I don’t know anything about sending money around the world by first class mail, but it is possible to mail all sorts of personal effects by parcel post. Between late 1999 and mid-2001, at a cost of less than $1,700 US, I sent more than 800 pounds of personal effects from France to the United States by regular surface mail.

These were items as diverse as oil paintings, carpentry tools, a sewing machine, books and personal records, crystal stemware, clothing, and small items of furniture. While the cost per pound may seem high compared to a sea freight shipment, this was my only expenditure except for $50 spent on packing materials. Moreover, some of the items I used as shipping containers (plastic storage boxes, tote bags, pillow cases, etc.) would have had to be replaced at the destination. Their cost can be deducted from the $1,700.

Nothing was lost, only two insignificant items were broken, and exactly one package was opened for postal inspection. Many of my parcels looked like potential drug shipments, so this lack of inspection is amazing.

I had been living in France but the time came when I had to move back to the United States for family reasons. I planned to do it gradually, spending several years with a foot in each country. I had roughly a thousand pounds of “stuff” I wanted to take with me.

I found a firm in Marseille that specialized in small shipments of personal effects. The cost would be roughly $800 for just the sea freight. Additionally, I would have to hire someone to build a shipping container, work with a clearing and forwarding agent on each side of the Atlantic, arrange for road transportation to a seaport in France and from another in the United States, and provide a validated packing list for insurance purposes. It all added up to time, effort and money.

I don’t like traveling with heavy suitcases and had been mailing clothing and books back and forth whenever I traveled between the two countries. I had the idea that maybe I could mail everything, so I went to the post office and asked for a complete mailing guide and price list. A study of the French postal rates showed that the most economical would be “surface” rate with packages of 4 to 4.5 pounds ($2.15 US/pound) or packages of 66 pounds ($1.96 US/pound). Books and documents were even more economical : a maximum 11 pound package could be shipped for $12 US. Using a combination of these three rates, I shipped everything for a global average of $2.08 per pound.

I also kept my costs down by spending virtually nothing on packing materials and by using packing materials that weighed very little. The $50 for packing materials bought 2 boxes of bubble wrap and 30 rolls of thin, inexpensive 2" plastic tape.

Instead of expensive metal footlockers or cheaper but still heavy sturdy cardboard boxes, I sent practically everything “bare naked”. Rather than buying protective padding, I used items I wanted to ship: clothing, feather pillows, household linens. If I did need a container, I used plastic storage boxes that I had on hand in France. Not only were they strong and lightweight, I saved the cost of replacing them in the United States.

Here’s an example of a 4.5 pound shipment. Six small glass paperweights were each nestled in a wad of plastic supermarket bags. Each individual wad was then tightly wrapped with the sticky tape. These six “balls” were placed in an empty cereal box, its corners stuffed with loosely-wadded plastic bags. The box was sealed in a trash can bag, then wound with a double layer of sticky tape. The cereal box, plastic bags, and tape were roughly 1% of the total weight of the package.

I made a few experimental shipments with miscellaneous items. Everything traveled well. I discovered something interesting. In theory, everything mailed as “surface parcel post” went by sea freight but the small 4.5 pound packages were arriving in less than two weeks. Postal systems use air freight for small international “surface” packages. Not only do the packages arrive quicker, they are not subject to the rubbing against each other that takes place on a sea freight shipment and they are less subject to damage.

I took one painting out of its frame and carried it, rolled, in my suitcase. After having it reframed in the United States ($100) I decided to ship the remaining paintings with their frames. I sandwiched them between sheets of cardboard and wrapped the entire bundle in a heavy quilt. Using a double “bag and tape” outer packing, everything came through fine, even though as a 50-pound package it actually traveled by ship.

A 12-place setting of silverware in its set of two cutlery cases survived with only the corner of one case slightly damaged. Fourteen pieces of Baccarat stemware, each bubble-wrapped and taped, in an individual plastic refrigerator box (these boxes banded into two separate shipments), arrived unbroken by air at surface rates.

The important step in this method is the plastic bag (supermarket or trash can) used to wrap everything before the double layer of tape is used to finalize the packing. When the parcel is received, this "bag and tape skin" can be carefully slit and removed, leaving the contents intact.

All in all, I mailed over 100 packages and many of them looked as if they contained drugs : neat, tight little packages all going to the same address. Only one was opened by the postal system in the United States.

Anything under 40 pounds did not need a detailed contents inventory. A simple customs declaration stating that the contents were a gift or for personal use with “no commercial value” was sufficient. Today, with increased awareness of terrorist activity, I don’t know if the same shipping could be done. YMMV.

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