US west coast to Portugal: the whole story (plus M-bag advice)

A forum for questions and helpful information and advice about international moves and moving companies.
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US west coast to Portugal: the whole story (plus M-bag advice)

Postby Fletcherv » Sun Aug 12, 2007 9:51 am

After this forum was so helpful to me in planning my international move, I promised myself that I'd write up my full experience once it was complete.

I used Southern Winds as my moving liaison. I call them a liaison because, as I learned, international moving companies do not move you. They organize your move and take care of all the complex details of international transit, customs, etc. They provide invaluable services, but actually packing up your belongings is not one of them. They contract moving companies for this job, at both your point of departure and your destination. This means that the full process of moving will only be as good as the companies contracted.

Southern Winds did an excellent job and treated me very well. Unfortunately, the company they contracted to pack up my belongings did not, and I had to file an insurance claim. Here's the whole story.

I got three in-house estimates. The estimators sent by the three companies varied wildly in professionalism, and their estimates were just different enough to make comparison difficult. (Many, many thanks to hardatwork for helping me compare apples to oranges!) I chose Southern Winds for several reasons: 1) their representative, Michael Gilbert, was very professional and prompt in answering my many email questions; 2) the estimator they sent was the most professional; and 3) this estimator made some very good-sounding guarantees regarding the protection of my furniture. He said they would use hard cardboard corner pieces and edge pieces for my expensive cherry wood furniture, and that it would be securely wrapped and protected. He made a point of mentioning that cars could run over these cardboard corners and not crush them -- serious protection!

This estimate was not the cheapest, but I felt the most comfortable with my dealings with Southern Winds and its contracted moving company, Crown Moving (a United Van Lines mover).

For the next month I was busy selling/donating half my belongings and doing a lot of prepacking. Because I lived in a remote area of the Oregon coast, and was moving to the extreme south of Portugal, the cost of my move was stratospheric. If I'd moved from Los Angeles to London, I'm sure it would have been a heck of a lot cheaper. As it was, my costs worked out to about $3,000 per lift van. I pulled out all the stops to get my belongings to fit into two lift vans rather than three, and to this day regret that I was forced into that kind of situation. I gave up a lot of things that truly hurt to lose.

(Note to those moving to Europe: if your friends tell you, "Don't worry, you can just buy a new one there -- it will be cheaper than moving it," take that with a very large grain of salt. Depending on where you live, consumer costs can be extremely expensive here. Between the import duties, the VAT tax -- which in Portugal is 21% -- and the total unavailability of many, many things that we're accustomed to being able to buy in the US, it is not a safe bet that you can cheaply replace something in Europe. In fact, it is often not a safe bet that you can find a replacement at ANY cost.)

Moving day arrived, bringing with it the first signs that the Crown Moving representative had grossly misrepresented the professionalism of its movers and the quality of its moving products.

Sign number one: The lift vans. In the United Van Lines brochure the rep had left me, the lift vans were shown as solid, thick, reinforced wooden crates. The ones that appeared in front of my house were so thin that I could literally have kicked a hole in them. They were falling apart, had been repeatedly patched with additional thin pieces of wood nailed over the holes, and the insides were studded with sharp nails that had been pounded in from the outside and not bent or clipped. They literally looked as if they'd been assembled from scrap lumber at a construction site. At one point, as a mover was shoving in a last box, the entire top of the lift van separated from the body. "Don't worry," he assured me, "they seal them back at the warehouse."

Sign number two: A total absence of any of those hard cardboard corner and edge pieces for protecting furniture. When I asked about them, I was told, "Oh yeah, they mentioned those at our last meeting. No, we don't have them yet." As it turned out, the majority of the damage to my furniture occurred on the corners and edges.

Sign number three: The movers had no understanding that my lift vans would not be shipped all the way through to my destination. Instead, they were going to be unpacked in England, with the goods repacked into a truck for overland transit to Portugal. (If I'd been moving somewhere like Germany, the lift vans would have gone door to door. For Spain or Portugal, forget it.) This meant that every single item in the lift vans had to be boxed or wrapped with the thought in mind that they were going to be individually transferred. On two different occasions I had to stop one of the movers from simply throwing something into the liftvan unwrapped.

This ignorance on the part of the movers was the cause of most of my damage. Whether Southern Winds failed to inform Crown Moving that my lift vans would be unpacked in England, I do not know.

Sign number four: Crown Moving sent two movers for a three-person job.

Sign number five: The movers did not come equipped with enough thick wrapping paper, and the paper they DID bring was not high quality. When the movers in Portugal brought my furniture in, they all commented that they'd never seen such thin paper or such a poor wrapping job.

Crown Moving sent a team of two movers, a woman and a man. The woman was experienced in packing boxes, and did a really bang-up job. Nothing she packed in boxes was even slightly damaged -- she was very, very good. The man was clearly there for muscle alone. Unfortunately, he also packed some boxes, and did an extremely poor job of it. Who in the heck packs a stereo amplifier in a box by putting it face down in the bottom, with no crumpled paper or any kind of padding? All of the knobs, switches and buttons were crushed into the bottom of the box from the weight of everything he piled on top of the amp. Amazing.

My furniture was wrapped in single layers of wrapping paper, and when I expressed dismay at the level of protection -- where were the multiple layers and the thick plastic wrap shown in the brochure? -- they assured me that it would be fine, and that the movers at the other end would use blankets when they repacked the shipment. This was either more ignorance or an outright lie.

