Adventures in Shipping: Transporting 13 Boxes to Costa Rica (AKA: Our Big Move – Part IV)

When we originally moved from Baltimore to Costa Rica five years ago, we came with eight checked suitcases and four carry-ons (including our cat, Cleo). We weren’t ready to ship, nor were we ready to sell our house. So, for five years we rented our house in Baltimore to a series of upwardly-mobile couples and stored all of our belonging in the basement (which we wrote into each rental contract).

Jump ahead five years and the time was finally right to sell the house and ship our stuff to Costa Rica. Before our move in 2009, we had sorted through everything and gave away, sold, or threw out what we knew we wouldn’t eventually ship. But five years in Costa Rica changed our perspective and we, once again, had to cull through everything and get rid of a lot of “stuff.”

Shipping.5There are two schools of thought about shipping your stuff when you move overseas. One school says to ship everything you own. What you don’t end up using you can easily find someone who CAN use it. Shipping a full container is more cost effective than shipping a partial container. The other school says to ship just what you need. It is less expensive overall because you aren’t shipping as much volume.

For us, the second school of thought seemed to make the most sense. Not only are we on a budget, we like the idea of traveling more lightly. What was stored in the basement would have fit nicely into a 40 ft. container. But we decided to bring only those items that either had sentimental value to us or were things that we could use but, perhaps, couldn’t get in Costa Rica. We ended up shipping 13 large boxes.

Before we left for Baltimore, I researched shipping companies. The only ones I knew of here in Costa Rica shipped full containers – either 20 ft. or 40 ft. I found out that there is something referred to LCS – less than container shipping. Those were the companies I focused on.

I looked at companies like UPS and Federal Express but they seemed too expensive. In the end, the following are the companies to which I narrowed down my research and from which I requested price quotes:

  • UBox Worldwide: Their website states, “Whether you are moving to Costa Rica for work, or are a returning citizen, we make shipping to port cities in Costa Rica easy and worry free. Our service is warehouse to warehouse. This means that you deliver to one of our 26 drop off warehouses in the United States, Canada or Puerto Rico and pick up at the local warehouse in your destination city. This method of shipping saves you money. Pick up at your residence and door delivery can sometimes be arranged at additional costs.”

Note: Their price does not include transportation/logistics from the arrival port in Costa Rica, clearing your cargo through customs, or customs duty or taxes. This option had the most unknowns for us on the Costa Rica end of the process.

  • International Sea & Air Shipping: They offered the option of Door to Door service, Door to Port service, and Port to Door service which are priced separately and include specific itemized services.

Note: None of their plans include port charges or customs duties and taxes.

  • N.V.O.C.C. LCL Ocean Consolidations to Costa Rica: They can pick up any size box from a residence or from a business address and also deliver the cargo overseas. You can ship as many boxes as you like. They charge by the total volume of your cargo once it is palletized or crated. They have a 25 to 45 day transit time and sail weekly to Costa Rica.

Note: This was, by far, the most expensive option we found among the LCL shippers.

Our friends had used ABC movers and highly recommended them. Their website states that they are a full service company and strive to make international movers as easy as possible. They will come to your home to evaluate your needs, provide you with packing materials, and even pack and unpack for you. “Ocean shipping rates are based on the cubic volume of the shipment because you are paying for the space your shipment takes up in the container. So, to get an accurate rate quote you will need to know the L” x W” x H” of each box. Multiply the L” x W” x H” and divide by 1728 to get the cubic foot volume of each box and add the sums together for the total cubic volume.”

Note: They could not give us an estimate of shipping charges as we didn’t have the dimensions of our boxes. We didn’t even know how many boxes we would have until the last minute. And we had to remove the boxes from our house (which had been sold) on the same day they were packed and ready. We had received an email in response to our request for a quote which read, ”Our agent  needs to schedule a survey, so let us  know when you are returning to perform the visit.” We just didn’t have the time available to go this route.

What we chose to do and what it cost.

We elected to use UBox Worldwide to ship our 13 boxes. Their initial price quote was the lowest; in addition, the deciding factor was based on the limited window of time we had to work with. UBox Worldwide allowed us to put our 13 boxes in a truck on that last day in our home and drive them to a warehouse at the port of Baltimore, just 30 minutes away. Though this option offered the most “unknowns” on the Costa Rica end of things, it provided the easiest solution for us on the Baltimore end of the process.

Here is what we ended up shipping.


 And this is what it cost:


Our initial quote from UBox for our boxes was $682.80, not including $75 for insurance. We knew that the price would increase as we chose to put our boxes on a pallet and have them sent as one unit instead of 13 separate units. When you palletize, the cost is greater because you are paying for the volume of the boxes, plus the pallet, plus any empty space the overall package takes up. So, at $11 per cubic foot, our cost to actually ship our boxes went up to $1168.75 (about 66%). Other costs included a documentation fee of $25, the fee for the pallet of $45, and marine insurance of $75. We were also given a volume discount of $175.

Ubox had arranged for Vanguard Logistics Services (VLS) in Costa Rica to pick up our cargo at Puerto Limon, un-palletize them, and bring them to a warehouse in Heredia where we could pick them up. The cost for this service was not included in UBox’s estimate and came to $200.

"Customs" in Spanish is "Aduana"

“Customs” in Spanish is “Aduana”

But here is where the difficulty started. We were told that we could not, in fact, clear our cargo through customs ourselves. We had to hire a customs broker to take care of this. You would think that you could just check the Internet or open the “yellow pages” to find a customs broker, but it wasn’t that easy. UBox couldn’t give me a referral to a broker in Costa Rica and suggested I contact VLS. No one at VLS spoke English and, while Paul and I can speak some Spanish, there is a whole different terminology involved with shipping. After several calls and emails, we finally got our request communicated and they gave me the name and phone number of a customs broker who “speaks English.” I left multiple messages for him and never received a call back. Once, I actually got an answer and the man I spoke with told me to call back that afternoon to speak to his assistant who did speak English. After two weeks of this, and worried about extra warehouse charges for not picking up our shipment promptly, I contact our friend who is in the business of shipping whole containers. Her boss contacted his customs broker who cleared it through customs, paid the duty, and then he delivered the boxes to our house. Cost: $720.

What it would have cost had we chosen another option.

Once we knew the volume and weight of what we shipped, we went back to the other companies from which we had requested quotes and asked for a new quote for service similar to what we had paid for with UBox Worldwide. Here is what we got:

  • International Sea & Air Shipping:                $2092.46

This quote did not include destination handling charges, port charges, customs duties nor taxes.

  • N.V.O.C.C. LCL Ocean Consolidations:      $6611.96

This quote did not include customs duties or taxes.

  • ABC Movers

They did not respond to our email.

We also looked at what it would have cost us to just put our boxes on the airplane with us. Since we were already checking two bags each, our boxes would have all been charged the excess baggage fee. Additionally, many of them were oversized and/or overweight. Here is what that option would have cost:



Turns out, we went with the most economical option for shipping after all. But if we had it to do all over again, we would pay attention to the lessons learned and probably make some different choices.

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