We recently went through part of the process for shipping our truck from the US to Europe and wanted to share a few things we learned along the way. Keep in mind that this is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on the subject, but rather us sharing our experience. We hope this will give you a jumping off point for your own research or give you a baseline on what to expect when getting ready to ship your vehicle overseas. I say we went through “part” of the process because we did not handle the booking, payment for our shipping, or deal with the import process when our truck arrived in Europe. That was covered by Maltec, the company who built our truck and who is currently working on it in Germany. We were responsible for getting the vehicle prepped and to the port, as well as picking the vehicle up from the destination port when it arrived in Germany so this post will only cover the parts of shipping we dealt with personally. If you’d rather not read the details, you can skip to the summary at the end of this post which includes a handy dandy list of good things to know before dropping your vehicle off at the port.
If you’re looking for information on costs, we did not handle this portion of the shipping so I won’t be able to go into much detail. However just to give you a general idea, a vehicle our size would ship RORO for around $2000-$2500 USD from the east coast of the US to Germany. For a container you’re looking at around $3,000-$5,000 USD with factors like size of the container, whether you are sharing a container, and the costs associated with loading and unloading your container being some of the main drivers of cost.
You might be surprised to learn that you will deal with three or more companies to get your vehicle shipped from one port to the other. While you may choose to hire a shipping company/shipping consultant like Sea-bridge or IVSS to guide you through the process, book passage, and handle most of the logistics, you will still need to interface with the companies that they have relationships with in order to get everything done at the ports.
A Tale of Two Options
Let’s start with some basics. First off, when shipping your vehicle across an ocean or other body of water there are a few options for how your vehicle will be transported on a ship: Roll-on/Roll-off (RORO) or in a container. We had the displeasure of dealing with both of these shipping methods while trying to ship our vehicle from a port in the US to Bremerhaven in Germany and we’ll share our experience with each below.
RORO vessels are designed to carry cargo that is driven on and off of the ship, usually on its own wheels. When shipping ro-ro, your vehicle will be driven onto the specified deck of the ship, parked, and then tied down for the duration of the voyage. When it arrives at its destination, the process is completed in reverse and you pick up your vehicle from a lot at the destination port. While this option is more simple and costs less, it has some serious drawbacks as well. The simplicity of the loading and unloading process saves costs, but also opens you up to potential damage or theft by either port or ship personnel. It is a well known fact in the industry that when shipping a vehicle ro-ro, extra measures have to be taken to either completely empty the vehicle of your personal belongings or build barriers to safeguard your belongings from the very people you have entrusted to transport your vehicle and home.
where in the world you are shipping to and from seems to have an impact on the likelihood of damage or theft.
We’ve heard stories from other travelers about their experiences shipping ro-ro and where in the world you are shipping to and from seems to have an impact on the likelihood of damage or theft. When shipping in South America, Africa, or Asia the likelihood of having issues seems to skyrocket. We know one traveler who emptied their vehicle to ship from a port in South America to Houston, only to pick it up from the port having had the interior damaged and speakers ripped out of their mounts in the back because the thieves weren’t going to be dissuaded by the vehicle being empty of personal effects. On the other hand, we know others who shipped from Hamburg to Halifax with their vehicle full of their personal belongings without a single item out of place when they picked it up from the destination port.
If you’re shipping extra large vehicles like campers or motorhomes, ro-ro is going to be your only way to transport overseas. Just keep this in mind when picking your rig to take you around the world as it will impact price and shipping methods available to you.
The second option is to ship your vehicle in a container. This option is more expensive and more complicated but chosen by many because the vehicle is more secure both from the elements and potential damage or theft at the hands of port or ship personnel while in transit. Being able to securely ship your personal effects along with the vehicle is a huge plus of this shipping method. Once inspected by customs, the container is sealed and won’t be reopened until you receive the container at your destination. But like I mentioned before, shipping in a container is more complicated and here’s how.
