What’s the best way to ship your belongings when leaving the UAE?

Choosing the cheapest moving company may not guarantee your items arrive safely

Illustration by Mathew Kurian
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Moving is often considered one of the most stressful life events. It can also be very expensive.

A new report from ServiceMarket, a UAE-based online home services marketplace, found the average international shipping cost for a two-bedroom apartment ranged from a low of Dh10,000 to relocate your belongings to Egypt to a high of Dh22,000 to the US.

Nobody compromises on their margin. The moment they give a discount, that means they are compromising on the cost.

However, it is a big mistake to cut corners to keep costs down, say well-established shipping companies and industry experts.

“Since there are so many international movers and packers in the UAE, and the quality and range of services varies from company to company, you shouldn’t just go with the cheapest or the first option you come across,” says Bana Shomali, founder and chief executive of ServiceMarket.

While it is important to get comparison quotes from a few moving companies, the initial filter is key, including checking international accreditation, looking at the company’s experience and reading reviews. Purchasing insurance, being aware of custom charges and making wise packing decisions can also help save headaches and additional costs.

Here is The National's guide to finding the best moving company for your money and ensuring your belongings make it safely to the next destination.

Choose an internationally accredited company

ServiceMarket strongly recommends choosing a company accredited by Fidi (Federation Internationale des Demenageurs Internationaux), the largest umbrella organisation of professional international moving and relocation companies.

“Doing so is the easiest way to ensure your belongings reach their destination in good condition and avoid hassles,” says Ms Shomali. “Fidi-accredited companies have the resources and know-how to handle your belongings properly at every stage of the moving process.”

Established in 1950, Fidi represents over 600 quality-certified companies in more than 100 countries. Companies with the FAIM (Fidi Accredited International Mover) label must meet strict standards and go through a rigorous auditing process every three years.

“It basically means the company is following all the international moving industry standards first and the company is financially stable,” says Chirantan Joshi, managing director of Fidi-accredited E-Movers, which has been operating in the UAE since 2003.

For example, “we don’t come into your building and damage a third party property and you end up paying for it,” says Mr Joshi. “We actually cover the third party liability, because it’s part of our certification.”

There are only three accredited companies in Abu Dhabi and 10 in Dubai, according to the Fidi website. These include Delight International Movers and Gulf Agency Company in Abu Dhabi and AFL Relocations and Dasa International Movers in Dubai,  as well as Allied Pickfords in both emirates.

Using a Fidi-accredited mover does come at a higher cost — about 10 to 15 per cent more expensive than another company in the “organised sector” and even higher when compared to the “unorganised sector”, says Mr Joshi. But he says customers should be wary of discounts that might mean companies are cutting costs elsewhere.

“Everybody is earning 10 per cent. Nobody compromises on their margin. The moment they give a discount, that means they are compromising on the cost,” Mr Joshi says.

While Fidi is the most important accreditation to look for, other organisations also accredit international moving companies, says Ms Shomali. These include the International Association of Movers, the British Association of Removers, the American Moving and Storage Association, the Canadian Association of Movers and the International Air Transport Association.

Bana Shomali, co-founder of ServiceMarket (formerly MoveSouq), says choosing the first moving company you find or the cheapest might not be the best option. Anna Nielsen / The National
Bana Shomali, co-founder of ServiceMarket (formerly MoveSouq), says choosing the first moving company you find or the cheapest might not be the best option. Anna Nielsen / The National

Do your research

Besides checking accreditation, customers should read online reviews, compare ratings and look at the company’s history to make an informed decision.

Word of mouth and reputation can be powerful indicators on whether to use a company or not. Shankar Ram, relocation manager for Delight International Movers, says 67 per cent of their business is either through repeat clients or referrals.

Compare quotes

After shortlisting a few international moving companies, ask for free quotes from your top choices.

“Not only does comparison shopping make it easier to find the most suitable service that matches your exact requirements, but can also help you save a lot of money,” says Ms Shomali.

Most  companies recommend securing quotations at least a month in advance of your move.

