Over the course of a week - with the help of my very organized packing list - we went through our belongings and decided what to bag (things that were more urgent, like toiletries and clothes, and any items with a higher value) and what to box (things that were not urgent, like kitchen items, toys, and bulk toiletries). All of our boxes weighed under forty pounds each and, at the advice of the marina manager where our boat was being stored, we took them to FedEx to have them shipped.
Then FedEx told us they would charge us over $400... per box... to ship our stuff down island.
Needless to say, we did not ship via FedEx.
I did what I do best and turned to the internet for help and found it by putting out a query in the great "Women who Sail" Facebook group I am a part of. I cannot remember who suggested Tropical Shipping to me when I inquired about the best way to ship personal effects to Tortola, but whoever it was - THANK YOU!
If you, too, are moving to the Caribbean and have a fair amount of excess baggage that the airline will happily charge you an arm and a leg for (unless you fly first class, which allows for unlimited bags - something to consider as it might be worth the upgrade if you crunch the numbers) you might also want to consider shipping your items on a slow boat (container ship).
For less than $300, we were able to ship all three of our boxes to Tortola. Here is how the numbers worked out:
- 3 Boxes from Chicago > Miami via UPS ground = $150
- 3 Boxes from Miami > Tortola via Tropical Shipping container ship (5 days transit) = $83
- Broker fees to assist our boxes through customs (not necessary but highly recommended) = $40
- Duty paid to customs for our goods = $2!
- (The duty is based on the "estimated depreciated value" of the contents. And our excellent broker was able to talk to the Port Authority and have them approve the fact that all of the contents were going on a "Yacht In Transit"... meaning they were going on a boat that would eventually be leaving the country and therefore were not being "imported." We had been told that this doesn't always work in the BVI. See "Note" below.)
Some tips if you decide to go this route:
- Do exactly what they tell you (down to the labeling of your boxes) and fill out your forms completely. Having lived in these islands on and off for quite some time now I can tell you that it is very easy for hiccups to arise and the tiniest cut of a corner can cause a ton of grief on the back end. I made sure to call the offices of Tropical Shipping in Tortola to make sure I did everything correctly so we didn't end up with crazy fees or find our stuff impounded in customs. I am happy to report our items arrived just as promised and, thanks to the use of a broker service, we got our boxes out without a huge headache (anyone who has dealt with customs offices in the islands knows how potentially tricky/difficult/mind numbing it can be.)
- As you are packing, make an itemized list of what is in each box. They will want this - nothing too specific, but general. But the itemized list is more for you to be able to determine the "estimated depreciated value" and if customs opens the boxes (they did not open ours, but we have heard horror stories.)
- If you are shipping brand new items, take them out of the packaging to avoid heavy duty fees and/or confiscation. If you ship a box full of packaged cell phones for your buddies, you better believe customs is going to believe you have imported them to sell and they will not be happy with you.
- Try to ship used items/personal goods so that you can undervalue (depreciated value) everything, and therefore pay less in duty. All the items we shipped were labeled "personal effects and household goods (used)" to make it clear we weren't importing anything new and of high value. Anything of high value, carry with you on the plane.
- Label boxes as part of a series, i.e. "Box 1 of 3, Box 2 of 3...etc" to make sure your boxes stay together.
- Consider using a broker service to assist you with getting your boxes out of customs. We were very pleased with our broker, Glenford (we cannot find his site nor do we have his card, but the company linked to above came highly recommended as well), who made the paperwork and "red tape" part of this process a breeze.
What other economical ways have you found to ship bulk stuff to the Caribbean? Share any tips in the comments.
Note: My box above reads "yacht in transit" which can sometimes waive duty fees. The BVI's do not typically recognize "yacht in transit" unless you physically bring your boat to port to pick up the items, and then leave...but many islands do recognize "yacht in transit" and by labeling your belongings as such you can waive (potentially) expensive duty fees.