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DIY Moving: Lessons Learned in a Cross-Country Move With a U-Haul

I moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona—a whopping 2,150 miles—in a U-Haul and learned plenty of lessons along the way. Learn from my mistakes!

Driving a U-Haul cross country can be manageable with proper research, planning and common sense.

Driving a U-Haul cross country can be manageable with proper research, planning and common sense.

Long-Distance U-Haul Trip

If you’re planning a long-distance trip with a U-Haul, I have some advice learned from our trip from Pittsburgh, PA, to Tucson, AZ (about 2,150 miles direct travel).

If this article applies to you, I’m sure you’re not looking forward to the drive or the entire process of moving, but here are some tips that may help make it less of a hellish experience (still hellish but less hellish is the key here).

Renting Tips

The guides on U-Haul’s website are fairly good. Rely on your past experience or ask friends/family members who have done it before. It’s best to overestimate, but that could cost you a lot more in fuel costs and make it more difficult to maneuver.

Moving Your Vehicle? Use the Transport, Not the Tow-Dolly

If you plan to transport your vehicle, use the transport, not the tow-dolly. The transport will not impose wear or tear on your vehicle. The tow-dolly is a drag-only and cannot be backed up more than about 15 feet.

There are 3 pivots on a tow-dolly—the hitch, the front wheels/dolly mount, and the rear wheels. They are almost impossible to back up, and the literature states this. You will have to disconnect, unhitch and completely disengage if you get into trouble. Expect that this could take up to an hour, let alone the frustration of blocking in people and passages. The cost of a transport is minimal overall when compared to the truck.

Make Sure You Get Exactly What You Asked For

Always check with your pickup location to be sure they have exactly what you asked for. Consider checking it out ahead of time if possible by going onsite. Their $50 guarantee is worthless, in my opinion; it’s an insult for the inconvenience or disposition you’ll face if you get a 20-foot truck when you asked for a 15-foot.

Insist, if you can, that you receive exactly what you asked for. One size up could cost you hundreds more in fuel. A tow-dolly instead of a transport could impose premature and uneven wear on the rear axle and tires.

Our rented equipment: 15' truck and vehicle transport.

Our rented equipment: 15' truck and vehicle transport.

When You Pick Up Your U-Haul Rental

  • Expect that the cab will be dirty by anyone’s standard. Expect that if you specifically request that the cab be cleaned, this means someone might spend 5 minutes with a dry rag and maybe a deodorizing spray.
  • Expect your orientation will last less than 5 minutes. This is okay for someone that’s done this before. If you haven’t, be sure to write down all your questions and insist on a detailed explanation and demonstration.
  • Save yourself, your passenger, and your cargo from excess distress by reading all U-Haul’s published materials including the videos on their website…it’s actually very useful information!
  • Otherwise, expect that the truck/trailer/transport will be in okay working condition.
  • For one-way rentals, they give you plenty of extra miles, so while the truck is empty, take it for a test drive. We chose a large church parking lot on a day when nothing was going on. It was completely vacant and had plenty of space to try turns and backing up. It only took 5 minutes behind the wheel for my 22-year-old son to become comfortable. He then drove it home around a few tight turns and through a turnabout with high curbs everywhere…no problem, the truck and car transport tracked very well.

Packing Tips

  • This is where you’re 100% in control. Do whatever you feel is needed to assure things don’t get broken or damaged along the way. There are some really rough highways and roads out there. Expect that everything will get jostled about, and jolted as if each box and item were dropped about 12” over and over and over. Nothing that U-Haul can do for this part. Their trucks are trucks not luxury sedans, and our road systems…that’s another topic (but they’re still better than most other countries).
  • By the way, Walmart prices for boxes are significantly lower than U-Haul’s. U-Haul has a very high markup on packing items, and their prices are different online versus in-store, so ask for discounts and then negotiate an even better price if you must buy stuff in the U-Haul store.
  • Pack your most valuable items in the front of the cargo area. This will make it tougher for thieves to get to them if they break into the truck. See “lock up” below. Load that queen or king size mattress set last and pack it standing up blocking the entire rear door. That way if someone does break into the truck, they’ll be faced with moving 200 pounds of mattresses just to see what’s inside. Now that would be much more suspicious if a passer-by saw a mattress thrown on top of your car or the ground…hard to ignore that one. At least there’s a chance they’d be caught or you’d know about soon after it happened rather than hours later the next morning.

