All you Need to Know about Shipping your Overland Vehicle – Tips & Tricks

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Possibly an overlander’s biggest nightmare: shipping your rig across the ocean to your new overland destination. A while back I shared in Overland Journal our shipping experiences, including all kinds of practical stuff and, off course plenty of tips & tricks to maximize the chance of shipping your overland vehicle across the world with the minimum of headache.

Questions? Fire away in the comment section below!

When Patience is not Enough

The alarm clock sounded at 3am. For the fifth morning in a row Coen yawned as he threw his legs out of bed to get, once more, on the phone. We were in the Netherlands, visiting family while the Land Cruiser was being shipped from Malaysia to Argentina. Well, that had been the plan.  

The shipping agency had promised to load our Land Cruiser on a cargo ship on December 23. It was January 6 and the Land Cruiser was still sitting in Kuala Lumpur’s port. The Powers That Be claimed that a signature was missing on one of the customs papers. The shipping company insisted on Coen’s flying from the Netherlands to Malaysia to solve the issue. And no, a fax wouldn’t do.

We had made one of the biggest mistakes when organizing the shipment of our Land Cruiser to the other side of the world. We knew the risk, had gambled, and were now stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Headaches, Stress, and a Budget Killer

Shipping your overland vehicle is arguably one of the most stressful parts of international overlanding. If overlanding long enough, you’ll inevitably reach the end of a continent and the only way to continue your journey is to ship your car or motorcycle.

Suddenly questions start flying through your brains, accumulating into a massive waterfall plunging into a deep pool, leaving you with a feeling of drowning in uncertainties:

  • Container or RoRo?
  • And if a container, then 20ft, 40ft, high-cube, open-top or flat track
  • What’s a Bill of Lading?
  • Who is lashing the car in a container? And what does lashing mean, anyway?
  • Where to find a shipping line?
  • What in the world are all these fees (bunker, stuffing, lashing, unstuffing, port fees…)?

Here’s a low-down on the overland-vehicle shipping process.

1. Types of Shipping – Container, RoRo, Ferries, LoLo

#1. Roro

RoRo means Roll on Roll off and is similar to a ferry. RoRo is a term generally used for large, oceangoing vessels (car carriers) and ferries for river and shorter sea crossings. RoRo/ferries are a good option for large vehicles that don’t fit in a container.

Well-known RoRo companies used by overlanders are:

  • Grimaldi: popular for shipping larger vehicles between South America and Europe, which have cabins for a limited number of passengers.
  • Wallenius Wilhelmsen, NYK Line, and K-line: they have multiple RoRo routes across the world (no passengers allowed).

#2. Container Shipping

With container shipping you drive your vehicle into a container, where it is lashed down, and the doors are locked with a numbered seal before the container is loaded onto a cargo ship. 

Regular containers are 20ft and 40ft. A ‘regular’ car (size Land Cruisers, VW Combis, SUVs, etc) will fit in a 20ft. Sharing a 40ft container can be an option. Bigger vehicles may fit into a high-cube container (regular container but higher), open-top container (has sides but no top; possibly covered with a tarp), or on a flat-track (open sides and no top).

#3. LoLo

LoLo is Lift on / Lift off. Your vehicle is craned onto and off a vessel. LoLo works for vehicles that are too large for containers or flat racks and that need to be shipped from A to B where no RoRo is available.

#4. Airplane

Motorcycles have the additional option of being crated and flown across the world. This is often the cheapest option. Air shipment is not included in this article.

2. Container Shipment vs. RoRo/ferry:

What to consider when having to decide on the type of shipment:

#1. Routes:

Container shipment is possible from many ports in the world; RoRo lines are much more limited, LoLo even more so.

#2. Security:

Regular 20ft and 40ft containers are the most secure form of shipping as they can be locked. You can bring your own padlock as extra security; the shipping company only puts a numbered seal on the doors.

Roro/ferry: your vehicle will be in an open space with other vehicles and thus not less protected against damage/theft than in a container. The same goes for high-cube/open-top/flat-tracks.

LoLo: chances are that your vehicle sits in a port without any security as well as without protection on the vessel, increasing the risk of theft/damage.

#3. Money/paperwork:

When both Roro and container liners ply a same route, RoRo is generally cheaper.

Paperwork on Roro/ferry is often easier to deal with than with container shipment.

#4. Hassle:

Some RoRo companies require cars to be empty (although there may be an exception for campers; check details beforehand).

