Life's easier when you ship bags ahead and souvenirs back home. Because no method works in every situation, here are a few hypotheticals.
SHIPPING FROM THE U.S.
Scenario: You're going to London, then flying to Scotland for golf, and don't want to drag your clubs.
Solution: You'll save several hundred dollars by bringing the clubs across the Atlantic yourself, because on those flights, two 50-pound checked bags are free; flights within Europe generally allow one 44-pound bag free. Ship the clubs from London to your hotel in Scotland via UPS or DHL. Contact the hotel in advance.
Scenario: It's hard enough getting your family through the airport--doing it with skis seems impossible. How should you get your gear to Colorado?
Solution: DHL, FedEx, and UPS will pick up everything at your house, and three-to-five-day ground service costs about $45 per pair of skis (50 to 70 percent less than overnight shipping). Specialists such as Luggage Express handle the details, but their cheapest ground service costs $89--and anyway, their shipments wind up being sent by FedEx or similar. Whichever method you use, cushion skis in ski bags with thick sweaters and socks.
Scenario: After having a baby, you're off to a Caribbean resort to relax, and you want to send formula ahead.
Solution: Don't even think about it. Goods that look like they might be resold are inevitably delayed on arrival, so they're too risky to ship. Instead, bring as much powdered formula as you need in your carry-on, and extra in a checked bag. Also, your resort may be able to suggest a nearby store that carries your baby's brand.
Scenario: Once your flight lands in Moscow, you realize that you left your prescription blood-pressure medicine and your glasses at home.
Solution: You could have a friend put your glasses in a hard-sided case and drop them off with FedEx--with "prescription eyeglasses, used personal effects" in the description box. But express shipping costs $120 and takes about five days, so consider having a pair made or going without. As for the medicine, pills are likely to sit indefinitely in customs. Throw yourself at the mercy of a local doctor for a new prescription; the U.S. Embassy can provide names of English-speaking ones. A fax of your prescription sent from a doctor back home will speed things along and ensure you'll get the correct medicine.
SHIPPING TO THE U.S.
Scenario: After sipping a fantastic ice wine at a vineyard in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, you just have to bring some home with you.
Solution: Ask if the vineyard sells via U.S. distributors. Next, request that the vineyard ship for you. If it won't, ask for recommendations on how to package and send. Regular mail is cheapest; express courier is safer and quicker. Some states have restrictions on importing wine that are tougher than federal law, however. Packing bottles in checked bags is viable. Pad with bubble wrap or sweaters; duct tape over the cork helps prevent leaks.
Scenario: Midway through a tour of Asia, you're loaded down with an old ivory-looking figurine from Kathmandu, a rug from India, and Japanese lacquerware.
Solution: Send via freight, the cheapest and easiest option for bulky items. Local tourism bureaus and U.S. Embassy offices can help you find freight services. U.S. Customs has endless regulations for goods made of animal and plant materials, so to avoid hassles, find out exactly what the rug is made of and which country produced it. Ask questions before buying anything that is old or looks like ivory. Most countries have restrictions on exporting items over 100 years old or made of ivory.
Scenario: There's no way all the watches, jackets, purses, jewelry, sneakers, CDs, and DVDs you bought in Seoul will fit in your checked bags.
Solution: Send by regular mail, which is easy even if you can't understand a lick of Korean. If some items are gifts, put all the recipients' names on the shipping label (multiple addresses aren't necessary as long as the shipment is noted "consolidated gift package" and "unsolicited gift"); U.S. regulations allow you to send items valued up to $100 for each person listed, duty-free. Note: Many CDs and DVDs sold in Asia don't work with players in the U.S.; test them on your portable device before buying.
Scenario: You're worried that the pottery you bought in Florence will be broken on the way home.
Solution: Tell the shopkeeper you plan on shipping it overseas and ask him to package it accordingly. Then watch to make sure he does an adequate job. Depending on how soon you want to get the items home, ship via freight or express courier. Either way, pay extra for insurance, which costs 50¢ to $1.50 per $100 of the item's value.
Scenario: In Australia, you wonder how to send home some cheese, as well as a crocodile-skin wallet and other gifts.
Solution: It's always smart to buy perishables at a store that will ship the goods for you. Bigger stores in tourist areas know how to package fresh foods and get them through U.S. Customs. As for wild-animal products, check to see if the species is protected either by the U.S. government (fws.gov) or your state; California is known to have particularly tough rules.
TIPS FOR SHIPPING ANYTHING, ANYWHERE
Know the Rules: When returning to the U.S., American citizens may bring up to $800 of goods for personal use without paying duties and taxes. There are some tricks for going above that limit. You're allowed to ship up to $200 of goods per day to yourself at a U.S. address without a duty charge. And you can send, duty-free, gifts worth up to $100 per person per day to friends and family in the U.S.
Avoid Unnecessary Fees: Anything sent from the U.S. for your trip--golf clubs, skis, etc.--should be listed as "used personal effects" to qualify for duty-free status. Otherwise, the destination country may view the items as new and try to hit you with an import charge. If you ship the items back home, note them as "American goods returned" on the green customs sticker, so they're not counted as part of your U.S. Customs duty-free allowance.
Bulky or Heavy Goods: Shipping costs are based on the package's bulk or weight, whichever costs more. Too much padding can make for more-expensive shipping.
To Insure or Not to Insure: Most shipping services have a limited liability of $100 per package; in some countries, the liability is about $9 per pound. Buying insurance is a no-brainer for large, valuable, and fragile items.
What's OK and Not OK: Cuban cigars and absinthe are among the many items prohibited from entering the U.S. Bringing plants or seeds home is difficult, when allowed at all. Call 877/227-5511 or go to customs.gov for the specifics. Every country has its own rules on what visitors can take out: Art and handicrafts are generally fine, but cultural artifacts and antiques are often restricted. Check with local officials--not the shopkeepers--before you buy.