Mailing Your Keys Overseas? Read This First

One of the not-so-fun tasks of a home exchange is figuring out the front-end and back-end logistics – how, exactly, do we get from the airport into our exchange partner’s home, and vice versa? Where’s the car? Where are the keys?

For our first few exchanges we met our partners in person, which worked out great. We got to chat face to face and pass along the keys, airport parking passes, and details about where to find cars in person.

Then one year that system fell apart. We planned to meet our exchange partners from Amsterdam, and they were headed to the U.S. when their plane hit a bird. The plane’s windshield cracked, and they had to turn back. They were rebooked on a flight the next day – and by then we would already be enroute to their house.

We had to scramble to figure out what to do with the keys that we had planned on handing off in person. We ended up “hiding” them on top of the car tires in the airport parking garages on both ends. It worked, but it made me nervous to leave the keys so unprotected and accessible. I didn’t want to do that again.

So, after that we needed a plan B. I started mailing a set of keys a few weeks before the exchange. It’s a hassle to have only one car key for a few weeks, but it’s manageable. That system worked fine for a few years. Even if we planned to meet in person, if that didn’t work out, our partners could land at the airport with the keys in hand, and follow our texted instructions to find the car and parking receipt.

Plan B worked fine until 2017 when we went to Barcelona. Our keys got held up in Spanish customs, in Madrid, and barely made it to our partners in time. It came down to the wire.

In 2018 when we exchanged with a family from Stockholm, things got worse. We mailed the keys in early July and they should have arrived in Stockholm in 5 to 7 days. But they got held up in customs in New York City. We waited and waited but they never arrived. It was too late (and expensive!) to make a duplicate car key, and there was no guarantee that a second shipment would make it past customs any quicker than the first did.

We were hoping we would meet up with our exchange partners at the airport. But we were flying out on the same plane they were flying in on – they might not get through passports and customs before we had to head to our gate. Another option was to leave a key at a luggage storage spot in JFK Airport. This seemed like it might work, but in the days before the exchange when I tried (again and again) to call the baggage drop site no one ever answered the phone. Of course a rehash of the Amsterdam plan – hide a key in the car somewhere – was always an option.

We never did meet our exchange partners at the airport. After they landed we were sending messages back and forth, but we needed to get through security before they could find their way to us. But it turned out the luggage storage spot worked out just fine. We left the key at the JFK baggage drop along with our partners’ names, and we texted them photos of the receipt so they could show them at pickup. Luckily, we avoided the risky leave-the-keys-hidden-on-the-car plan.

It’s a good solution, but it’s not one we can always count on. Lots of airports, especially in the U.S., don’t have any options for leaving keys or luggage on site. Next year, I think we might be investing in a safer way to leave keys at the car – in a magnetic box protected with a combination lock.

And what ever happened to our keys? They enjoyed a nice international trip of their own. One day, about halfway through our stay in Stockholm, I brought in the mail. In it was a notice – with my name on it. The keys could be picked up at the post office there, but only our exchange partners could get them, not us. Once I mailed them, they weren’t “mine” anymore.

They got returned to our U.S. address and the same thing happened again – a lengthy visit in customs in New York City. Door to door, they left our U.S. post office on July 5 and found their way home on October 2. We had given up on ever seeing them again, but hadn’t yet got around to ordering replacements, so it was a nice surprise to see them in the mailbox.

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