“Don’t start too early as plans will change, but don’t leave it too late or there might be no availability for your preferred dates,” says Stefania Sierra, operations manager for Dasa International Movers, which set up in Abu Dhabi in 1979.

Mr Joshi of E-Movers, says a quotation takes three to four days from the time of survey and the company needs a minimum of a week's notice prior to the packing date.

Shawn Wood, regional manager of international moving at Gulf Agency Company, advises checking the inclusions and exclusions on a quote.

“Ask about terminal handling charges at destination: who pays those?” says Mr Wood. “Ask who the destination agent is and check their reputation too. Some companies may seem fine during the sales process, but perhaps their delivery agent at destination has a poor reputation.”

Estimate the costs

Shipping costs depend on the destination, the shipping method, the volume of goods and the type of relocation service (door-to-door, door-to-port or port-to-port).

The top five destinations UAE residents relocate to are India, the UK, the US, Canada and Pakistan, according to the ServiceMarket survey based on thousands of international moving requests.

Distance is a key factor in the cost, with destinations such as the US and Canada the most expensive at around Dh21,000 for the contents of a two-bedroom apartment (approximately 25 cubic metres). By contrast, India and Pakistan are around Dh12,000. Shipping to India takes around two weeks, but North America six to eight weeks.

There are three types of shipping methods: land, sea and air. While land is cheapest, it is limited to GCC neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia and Oman. The most common method is by sea. Air is the most expensive and is usually reserved for urgent items. For example, the average shipping time for a full container load to the UK would take six to seven weeks by sea, but five to six days by air, says Mr Ram of Delight Movers.

One way to cut down on costs is opting for groupage shipping, but a container to the UK would take 10 to 12 weeks.

“If you go with this option, you’ll be sharing the container with other customers and will have to wait until it’s full, but it will help you save a lot of money,” says Ms Shomali. “It’s ideal for smaller moves and people not pressed for time.”

Mr Ram says a two or three-bedroom apartment usually requires a 20-foot container and anything more a 40-foot container. Mr Joshi of E-Movers says their average shipment out of the UAE is always a 20-foot container, unless it is a “massive villa”.

The nature of the items does not usually affect the price, unless they require special packing, such as a piano, safe, pool table or fine art, says Ms Sierra of Dasa.

The last thing to consider is the type of service. “Port-to-port relocation services are more affordable than door-to-door services, but if you opt for the latter option, you won’t have to worry about packing and handling paperwork at the customs,” says Ms Shomali.

Don’t skimp on insurance

Transit insurance is quoted separately from the moving cost and is around 2 to 4 per cent of the value of the items being shipped, according to ServiceMarket.

“Always take up insurance on your move,” says Ms Sierra of Dasa. “Accidents do happen and in case of an accident to the vessel, you might be asked to contribute to the damages suffered by other cargo owners — a practice called general average — and you can end up with a very steep bill.”

Mr Joshi of E-Movers says there is a standard 5 per cent risk that shipments get damaged. If dealing with reputable insurance companies, claims can be filed and “sorted within 30 days”.

Be aware of additional custom charges

Custom charges that are usually part of the quotation include UAE port and terminal handling charges, destination terminal handling charges and normal customs clearance at destination. However, custom taxes or duties and customs examination and detention charges are typically not included.

“Be sure to check and discuss the quote with your international mover in detail, so that you don’t have to face surprises,” says Ms Shomali.

The moving company should also be able to advise on what types of items cannot be shipped to your destination. For example, you can’t ship left-hand cars to India. Mr Wood of GAC says “importing a GCC spec car in the United States is quite complicated, costly and in most cases, probably not worth it”.

Discard bulky or unnecessary items

Since the cost of shipping depends on the volume of belongings, you should consider selling bulky items that are old or can be easily purchased at your next destination. White goods that are going to countries with different voltage, such as the US and Japan, will not be of any use.

All these steps take advanced planning, but are certainly worth it for peace of mind. “Moving is a big change in their life,” says Mr Joshi of E-Movers. “The more advanced planning they do, the less stress they feel.”