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Packing and Shipping Equipment

Packing for a project can present a significant challenge. It is human nature to over pack for any trip. Over packing for a volunteer project can be a nuisance, at best, or cause problems in-country when there is no way to transport all of the baggage. Once the local living conditions have been determined, all volunteers should be informed of the accommodations and be limited to one piece of checked baggage and one piece of carry-on luggage per traveler. That will allow for equipment boxes to be checked as the traveler’s second piece of checked baggage.

In the past two years, rules and charges regarding checked baggage have changed. Having a conversation with the general manager or station chief at the local airport for the airline on which you will be traveling may get you some leeway in terms of what you can ship and at what cost. Despite the many changes in air travel recently, many airlines like to support philanthropic efforts.

Practical Tips

Packing all of the same type of equipment or supplies in one box is not advisable.Spreading items such as needles, anesthesia, and instruments into different boxes will lessen the chance of having to scuttle a project if one critical box is lost in transit. Boxes should be packed as tightly as possible. Soft items such as gauze, gloves, and masks can be used to protect more fragile items. Items can be put into waterproof plastic garbage bags to protect them against moisture. Hazardous materials, including anything combustible such as acrylic monomer, butane torch fuel, copal varnish, or other items that can fuel a fire, cannot be shipped by air under any circumstances. Check with the airline carrier for exact restrictions on shipped items.

Shipping boxes should be sturdy. Copier-paper boxes, dish-pack boxes from moving companies, or double-layered apple boxes are ideal for shipping items overseas. Resist the temptation to use a box that is too large or to pack it with too much so that it is very heavy. There is now usually a 50-pound limit for each item of checked baggage. Lockable plastic storage bins might be a superior choice, because they tend to hold up better with prolonged use on-site.

Reinforced strapping tape should be used to seal the boxes; the bottom of the box should be secured as well. Boxes should be marked so they can be easily identified. It is wise to carry a roll or two of strapping tape in carry-on luggage to reseal boxes that have been opened or damaged. Inexpensive tarpaulins should be included in the top of a few boxes in case the baggage must be transported in open trucks. The covered bags will be protected from the weather and, if the tarps are tied down, from thieves as well.

Two small boxes can be taped together to count as one piece; each individual box should be marked with the name, address, and telephone number of someone at the mission site. That way, the airline or other carrier can easily notify the group when a box that had been misdirected in transit eventually turns up.

Excess baggage presents a special problem. Some airlines will make allowances for excess baggage for charitable projects. However, be aware of any special restrictions during peak travel times. One major airline has an embargo on cardboard boxes going to the Caribbean each summer. That could prove disastrous if all items are packed in boxes or a special waiver has not been obtained ahead of time. It has been suggested that carriers based in the country in which the project is located may be more willing to cooperate regarding some of those issues.

It is essential that arrangements for extra baggage be made before the date of departure. Travel agents, sales representatives, and general managers for the selected airline at the airport can be instrumental in smoothing the way. Be advised, though, that there may be a limit to what courtesies can be extended to a traveling party. When budgeting for the project, some funds may be needed to pay for excess baggage fees.

There is now an effective alternative to trying to ship large amounts of material as checked baggage. In cities with large immigrant populations, shipping companies have sprung up to ship goods from the United States back to their home countries. Those companies will provide large boxes and instructions, ship the items to the country of choice (usually by boat so items must be shipped several months in advance), clear customs, and deliver the boxes to the in-country address of choice. For example, the Dominican Dental Mission Project has been using those types of services for the past five years with no problems. From New York City to delivery in a town by the Haitian frontier, the charge for a box weighing 40 to 50 pounds in the summer of 2008 was $80. More information can be obtained from immigrants who use those services or perhaps from the in-country host.