Preparing for Your Trip

Besides packing and loading, you can do a few additional things to make your long-distance travel a better experience.

  • Clean and air out the cab. I’m not talking a full interior detail, but our truck was dirty, grimy, trash under the seat, sticky surfaces, and smelled of cigarette smoke. If you’re going to spend 40 hours in this thing, at least spend a 30 minutes cleaning it up a bit…before you leave.
  • Important! Best advice ever. Clean the exterior windshield and put a coat of Rain-X (or similar) protectant on it. You’ll be very grateful the first rainstorm you hit, and even more thankful when you see the millions of bugs you hit just bounce off and not smear everything. Cleanup at the gas stations will be a breeze.
  • DO NOT plan on a third passenger, no matter how much your six-year-old begs you. The third seat is impossibly uncomfortable, and occupying it would eliminate all your space for a cooler and other items you’ll need. Don’t even think about a dog either. That would be inhumane and you should be arrested for trying to bring a dog in a U-Haul across the country. (See below about the floor and center console.)
  • Bring along a portable bluetooth speaker for a sound system. Our truck didn’t even have a 3.5mm input jack. We could at least listen to our own music at a much higher quality than the stock AM radio that these trucks have.
  • Bring a fire extinguisher. I’m surprised that U-Haul doesn’t provide one and also that state laws don’t require one. I’ve heard numerous stories about people losing their entire personal possessions to a fire in the back. We took special precautions not to pack anything that is considered "highly combustible." It’s not flammability that you need to be concerned with, it’s combustibility. Hauling anything with a flashpoint below 100 degrees Fahrenheit is a bad idea. Try googling "highly combustible materials" to get more informed. Either way, I highly recommend bringing a fire extinguisher and putting it in the cab where you and your passenger can get to it quickly.
  • Lockup: U-Haul’s are a huge target for thieves. When you think about it, you have almost everything you own in the back, some of it bulky and not worth stealing and other items like computers, TVs, cameras, etc., are all waiting for someone to steal them. When you’ve parked it in a dark lot possibly further away from the hotel, all that’s sitting between you and the thieves is a cheap lock. So what we did was buy the largest thickest lock possible with the smallest shackle to be exposed. (Note that the disc locks won’t work as their shackle is long enough, but the body is not deep enough.) We also used a 10-foot-long, high-quality cable lock (from Yakima), and intertwined it with the door handles, retractor cable, cargo lock, and the trailer. I’m sure a thief could still get in, but at least it would take another 10 minutes of malicious intention. Plus your most precious valuables are deep inside the cargo area, right?

