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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!

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).

Our rented equipment: 15' truck and vehicle transport.

Our rented equipment: 15' truck and vehicle transport.

Renting Tips for U-Haul:

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. Even check 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 $100s more in fuel. A tow-dolly instead of a transport could impose premature and uneven wear on the rear axle and tires.

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. So if you haven’t, be sure to write down all your questions and insist on a detailed explanation and demonstration.
  • Help 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 info!
  • 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 very 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 for Your U-Haul Moving Truck:

  • 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, 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 in a U-Haul:

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 rain storm you hit, and even more thankful when you see the millions of bugs you hit just bounce off and not smear everything. Clean-up at the gas stations will be a breeze.
  • DO NOT plan on a third passenger, no matter how much your 6-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.
  • Lock up: U-Haul’s are a huge target for thieves. If you think of it, you have almost everything you own in the back, some of it bulky and not worth stealing and other items like computers, TV’s, 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?

While on the Road With Your U-Haul:

  • 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 IMO.
  • 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 middle 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 people, impolite, inconsiderate people, dogs, children, other gas guzzling big rigs, RV’s, 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-mph, 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 very 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, not sure.
  • 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-Haul’s 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…now that’s significant…avoid a blowout and check them! BTW, 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 With Your U-Haul:

  • You’ll be so very 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.

Arizona (Better in a Jeep Than a U-Haul!)


© 2015 Ken Bartels


Paul Bors-Koefoed on July 01, 2020:

Im about to make a move from Orange County CA to Rochester NY. The nice thing is we will be driving car not hauling it so thats a major plus. We are planning on 5 days od actual travel with 2 dogs. I in each vehicle. Im greatful for the truck info on oil and tire pressure.

As for boxes its typically easy to call walmart after 7pm and have a night manager hold stock boxes for you to pick up the next morning for free. Id advise purchasing some boxes as well but this will mitigate some moving costs.

Chris on June 19, 2020:

So Ken, so was your set up 26' truck towing a car transport? Looking to do the same thing. Will that work?

Jacob Salvatore on February 21, 2020:

Well there are many Excavator transport services opened which provides you quiet good service but before choosing them you need to undergo their terms and policy which tells you conditions which are important to read before hiring them. Visit us @ https://2jsautotransport.com/

Christen K Egelkraut on December 20, 2019:

Be careful when renting a trailer, if you get the insurance IT DOES NOT COVER WATER DAMAGE!!! i have rented 2 different size trailers in the last year and I have had Problems with BOTH RESERVATIONS!! POOR CUSTOMER SERVICE!!

Ken Bartels (author) from North Pittsbugh, PA on June 19, 2019:

Hi Aaron, we had my wife back home help us with the last-minute reservations. We had rough ideas of where we'd be each night, then as we got closer we coordinated with our home-based helper. I recommend iExit mobile app. It will show you the next several exits what's at each exit (food, fuel, hotel). That helped us look an hour or two out. We stayed at lower-cost hotels which were still clean and had free breakfast. There's a website called spotcrime.com that can help you avoid high crime areas, just zoom in on the map to the area you plan to stay.

Aaron on June 19, 2019:

I am planning a trip like this. Can you make some recommendations on finding places to sleep at night? How can you find out which hotels/motels that are cheap (but still provide a clean bathroom and bed) but in safe area's? Did you plan your stops ahead of time, or did you just stop and find a place when you got tired?

Ken Bartels (author) from North Pittsbugh, PA on June 16, 2019:

Thanks Joe for your comments. Since writing this article I have moved my son two more times! The second move we used U-Haul, and the third move we chose Penske. The last two moves we used a 26-foot truck. With the larger trucks you shouldn't need to check the oil...they have much larger reserves, and opening the hood could be a major task. Just ask when they confirm your reservation that a qualified tech specifically check the oil and tires before you pick it up. (Most pickup places are now agents that have no ability to do anything with the truck other than hand you the keys.)

I believe your experience with a car transport over a dolly should positively confirm your choice. I can't recommend going over the recommended speed, but I will say that the limits of the truck will limit your ability to go faster with a transport. No issues with going faster than 55-mph, but I've never had to worry about speeding as 70-mph seems to be the fastest you can go with this type of setup.

As for Penske, yes, I definitely recommend them over U-Haul, although they might not be in every city for one-way rentals. Penske's truck was very clean, 2018 model, and it ran diesel. Not all their 26-foot trucks are diesel, so be sure to verify. I recommend diesel to make it easier to get in and out of truck stops. The 26-foot combined with a car transport makes the rig over 53-feet long!

Thanks also for contributing your info on the boxes. Since I wrote the article, you're correct. Walmart has raised their prices and shopping around is highly recommended. This stuff adds up!

Joe Duarte on June 03, 2019:

Excellent article Ken. I discovered it by googling U-Haul tire pressure so that I'd know what kind of pressure gauge to get. Your info there is very helpful.

Do you happen to know if other companies – e.g. Penske and Budget Truck Rental – have better engines that don't burn as much oil? Or if those companies have any other advantages?

I'm confused by your point on U-Haul's moving box prices vs. Walmart's because as far as I see online, U-Haul's are cheaper. For example, their standard Small box is 99 cents, and 87 cents if you buy 25 or more. Let's just call it 99 cents. Walmart.com sells its Small box in packs of 18 and the price comes to $1.34 each. (I don't see them listed individually – presumably they'd cost even more.)

I discovered a while back that Home Depot has the cheapest moving boxes. Their Small category costs 88 cents each, flat price from 1 to any volume. They're cheaper on the medium and large boxes too. (That 88 cent price is probably why U-Haul prices theirs at 87 cents if you buy 25 or more, but Home Depot's price is 88 cents even if you buy just one, so most people will save money by going to Home Depot.)

The links where I'm seeing all this:



Also, the Heavy Duty boxes at Home Depot are very nice. They've got handles, and they're 100 percent recycled like the regular boxes if that matter to you. It looks like Walmart has a similar thing with their Extra Strength boxes – they have handles too, but they're much more expensive than Home Depot's.

Ken on November 09, 2018:

I really appreciated your advice concerning your U-Haul move. Sounds like exactly what I needed to read. I plan to buy a used U-Haul truck which I will use to pull my enclosed trailer so I'm kind of holding out till I find a E 350 or E 450 with the 7.9 ford diesel or a v-10. I'd rather have a little too much power than be short on power as I cross major mountain ranges. I'm open to constructive criticism.

crystalandziggy on February 03, 2016:

I'm planning a move across the country with this exact set up in a couple months. Thanks for the tips!

greeneyedblondie on September 28, 2015:

Interesting things I've never thought of on here, especially that windshield thing. Sounds great!

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