With ferries you will drive your vehicle onto/off the boat yourself whereas with RoRo you may have to hand over your keys and the company will drive your vehicle onto/off the boat. In that case, isolate the driver’s unit from the rest of your vehicle to make sure nobody has a quick access to your valuables.

3. The Procedure

Every car shipment has its own specifics, depending on local and company/port policies. Having said that, this is what each procedure comes down to.

Step 1: Finding Shipping Routes

You have two good friends here: Google and Facebook Overlanding groups/Overland forums:

  • Facebook groups are great to get up-to-date shipping information, and recommended names and phone numbers in the shipping world.
  • Google will take you to main shipping line websites that have timetables and shipping routes.
  • Third, if you’re already in a seaport, check local newspapers or magazines that publish shipping schedules.

Tips:

  • Find main shipping routes. The rarer the route, the more expensive it is. E.g. it’s not as evident to ship from Australia to South America as to Southeast Asia or Europe, which is something to keep in mind when planning your round-the-world trip.
  • Be flexible with dates (a month later or earlier may make a difference) and check seasonal demand. E.g. before Christmas many container ships sail from China to Europe/US filled to the brim but return empty and this influences the price.
  • Some ports are cheaper than others; local port and company fees can make a huge difference in your budget. By the same token, some ports are much safer and/or easier to ship to.
  • Direct routes minimize the chances of something going wrong as opposed to routes where your container has to change ships in ports along the way.

Step 2. Get Quotes

Coen and I have bad experiences with requesting quotes from big shipping lines through email. Most never answer. (That’s not surprising; in a world of massive car shipments, how interesting is shipping just one overland vehicle?).

Our tactic is to visit the shipping line offices to find the ‘right’ person. Who is that ? The employee who is inspired by our story and wants to help, and who goes that extra mile to organize our shipment.

Possibly self-evident: Request quotes from various companies. This can save you thousands of dollars. It also helps you to quickly filter out the companies you definitely don’t want to work with; they are the ones with outrageous quotes. Once narrowed down to two or three quotes that sound reasonable (or comparable), it’s time for the nitty gritty part of the budget.

A shipping budget can be divided into 3 parts:

  • Fees at the port of departure.
  • Fee for ocean freight (the container).
  • Fees at the port of arrival.

 The fee for the container is more or less the same for any specific route. Negotiation may save you just a few bucks, if any at all. The port fees can make the big difference in your budget. The more go-betweens between you and the ship, the more you pay. Here is where you have to make a basic decision:

Do the work yourself, outsource the entire process, or part of it. 

Note that some ports have restrictions on which part you are allowed to access. Sometimes you have no choice but to outsource.

Check it out: the Landcruising Adventure Bucket-Hat Collection

Organize the Shipment Yourself vs. Outsourcing

Coen and I, low-budget overlanders and people who like to be in control when it comes to bureaucracies, prefer doing everything ourselves. That means doing all the paperwork on both sides, driving and lashing the Land Cruiser, and unstuffing and driving the car out of the container. 

Doing everything yourself is the cheapest option, gives you more control over what is happening, but is also by far the most complicated route to take.

Requirements

  • Lots of time, patience (and humor helps, too).
  • A sense of knowing when to be persistent if necessary vs. letting go and knowing these procedures take ‘forever’.

Outsourcing costs more but saves you time, energy, and frustration (although this is by no means a given). Particularly helpful in a country where you don’t speak the language. More on this, below under Step 3. Organize the Paperwork.

Terminology

Among the common terms you will find in a quote:

Container related:

  • Ocean Freight: Cost of your container.
  • Stuffing: Getting the goods into the container and sealing it.
  • Lashing: Lashing the vehicle in the container.
  • Unstuffing: Getting the goods out of the container. 
  • -B/L or BOL or Bill of Lading: The official document describing the contents of the container.

Note: stuffing & unstuffing may or may not include trucking the container between the port and warehouse where you bring/pick up your vehicle.

Port related:

  • Documentation/Customs clearance fees.
  • Congestion charges at busy ports.
  • Port fees or THC (Terminal Handling Charges): These may include fees in the port of arrival but be aware that if things turn out to be otherwise, there is nothing you can do about it.
  • Important: You are overlanding and temporarily importing your vehicle so make sure there are no import duties.

Other:

  • CAF (Currency Adjustment Factor): Allows for changes in exchange rates during the journey.
  • BAF (Bunker Adjustment Factor): A charge covering possible fuel price fluctuations.
  • Wharfage: A fee charged for the time the container sits in or passes through the wharf.
  • Surcharges, such as peak season surcharge, security surcharge and so on.

