipper These are the companies you know: DHL, UPS, Federal Express. They will charge the highest prices, but do offer convenience—you can find offices in most major cities, and they drop goods off at your door.
Buy Insurance "If whatever you're carting home is worth all of this thought and effort, it's also worth insuring," says shopping guru Suzy Gershman, author of the Born to Shop guidebooks that bear her name. Insurance runs approximately 3 percent of the value of the shipment, which means the cost of insuring a $1,000 item will be roughly $30. Murphy's Law alone dictates that it's worth it. "The rule of thumb is, If you don't insure it, it will arrive broken," Krannich says. "If you do insure it, it will get there with no problem. My wife and I have occasionally taken a chance on a sea shipment and not paid for insurance. So far, it's always come through okay, but we worried about it for the whole five weeks it was in transit."
Ask Jean! Send your queries about value-related travel issues to AskJean@aexp.com. We regret that questions can be answered only in the column.