7 Ways to Get Anything Anywhere
[Photo: Bunch of stuff I just received on a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean]
When living anywhere is no longer an obstacle to getting exactly what you need…
Live outside of the US long enough and you’ll find something you can’t live without, something unavailable in local stores.
Occasionally (though not at the moment) I really miss home. This often comes in waves, or at certain times of year (most common in the fall). I often find I’m not missing a particular person or place, but something more mundane.
What I’m really trying to admit is that I miss Amazon Prime and Peanut Butter.
Or more generally, the US does a great job of getting you what you (think) you want when you want it.
Now I’m the first to point out that most Americans are astounded to learn you can find almost anything within walking distance, most places on earth.
Within 1 city block of my apartment in Budapest there are several pharmacies, a grocery store, 2 small markets, a 24-hour print shop, 4 hair salons, a ruin pub, two liquor stores, a specialty Belgian beer bar, a specialty tea shop (amazing!), and various restaurants offering sushi, turkish food, and lots local fare. The apocalypse could literally set in and we’d have almost everything we need within a stone’s throw.
Life is different in cities built before cars.
In most places when you need something you walk out and get it.
And this is great, except when:
- I don’t want to spend time walking around trying to find things
- I have esoteric needs, and not everything I want is available
After wishing for the nth time that I could just ‘order it on Amazon’ I realized this was a BS excuse – everything *is* available–it’s just a little more expensive, takes a little longer to receive, and there’s always a chance it gets nabbed by a customs official.
But over the last year or two I’ve steadily dialed this in. Here’s how I get anything I need anywhere I’m living on planet earth.
* One thing I should point out: if you’re in Asia, skip this post and just go to the nearest mall. You could easily survive the end of the world in most of them.
#1 Take advantage of local stores and markets
[The corner store in Budapest]
Whereas in the US a lot of the good stuff is restricted to farmer’s markets, CSA home delivery, or some select big box stores, most places I’ve lived abroad are chock full of local high-quality goods on every street corner.
The corner store next to my apartment has some of the best produce you can find, period. And the best part is you don’t have to ask if it’s sustainable/organic/grass-fed because there probably isn’t another option. Factory farms aren’t a big thing here.
You also find the same kinds of farmer’s markets and even CSA-type delivery options you had back home. The best way to find these is ask locals and scour listings on local websites or Facebook groups.
Household goods are readily available:
Unless you’re going to a remote Indonesian island, you can buy standard household goods anywhere.
I pick up the following every time I move (usually 2-3 times a year):
- An external monitor for work
- Sport specific gear (you can always get if something is happening locally)
- A blender (essential)
- A scale (for health experiments)
- A fan
- Yoga mat
- Printer paper/notepad – for work sketches
- Coffee mug (because I need a real cup of coffee in the morning)
- Can opener (because Airbnb apartments never seem to have these)
All you need is one trip to the mall and your set for all of this.
#2 Use one of the many international Amazon stores
I’m not sure why it took me so long to get this–probably the mental block that if I left the US Amazon was dead to me–but in Europe alone I can buy from any of the following:
- Amazon.de (Germany)
- Amazon.es (Spain)
- Amazon.fr (France)
- Amazon.nl (Netherlands)
- Amazon.it (Italy)
That’s a lot of options. They key here is that you won’t pay any kind of tariff for importation which you would when shipping from outside the EU.
Here’s a full list of international Amazon websites.
So if you’re lucky enough to be in one of these countries you’re back on the Amazon gravy train.
My major complaint about country specific Amazon stores is availability of goods I want as well as international shipping restrictions. Amazon.co.uk will not ship most of what I want to Hungary. And Amazon.es does not have most of the things I’m looking to order, so you just have to take what you can get.
If what you need is only available on Amazon.com:
If you have a really speciality item you can start thinking about shipping to a US virtual mailbox and forwarding (more below)–but absolutely see if the item is available through the regional Amazon website first.
#3 Start using iHerb.com for Supplements (mostly)
I’ve been using iHerb for a few years now and it works like a charm.
They have nearly everything nutrition-related I would order on Amazon, and the shipping costs are very reasonable.
Most of my packages sent to Spain and Hungary have been about $3-7 shipping with an arrival time of average 10 days to 2 weeks. It’s no Amazon Prime, but it will get the job done, and with a little planning ahead you can have things waiting for you at various outposts on your trip, not to mention keeping you steadily supplied at a base of operations.
Oh yeah, and they have Peanut Butter.
It’s important to consider local customs when ordering, but iHerb is very helpful in breaking things down for you. The Canary Islands, for example, requires shipments to be less than $85 in value and under 4 lbs (the checkout page won’t let you select another option).