Depending on the shipping company and port, you will need to coordinate with the folks who will be loading your vehicle into the container itself. This is often completed off site (meaning not at the port) so will require additional scheduling. You will also be required to submit a spreadsheet listing your belongings with a description, estimated value, weight, and HTS/Schedule B number (US customs tax code) so plan extra time for that. You can find the tax codes by using the Schedule B tool on Export.gov. Creating a list like this is a good idea to do anyways for insurance purposes so we decided to create two lists. One that is exhaustive for insurance purposes and a second that is for submitting to customs for shipping. You may also want to consider including a column in your spreadsheet for where each items is located in the vehicle, especially for the insurance one. While you’re being so thorough, perhaps consider taking a video or photos of all these items as well.
The inventory list is a formality required by US customs that we were told to keep simple by many people who’ve shipped their vehicles before, including the company who was supposed to load our vehicle in the container. However we were also told by over zealous paper pushers at the freight forwarding company we were dealing with that under-reporting would result in fees of $5 per item found during the customs inspection that isn’t on the list. We have a lot of items in our vehicle as it is our home so the threat of $5 per item gave us pause. As a result of this warning, we opted to be more detailed than we should have been when submitting our list. We were rewarded for our honestly by the over zealous paper pushers freaking out when we disclosed we have a lithium battery powering our house power in the back of the camper. After about three weeks and at least 2 missed sailings we learned through our own research and due diligence that the paper pushers at the shipping company were completely incorrect in their assessment of our “dangerous goods”. The truck could have been loaded in a container and shipped out on the very first sailing we were scheduled for had they not complicated the process through their incompetence.
Moral of the story here is that this list is important to supply when you book a container, however you don’t necessarily need to list every item. What you choose to report or leave out is up to you, but if you feel compelled to report items that could be considered dangerous goods such as batteries, aerosol sprays, vehicle fluids, etc. you may want to go ahead and pull together MSDS sheets for those items ahead of time.
We reluctantly agreed to ship the truck Ro-Ro
After weeks of delay, rental cars, hotel rooms and multiple trips back and forth between Atlanta and Savannah, we decided to fire the shipping company after their incompetence came to light. We picked our truck up and regrouped with Maltec. After much back and forth, we reluctantly agreed to ship the truck ro-ro after being assured by both the new shipping company and a number of our european friends that the likelihood of having issues when shipping from an east coast US port to Germany was insignificant.
We prepped for shipping ro-ro as well as we could by packing all of our expensive electronics and sentimental belongings into large suitcases to accompany us on the airplane. Unfortunately we couldn’t fit everything, so we locked anything of value we had to leave in the truck such as off-road recovery gear and tools in a cabinet and hoped for the best. If you follow us on Instagram or Facebook you will no doubt already know how this ended up for us: we had more than $2000 worth of belongings stolen from the vehicle while the thieves (read: port and/or ship employees) had their way with our vehicle while it was in their care. They also dented our rear door and scratched the interior in their pursuit of our belongings. Which leads me to our next topic of discussion…
Insurance & Paperwork
No matter which shipping method you choose to move forward with, you’ll need to have your paperwork in order and you’ll need to protect your vehicle and any property you send along with it. We’ll start with insurance.
There are different types of insurance policies available when shipping your vehicle and these different policies typically will need to be purchased in conjunction with one another in order to be totally covered. For example, general insurance might cover scratches and dents while total loss insurance will only kick in if the container falls overboard or some other catastrophe causes total loss to the vehicle while in transport. They are two separate policies that do not overlap. Additionally, even if you purchase both of those types of policies, your belongings or furnishings inside the vehicle are still not covered in the event a port or ship worker damages or steals something from your vehicle. That’s yet another policy you are responsible for requesting and purchasing separately.
