Shipping a car around the world without being there

Saturday, May 20, 2017

I bet there are a lot of people wondering how shipping a car around the world works, especially if you’re not there yourself to pick it up at its destination. There’s a lot of money in the shipping industry, and therefore it plays a big role in the global economy. Although transporting freight is a worldwide business, it is nearly invisible for the common people, and it’s not a much spoken about topic.

Personally, I always wondered how shipping a car worked, but since I never actually had the need to, I never really researched it. For my journey from Kenya to South Africa however, I really had to ship my wrecked old car back to Kenya. In this article, I will share my experiences with the shipping industry, and the challenges I faced along the way.

The situation, why I really had to ship a car in the first place

Driving down to South Africa, I only barely made it to Cape Town. After 15,000 kilometers, my old car really was giving up on me. When I got to the fifth auto-repair shop in Cape Town, the mechanic told me it simply wasn’t worth the money to fix the car again. My best option was to ship the vehicle back to its origin, in order to get my Carnet de Passage deposit back (read more about Carnet de Passage in my previous article). I thought this would be a fairly straightforward process, considering Mombasa (a city near Nairobi) and Cape Town both are home to big industrial harbors. I thought I just needed to pick a shipping company and wasn’t very concerned. The only little worry in my head was that I wouldn’t be there to pick the car up at its destination. It turned out that I was a little naive, and it was a lot more difficult than I anticipated!

Setting out to find a competent shipping and customs company

My first step was figuring out if I could ship a car from Cape Town to Mombasa. That involved calling a bunch of companies, inquiring about their quota for a shipment from Cape Town to Nairobi. I was told that it was ‘no big deal’, and they’d get back to me regarding the quota. Unfortunately, the days passed by, and I still hadn’t heard from any of the companies. Nobody could, or would, give me a door-to-door price for a vehicle. The rest of the shipping information was also quite vague, and it was nearly impossible for me to figure out the shipping terminology. So far, I was not of to a great start…

dropping my car at a clearing company in Cape Town, South Africa

Getting lost in the complexity and confusion of the procedures

Time kept on creeping by, and all the people I spoke with weren’t able to help me. I was getting pretty desperate. All of the options included using multiple parties, and the handover process was complicated. Besides that, the prices started to become sky-high.

Shipping a car in a container was ridiculously expensive. I looked into RORO, which stands for ‘roll on, roll off’, and is basically a ferry for working cars. In general, you can expect the cost of transportation within Africa to just be really high, because of the low demand for shipping, in combination the amount of bureaucracy in Africa. However, the African coast is by far the most expensive route, despite being a way shorter route.

Shipping a car without being there is possible, yet frustrating

Finally, after several weeks of requests, inquiries and a lot of waiting, I thought I found the answer to all my problems! I found a company with offices in both South Africa and Kenya, with fairly reasonable prices. They could transport the car overland to Port Elizabeth, ship it to Mombasa, and then transport it overland again to Nairobi.

My thought was that I would simply drop the car off in Cape Town and that the company would take it from there. Alas, that idea was quickly scattered. Every step and process was a struggle to get done, and within three months, I had exchanged 200 (frustrated) emails with the company. On top of that, the invoice was twice as high as the initial quota. It also came in three parts: South Africa, Kenya, and Shipping. My only consolation is that the car eventually arrived at its final destination.

This was definitely not my most upbeat experience and article, but I hope it was somewhat helpful to you. What I personally took away from it, is that shipping a car without being there yourself is doable, but it can be a huge pain. Of course, it is possible that I was just terribly unlucky and that I spoke with the wrong people and companies. But for me personally, this was one of the worst experiences I’ve had dealing with professionals. It was as if I was in a different reality, and I felt like I was being treated like an idiot the entire time. I wonder what shipping a car is like in Europe, Asia or America, but it will be a while before I risk it for myself.

Adrian Sameli founder and editor of aSabbatical.com
Travel mindfully to meet local people around the world and embrace new cultures. Get inspired and inspire others!

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