In Hungary you will get taken to the cleaners if you use DHL with orders of any real value (anything I’ve ordered over about $25) but you can squeak airmail packages through with no hassle and $0 in customs fees. Caveat: about 1 out of every 5 packages takes about 10 weeks or gets nabbed by customs and held for ransom. I usually just write this off as the cost of doing business. (I haven’t looked into where iHerb is shipping from but they do have country-specific domains like eu.iherb.com, so it may be better to order from whatever is closer).
That said, I usually don’t have any trouble with shipping, and it’s often cheap (e.g. $3-5).
- iHerb.com – International Amazon.com of nutrition supplements.
Pro Tip: If you’re staying in a place for a while it pays to test out the different shipping options if the first one you choose gets hammered in customs or takes forever.
#4 Get a Virtual Mailbox in the US
Having a virtual mailbox that functions as a US mailing address and mail forwarding service is key (related: 5 things I’d do differently if I left the US today).
Most of the problem with receiving products worldwide is not shipping itself it’s that the product you want only offers US shipping. Problem solved.
Personally I use Traveling Mailbox. When mail or packages arrive I’m notified by email. All I have to do is enter a forwarding address and request forwarding for that item. I also have the option to group several items into one bulk shipment.
Shipping this way takes a bit longer–a week to Traveling Mailbox and another week or two to your destination—and there can be a substantial added cost (as well as some risk with customs).
So let’s be clear: shipping this way is outrageously expensive.
- Shipping a single credit card from US address to Budapest – $6.00
- Shipping a bundle of 2 credit cards and a genetics kit from Athletigen – $17.00
But let’s think about this clearly: relative cost here is added shipping cost minus the amount of money I save by not living in the US.
So even if I ship a bundle of items worth $100 every quarter that’s only $400 a year, and I can absolutely guarantee I’m still accruing net savings by not living in California.
After getting over this particular stumbling block it’s clear that I should order whatever I need and not worry about it.
Don’t forget, there is always the chance that customs nabs your box too, but so far I haven’t had this happen with anything I’ve shipped (knock on wood).
- Traveling Mailbox – US-based Virtual Mailbox and forwarding service. Note that you can sign up even if you are already outside the US. The special form they need notarized can be done with an online notary service (last time I used this online notary service. Make sure you VPN to the US to get the best price on it).
#5 Find and Use Other Online Retailers
Very occasionally it makes sense to order from another online retailer that ships in your region.
I haven’t used too many of these but you can find them by:
- Asking expats who have lived in the area for a while (friends or local Facebook groups) or
- Searching around on Google.
- https://www.pinksun.co.uk/ ships what appear to be some pretty high-quality supplements around in Europe (no additive grass fed whey protein).
Like I said, this isn’t a common occurrence but it can be worth spending a few minutes looking around for these.
#6 Go to the Good Old Fashion Post Office (Moving Gear Regionally)
[One of the bags I shipped from the Canary Islands to Budapest last May.]
It’s easy to forget that the post office still works extremely well in many areas. I’ve shipped goods around Europe, and from Europe to and from the US with no problem. It isn’t extremely cheap and not necessarily fast, but if you need a box or duffel sent half way around the world (e.g. moving your base of operations) it can be done without much effort.
Earlier this year I shipped 2 large, heavy duffels full of clothing and surfing/kitesurfing equipment from the Canary Islands to Hungary for about $100 each. When you add up the hassle of lugging them around + airline luggage charges this ended up being a pretty good deal. Instead of dealing with luggage this freed up the option to travel around Southern Spain for a few weeks before heading back to Hungary.
And don’t forget one of my favorite uses for the post: jettisoning gear that you can’t give/throw away but you don’t really need anymore (I’ve done this after specific types of trips, like sending cycling gear home after a trip in France in a fixed rate box).
The post office can also be used to have friends and family ship stuff to you, but if you’re going that route it may be similar in travel time to (but much less expensive than) a virtual mailbox service.
At the moment I’m pooling a box of select travel upgrades at home that I expect to have shipped this month (thanks dad!).
#7 Get things Hand Delivered (it pays to have friends/family visiting)
And of course, having your friends visit and slamming them without about 20 lbs of extra luggage is an option.
This is more likely to go well if it’s a family member or a close friend with some kind of moral obligation to help you out, but occasionally you can sneak a pair of shoes or something small in with a traveler coming from the US.
Bottom Line: Get what you want when you (sort of) want it
It turns out you can actually survive without Amazon Prime, but you don’t have to live indefinitely without Peanut Butter.
After 5 years abroad I have no problem spending some extra money to get things I want, more or less when I want them.
One upside to a little added difficulty in ordering products online is a reduction in impulse buys. If I’m going to ship something for weeks with the potential for it not showing up, I’d better really want it.
If you have experience with another mail-forwarding service or know of other options here I’d love to hear about it in the comments.