As an interior designer, I am someone who appreciates beauty, certainly to a fault. I was lucky enough to live in Asia for more than 18 years, where I travelled across the region and throughout the world acquiring beautiful things for my home. There have been some successful foreign shopping and shipping experiences and some not so great ones. I have learned a lot about how to shop abroad and ship it home as well as which treasures are worth the effort. Always shop for things you know you love and have a passion for.
I have a penchant for pottery. Many years ago our family travelled through the South of France where I found rustic French pottery plates and vessels. My husband dragged the big, heavy suitcase that contained them in and out of hotels each night, on to the US (a stop on our journey) then back home to Asia. He will never let me forget about that! But I still love those pieces.
Itineraries for pottery shopping
My other passion is textiles. I cannot count the number of scarves, shawls, quilts, tablecloths, carpets, etc, I have packed into my luggage. How many shawls can a girl have? Apparently, a lot.
Stainless steel kitchen items
I accumulated beautiful handmade stainless utensils and serving dishes in Vietnam. When it came time to pack for the return journey home, the weight really added up. My checked baggage had reached maximum weight, so I put the remaining pieces in my carry-on suitcase. It was terribly heavy, and I had to lift it “effortlessly” into the overhead bin so as not to attract attention to its excessive weight. I still can’t believe I got away with that! It would have been wiser to ship them. Oh, the lengths I have gone to in order to bring home treasures!
Tips for shipping it home
Through nearly 3 decades of international travel and collecting, I have learned a few lessons. Here are my tips for how to shop abroad and ship it home.
Ship via DHL
I shipped one set of rugs from Morocco purchased for my design business, hassle-free, to my door via DHL. I tried to save money by sending a second batch of rugs with a less expensive carrier, only to learn they were shipped through the US customs office at the airport. In order to collect them, I nearly had to hire a customs broker. What a pain in the neck that was!
Do not ship by sea!
Customs charges can be exorbitant. I purchased a vintage tripod floor lamp from Bali and paid what I was told was the total amount to get it home. Many months later, I received an email from US Customs in Los Angeles informing me that in order to get the lamp through customs and then to my home it would cost an additional $900! That was twice what I paid for the lamp – just for the customs fees! Deciding it wasn’t worth it, I reluctantly let the lamp go.
About a year later I received a call from a man in Los Angeles who buys items left at customs via auction. He had my lamp and asked how much I wanted to pay him to get it. We negotiated a reasonable price and nearly 2 years after buying that lamp, I now have it in my home! Instead of sending by sea, I would have been better off to pay the extra luggage fees to bring it on the plane. (If you really must ship by sea, check your closest homeport for custom fee prices.)
Ask yourself if there is a place for that item in your home right now
I am not good at following this advice, but I do wish I had done so from the beginning. I have moved 23 times during my marriage and still do not have my “forever home.” We’ve paid monthly storage fees for over 25 years and are still storing items purchased overseas that do not fit into houses we have lived in. It is easy to get caught up in the moment, fall in love with pretty things and purchase them without asking yourself, “Can I use them right now? Do they fit my home’s aesthetic? Do I LOVE them?” If not, you’re better off passing them up.
Perhaps start a collection of small things as souvenirs instead of shipping big things. One woman has a vintage typesetting drawer with many tiny spaces that is mounted on her wall. On her travels, she finds one tiny thing from each place. It could be a small blue and white porcelain shoe from the Netherlands, a miniature hand-painted Dala horse from Sweden or a little jade Buddha from China.
Travel with bubble wrap to provide your purchases with extra cushioning if you do pack in your luggage. You can read about other tips on packing smaller items here.
Shopping and shipping mishaps
We have had some mishaps, such as the large terracotta warriors we purchased during a moment of excitement in Xi’an, China. They were sent by train and we were told they could be left outside. Because they were massive and heavy, they did indeed have to spend the night outside. It rained that first night and the outer coating washed right off. We were livid! Feeling we had been scammed, we wanted to contest the purchase.
We contacted our credit card company who said that in order to receive a refund we had to send them back to the point of purchase in China. Of course, that would have cost a fortune! Instead, we kept them for a while until they were eventually hoisted over our balcony and dropped onto the jungle floor, where they continue to rest.
Another time, we bought hand-painted Tibetan furniture in China and arranged for shipping, only to receive completely different items at our home. Once it was there, we couldn’t do anything about it. Shipping can be a risky business!
But with all of that said, we have had good experiences too and are so glad we have shopped abroad and shipped it home. It has made our home full of memories and a very special place to be.