Depending on how much you want to do yourself or outsource the shipment, you can eliminate/negotiate on lashing/(un)stuffing/ and documentation/THC-related fees.

Ask about dock fees. Your container can stay a maximum number of days on the dock without charge. After that, fees will rise quickly.

Step 3. Organizing the Paperwork

Expect to be asked for:

  • A valid passport and visa.
  • A valid driver’s license and international driver’s license.
  • Car documents such as registration papers, third-party insurance, and Carnet de Passage.

At your destination you will also need:

  • The Bill of Lading, proving your ownership of the vehicle, given to you after your vehicle is aboard the cargo ship.
  • The Delivery Order, issued by the shipping line after arrival in the port of destination.

Tip: When the Bill of Lading is filled out, have your own name and passport number mentioned as the person on the receiving end. In case somebody else ends up retrieving the vehicle, you can easily change this at the liner’s office at the port of arrival where you receive the Delivery Order.

Organizing the Shipment Yourself

Do everything yourself and you will be hopping from one office to the next. In both seaports, start at the shipping line where you’ll have to pay a fee. They can tell you what the procedures are, what office to visit, or whom to contact to retrieve your vehicle.

Take the time to compare go-betweens (customs brokers/freight forwarders/handlers) and their quotes. Find the person whom you feel is interested in your journey and is therefore enthusiastic to help you. Whom to work with is definitely not a choice made based on budget alone; trust and enthusiasm are worth paying for.

Outsourcing – Using Go-Betweens

Depending on how the port structure is set up, you may have few or many go-betweens who can have all kinds of (fancy sounding) professions. Simply put, you can divide the go-betweens into three levels:

1. Agent.

This person takes care of the entire shipping process. The agent deals with the customs broker, freight forwarder and shipping line. If done right, you won’t have any worries. To maximize outsourcing: opt for an agent who also finds shipping lines & routes for you.

2. Freight forwarder.

On both sides you deal with the shipping line but the freight forwarder takes care of customs and container loading. 

3. Customs brokers.

This person takes care of customs paperwork and gets your vehicle into (or out of) customs jurisdiction.

To find go-betweens, Facebook groups and Overland forums are good places to get names of trustworthy people. Other options are asking around near the port, talking to local people, visit go-betweens’ offices, and ask your shipping line.

The Bill of Lading

The most important piece of paper when shipping your vehicle is the Bill of Lading. Without it, you won’t get your vehicle back! In order to get this, you have to wait until your vehicle is on the cargo ship.

This is where things went wrong for us in the story with which I started this artile. Me wanting to be back in the Netherlands for Christmas and having had our share of delays in the process, I didn’t want to wait for that small piece of paper and the shipping company said it was no problem to send it to the Netherlands. However, the Land Cruiser ended up missing two ships and we were not receiving that Bill of Lading.

One evening, Coen remembered that during the Rain Forest Challenge—an annual off-road event in Malaysia’s jungle during the monsoon—he had met one of the highest officials in the Malaysian customs department. The man had given Coen his card telling him to call him if he needed help. After five days of fruitless discussions with our shipping agency, Coen was in dire need of help. He placed the call.

Twenty-four hours later the Land Cruiser was hoisted aboard a cargo ship and our South America journey had officially begun.

Tips & Tricks

  • Bring a bucketful of patience and kindness, which will help minimize frustration and stress. While you’re at it: bring plenty of drinking water and snacks. And a book!
  • Calculate ample time for every step:
  • Check the required time for paperwork. A fellow overlander was advised to be in the port of departure 10 days before sailing to allow sufficient time. We like to calculate an extra day or two on top of the advised time.
  • Expect a two-hour procedure to last a full day. 
  • Start up the documentation process as soon as you fly in at your destination—no need to wait with contacting the company only after your vehicle has arrived in the port. 
  • Expect your fuel tank to have to be (largely) empty or gas tank(s) to be removed.
  • Some companies or ports require a spic and span vehicle, inside and out. Especially when going to Australia, take note of this to prevent paying a fortune to have it done at the port of arrival.
  • Make multiple copies of all possibly needed documents—don’t rely on a Xerox machine around the corner of the office where the documents are processed.
  • For motorcycles: When shipping with your own container, you only need to lash the bike to the floor to hold it steady and firm. If using a shared container, however, you will need to crate your bike and extras such as panniers and helm (tip: wrap them with a bubble wrap).

To find information, among the good sources are: 

Originally published by Overland Journal

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