Finally my shipment was packed up and on its way, for better or worse. I flew to Portugal and waited. Michael Gilbert estimated that my shipment would take eight weeks; it took nine. Pretty close.

The shipment arrived in England right on schedule. I received notification from Southern Winds' contracted British moving company (Simpson's Removals) that it had cleared customs. I then sent an email to Simpson's expressing my doubts about how securely my furniture had been wrapped, and asked that it be properly protected when transferred to the truck. I was assured that it would be. Another lie.

The truck made its way to Spain, and I received a phone call from the Portuguese company that Simpson's contracted for final delivery, setting up a delivery time. Then I received another call the day before delivery, telling me that there was a delay and setting the date for one day later. My shipment finally arrived several hours after the newly scheduled time. The truck had apparently broken down in Spain, and the Portuguese company had sent a second truck. All of my goods were transferred to this new truck. Then they discovered, upon entering the city where I now live, that the new truck was too large and heavy to go beyond the city limits. So they brought a THIRD, smaller truck, and transferred everything again.

In total, my shipment -- which the Crown Moving people thought would stay in the lift vans from door to door -- was transferred no less than three times. The poor wrapping job done at my US home was not up to the test. When my furniture was finally carried in, the paper was literally falling off the furniture. My cherry furniture was gouged, dented and scratched. I moved a bed, two nightstands, a desk, an armoire and a filing cabinet, all matching. Of that set, the only piece that escaped damage was one of the nightstands. My desk in particular was so badly damaged that the repair estimate called for replacing the entire top of it.

Words cannot express how awful it feels to watch your shipment arrive after SO much time and stress and waiting, and then find out that your furniture is trashed and the move still isn't over. Now comes the insurance claim.

Of course, filing a claim in Portugal isn't quite the same thing that it would be in the US. For one thing, I had to get a woodworker to come to my house to give me an estimate -- taking my things to his shop was obviously not an option. But I don't live in Lisbon, where I could have gotten three estimates with ease. I live in the Algarve, and there was precisely one man available and willing. His estimate was ridiculously low -- I seriously doubted the quality of his work based on that -- but I was unable to get another. After spending too much time trying, and using up almost all of my three-month time allotment (wait longer than that and you lose your claim), I was finally forced to file a claim based on that single estimate. The insurance company responded promptly and professionally, and did not give me a hard time. (Probably because the claim was so incredibly cheap!)

My check arrived at the end of June. I moved at the end of December. Six months to get closure on this whole disaster.

Throughout this whole thing, Michael Gilbert continued to be supportive and professional. He informed me that Southern Winds is no longer using Crown Moving based on my experience.


One final note, for anyone considering using M-bags to ship books. I chose to do this, since my library would have taken up a third of a lift van. The USPS estimated four weeks for delivery; it took twelve. And the boxes looked as if they'd been through some sort of grinding machine. Only a few of them escaped damage. Most of the books were all right, with just light damage, but the box of my hardcover reference books -- the most expensive ones, of course -- was completely destroyed and my books were heavily damaged. Ever seen a U-shaped hardcover book? I have now -- many of them, in fact.

M-bags are cheaper than a moving company and can work, but DON'T follow the instructions on the USPS website. They tell you that packing peanuts are an effective packing material. They are not -- not for books. They compress and disintegrate, leaving your books to slide around freely, causing amazing damage. Plus the shreds of disintegrated packing peanuts get inside EVERY PAGE of your books, and behind the dust jackets as well, causing even more damage as pages and covers are pressed down onto these bumps. And of course they're charged with static electricity, so the only way to remove them is by vacuum. Yes, I vaccumed my entire library, page by page.

If you use M-bags, my first piece of advice would be: go to the nearest U-Haul store and pay for the really good boxes. The one box that survived my shipment totally intact was a moving box I'd found. The rest were boxes that I collected from stores. Even though they were strong, they weren't strong enough.

Second advice: don't EVER use packing peanuts. Use crumpled paper and strips of cardboard folded into a triangle and taped shut. The cardboard triangles, inserted between your books and the sides of the box, will keep your books stable. Fill in the rest of the space with crumpled paper.

Third advice: wrap the boxes in all directions with strapping tape. They may still get crushed, but at least they won't break open and spill their contents into the M-bag itself, which is what happened to me. I used a lot of clear, strong mailing tape, and in all directions, but the tape broke.

I hope this post will help others planning their international move. This forum was a lifesaver for me while I was planning mine, and I'm grateful for its existence.

There's no way around it; an international move is extraordinarily expensive and stressful. You really cannot limit the expense; if you try to cut corners you'll most likely be sorry. But you can limit the stress by knowing what to expect. Good luck to you.

~ Fletcher

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Joined: Tue Oct 07, 2003 12:18 am
Location: Los Angeles

Re: **US west coast to Portugal: the whole story (plus M-bag advice)

Postby Diane » Fri Aug 17, 2007 10:43 am


Thanks so much for your very detailed report on your shipment to Portugal in January, although I was sorry to hear about the apparently inadequate packing. I must say that in spite of Crown's excellent reputation, it doesn't have very good reviews here for either domestic or international moves. Since the Crown nearest to you is in Vancouver, WA, I'm assuming that that was the office involved. If you see this, I'd be interested to know how the furniture repairs went and whether you were satisfied with them.

Also, thanks for the report on the fate of your books in the M-bags and the good advice about how to pack them. I'll re-post that part of your review on our thread about "Packing and Loading Tips."

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