On the Road

  • Expect that you cannot have a decent conversation for your entire trip. The decibels of road and engine noise will drown out everything you try to communicate. This sounds silly, but maybe I should have invested in a radio communication set like the ones they have in helicopters? This part is ridiculous, and I believe that for maybe $1,500 tops that U-Haul could upgrade their cabs with a sound insulation package. I’m sure the big rigs on the road and even a Kia Soul with the windows down are much quieter than a U-Haul truck’s cab.
  • Expect that you cannot do the speed limit in most states. This is by design of the truck, not specifically a U-Haul thing. They are boxy wind catchers, not built for speed. So if your GPS says it will take 32 hours, expect that it will take 42 hours (or about 30% longer). Our truck started shimmying and the steering got very loose at 68 mph. So best to expect to do a max of 65 mph, and maybe 70 mph downhill. Although, the Tow/Haul mode will downshift to keep you from getting crazy with the speed…it’s a good feature, in my opinion.
  • Expect that the floor and center console will get very hot. Your feet will be 40 degrees warmer than the air temp no matter what setting the A/C is on. The center console melts a full cup of ice in less than 15 minutes. This is where U-Haul could make an improvement. I know the engine is right between you and your passenger, but how about a little more heat insulation between you and that undersized and overworked engine?
  • Expect to fuel up before each 100-mile stretch of nothingness. There are many, many stretches in the Midwest and Southwest states where you will see nothing but an exit number for an exit and no city, no roads, no establishments. Running out of gas can be avoided, but you actually have to plan to avoid it. These trucks have incredibly small gas tanks for their size. Gas is explosive. Diesel would be much better, as it’s not explosive and that’s why the big rigs use it with their 200+ gallon tanks.
  • In regard to gas: since your U-Haul uses gas, you won’t find a convenient pull-up to a gas pump. You’ll have to master maneuvering your rig (and trailer) around impolite, inconsiderate people, dogs, children, other gas-guzzling big rigs, RVs, boats, service vehicles, etc. It’s very likely that you’ll get into a predicament with maneuvering around a poorly designed fueling station. So be very cautious as you look for gas.
  • Also in regard to gas: Don’t expect the fuel economy stated on U-Haul’s website. Our 15’ truck was 75% full in the cargo area, and we had a 3200-lb car on a transport. We did get reasonable mileage at 7.8 mpg, but this is not much better than what a loaded tractor-trailer gets using diesel.
  • When booking a hotel, call in advance to see if they have room for you. I was surprised at how many lodges were limited on space for any vehicle, let alone your moving rig. We had to ask for special permission after arriving (and after inquiring ahead of time), to park in areas that blocked dumpsters, driveways, and other areas that you normally wouldn’t think of parking. We probably violated a fire or evacuation regulation somewhere...
  • The Oklahoma Turnpike: This is the worst-ever turnpike system in the world, (but that’s altogether another article). You’ll need exact change, and how are you supposed to know exact change when you have 4-axles non-commercial? Some have operators (still NO change), and other stops have poorly maintained change-only hoppers. When you hear the bells sound for a violation, hopefully they won’t be able to track you down. Luckily, the machines can’t count your axles, so the regular vehicle fare worked for us on at least one stop where we didn’t have $2.30 in exact change (no bills).

Before Starting Out Each Morning

  • Do yourself a big favor: Check the oil and the tire pressure. I saw two broken-down U-Hauls on the road along the way. I have the feeling that many of the folks this happens to never thought of checking the oil or tires.
  • The first day after traveling, we discovered all our tires severely underinflated. I believe they were checked hot or not checked at all when we picked it up. Each truck tire needs to be at 80psi and the car transport at 85-psi COLD. Ours were under pressure by 15 to 40-psi. That is significant. Avoid a blowout and check them! By the way, did you know your expensive Safemove insurance doesn’t cover the tires or overhead damage? Get the Safemove Plus, or you’ll be on the hook for poorly maintained tires.
  • Also note that many conventional fuel stations do not have tire pumps that go over 60psi. You’ll need to go to a tire station at a full truck stop. Expect up to an hour delay if traveling on a weekend, and at least 30 minutes waiting in line otherwise. I purchased a high-quality air inflator, but it was not suited for getting a truck tire from 40 to 80-psi. It overheated and safely shut off about halfway there. Maybe if you had a super high-quality one (above $150 and runs on 12v), then bring it. Another suggestion to U-Haul: tractor trailers have an onboard air station, wouldn’t it make sense to have one on your trucks? I’m sure this would save thousands in tire costs, and ultimately save us as customers.
  • Our truck also burned one quart of oil for each full day of travel. Don’t wait to hear an engine grind before thinking of checking the oil. I’m sure if we tried to run it all the way 3 quarts down, we’d be one of those fools on the side of the road.

When You Finally Arrive

  • You’ll be so exhausted from your road trip, you WILL NOT have enough energy to unload. So hire a Moving Helper from U-Haul’s site. This was the best $150 ever spent for a service in my entire life! Our helper service was diligent, on time, very careful, considerate, and fast.
  • If you unload yourself, park with the ramp and cargo area out of the sun as much as possible. Otherwise, the heat from that Arizona sun (or any summer sun) will make your unloading working space at least 15 degrees higher.

© 2015 Ken Bartels