As I mentioned above we did not handle the booking or payment so did not have the opportunity to confirm all of these details ahead of time. We assumed that our vehicle was fully insured against all of these eventualities, but we have still yet to get a clear answer from the shipping company as to the status of our claim.
Make sure you have a clear idea from your shipping company what your insurance options are
You’re reading this correctly, folks. Not only will the shipping or port companies not take responsibility for their own employees mistreating the property you have paid them to transport, they do not automatically cover damage to said property. Can you imagine dropping your car off at the dealer for service, and when the building burns down or one of their employees backs it into another car, the dealer tells you tough luck because you didn’t purchase all of the correct insurance policies for these eventualities? I’m not sure what it will take to get this industry to change, but I don’t see that happening during our lifetime so make sure you have a clear idea from your shipping company what your insurance options are and exactly what they do or do not cover.
As far as paperwork, your shipping company will of course let you know exactly what you need but at a minimum be prepared to have your identification (including passports and driver’s licenses), the original vehicle title, your vehicle registration, insurance, and license plates at the ready. License plates are apparently an oft stolen “souvenir” so you’ll likely need to remove them and hide them in the vehicle or take them with you in your luggage after you’ve dropped the vehicle off at the port. When you go to pick your vehicle up at the destination port you can just pop those puppies back on and be prepared to drive on down the road and celebrate the fact that your shipping related misery is over for now.
I know I’m really painting a rosy picture here. Shipping a vehicle isn’t for those easily turned away by the putrid stench of defeatism and incompetence that usually surrounds government buildings and entrenched union labor, but if you keep a smile on your face and push on through, the rewards of exploring an entirely new place in your mobile palace will make it all worth it in the end. If we can navigate the confusing labyrinth of regulations, insurance, and paperwork then you can too.
I’ll leave you with a list of handy tips we picked up along the way:
- Do not buy your plane ticket until your vehicle is on the boat and it has left the port! (Thanks Bram for this tip!). Even if you don’t encounter the issues that we did, there are always reasons a ship could be delayed. So either wait until the ship has actually left the port or buy flexible tickets that you won’t be penalized for changing if the need arises.
- Show up with a ¼ tank of fuel if you drive a gasoline vehicle. Diesel vehicles are not subject to this requirement.
- Be prepared to get your vehicle to the port or freight warehouse at least 5 business days ahead of your ship date. We’ve heard differing numbers here, but the freight forwarder we were dealing with in GA said they needed this big of a lead time because of the way US Customs operates at their port.
- If you have a propane tank, you will need to have it certified as being empty by a propane company before dropping it off at the port. Our certificate cost us $80 and about 20 minutes of time.
- Bring a lot of cash with you. Fees for paperwork, propane certification, courier, and port escort ended up being over $400 and most if not all of these fees were only payable in cash.
- When shipping RORO, part of the cash mentioned in item 5 above is to pay a port worker $50 to escort you to the parking lot where you drop your vehicle off and then give you a ride back to the gate.
- The paperwork requirements will vary depending on your shipping method, but at a minimum plan for having your original vehicle title, identification such as passport and/or drivers license, vehicle registration and insurance.
- Plan for 2 days in the area of the port getting your paperwork in order or getting your propane tank certified as empty or whatever other requirements you find out at the last second that you haven’t fulfilled yet. You’ll then spend half a day or more actually dropping the vehicle off. It’s totally possible to complete the entire process of paperwork and drop off in one day if you don’t have any issues but it’s best to be prepared, especially if it’s your first time.
- Have some bright yellow safety vests on hand. Some ports require you to wear one and you’ll have to buy an overpriced one on site if you don’t have it on you when you arrive.
- We will always try to ship in a container in the future. If you end up shipping RORO, plan to build some sort of barrier between the cockpit and the living area in order to protect your belongings. Also consider getting pelican cases that you can lock and take as many of your sentimental or expensive belongings as possible with you on the airplane.
As always, if you have any additional specific questions, please feel free to ask in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer in a timely fashion!