How do I move cross-country by mail?
August 22, 2011 10:08 AM   Subscribe

How do I move cross-country by mail?

I am moving from NYC to the Midwest (Chicago). I have moved all over the world in the past, but I've never owned more possessions than I could fit in a suitcase. Somehow by living in NYC I managed I accumulate junk. I am giving away most of it: furniture, toiletries, bedding, towels. What's left is clothing, a handful of small appliances, electronics, and books. I will carry on the in-season clothes and my laptop on the plane, leaving out of season clothes and a handful of hardrives to ship. I don't know how to drive (I am learning), so I won't be driving anything anywhere, my friend in IL will pick things up for me.

So how should I ship:
- very nice clothes
- books I don't really need now but want to keep
- harddrives and a few nice appliances/some pottery given to me as a gift

What kind of boxes do I need? Can I scavenge boxes from the trash or should I buy special boxes? Should I ship certain things a certain way? I heard you can ship books media mail, but what about more valuable stuff? How much should I budget for this?

Thanks for your advice!!!
posted by melissam to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
books I don't really need now but want to keep

Get a scale to weigh the books -- if all else fails, a bathroom scale, whereupon you will weigh yourself, weigh yourself holding the books, and do the math -- and then figure out if the price to mail these books is actually worth it. If you have a bunch of books, and unless these are signed copies, first editions, etc., chances are it will be cheaper to re-purchase them in Chicago than it will be to ship them.

Otherwise, do you have someone who will hang onto these for you until the next time you come back? It's easier and cheaper to drag an empty suitcase with you when you're going back to NYC to visit and stuff it full of books on the way back than it ever will be to mail it.

Can I scavenge boxes from the trash...

This is how you will manage to ship bedbugs cross-country. When I was a kid, we moved around Brooklyn a lot, and scavenged boxes from liquor stores and grocery stores. These days, I don't know anyone who would take the risk.
posted by griphus at 10:14 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

any kind of boxes will do, so long as they're sturdy and made of corrugated cardboard.

For the clothes and books, just put them in the boxes with packing material (packing peanuts, newspaper wadded up, I use plastic grocery bags when I mail stuff)

For the hard drives and nice appliances, I would take them all down to a UPS store and have the clerk help me pack them and ship them. I wouldn't feel comfortable that the post office would listen to things like "fragile!" and "this side up".

I would also ship these things separately. Like the pottery in it's own box, hard drives in their own box, box per appliance, etc. But listen to the folks in the UPS store for better advice.
posted by royalsong at 10:16 AM on August 22, 2011

What kind of boxes do I need?

I've moved at least a portion of my things my USPS in the past. If you don't have that many things, it's not that hard. First step: go to a self-storage place and look at their selection of moving boxes. The books go in their "small box" (around 12x12x16). Clothes go in large and medium boxes, though you might find that their "large" size is too big to ship. But tape it up, address it, and bring them to your local post office and have them ship it parcel post.

Valuable things like hard drives and nice gifts/appliances you might want to take to a UPS store and have them pack and ship for you. They're really good at that.
posted by deanc at 10:17 AM on August 22, 2011

Oh and I forgot to mention..

encase, for whatever reason, you want to mail those hard drives yourself..

do not, under any circumstance, mail them wrapped in plastic or Styrofoam of any sort. This could create static electricity.

Wrap them in lots and lots of newspaper and only fill the box with newspaper.
posted by royalsong at 10:19 AM on August 22, 2011

I moved across the ocean using USPS flat rate shipping. You can order the boxes online or pick them up at a post office. They're a good deal if you can fit a lot of stuff into the boxes. The big ones are flat-rate up to 20 pounds. (About half of my pottery ended up broken, FWIW.)

You should look into moving most of your stuff via suitcases. Depending on the airline, the fee for extra suitcases (usually $50-$150) works out to be quite cheap per pound. I think most airlines limit you at about 50 or 70 pounds per suitcase. Obviously, a suitcase will get knocked around quite a bit, but probably handled less than a package.
posted by neushoorn at 10:19 AM on August 22, 2011

I think rather than USPS, you should consider Amtrack, or perhaps even Greyhound. They can give you quotes based on weight. I know someone who moved all her stuff via train, and it was a fairly simple process.
posted by Gilbert at 10:20 AM on August 22, 2011

Buy new boxes as they'll hold up better for shipping. Boxes are supposedly only good for about 3 moves and there's no way to tell how many times or how a box was previously used.

Weigh your boxes and then check USPS, UPS and Greyhound for the best rates. I found Greyhound was cheaper. I shipped four boxes and the one used box split. Also, some airlines will ship boxes cargo. Shop and compare. All the rates are online as well as size and weight limits.
posted by shoesietart at 10:22 AM on August 22, 2011

Box the books separately and send them via the post office's Media Mail. You'll pay a lower rate, and then go slowly, but it'll be much cheaper.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:23 AM on August 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

As noted above, ou can also ship via Amtrak (which is what Guy-onastick did when he moved here). Box stuff up, drop it off, eventually claim it at Chicago's Union Station. Claiming parcels at Union Station is more convenient than claiming them at UPS (in my experience in the city of Chicago). If the address you plan to ship to does not have someone home during the day to sign for the packages (or a receiving room to sign for the packages), shipping via Amtrak is much more convenient. They hold the stuff at the station for 48 hours.

You are not supposed to ship electronics They will also handle some things (such as luggage or trunks) without your having to place them in boxes.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:28 AM on August 22, 2011

Kind of a weird offer, but I can give you about 2 dozen once-used Fresh Direct delivery boxes from a bedbug & cigarette smoke-free home if you want them pretty soon. (I am so lazy about recycling, oh my god.) I'm in the west village.
posted by elizardbits at 10:32 AM on August 22, 2011

Consider media mail for books and CDs!
posted by slateyness at 10:36 AM on August 22, 2011

chances are it will be cheaper to re-purchase them in Chicago than it will be to ship them.

Not true. I shipped a bunch of things from Philadelphia to Oakland, via UPS, for a cost of about $1.25 a pound. A typical book probably weighs a pound or so. (I didn't use Media Mail because just before I had moved I had a box of books that I sent Media Mail to Powell's Books that they never got.)

Of course, it turns out a year later that I shipped a bunch of books that I'll probably never look at again, but that's a different question.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:41 AM on August 22, 2011

I used to work at a Mailboxes Etc (now the UPS Store). Here's my advice.

I would start with new shipping boxes. 200-lb test. A lot of self-storage places sell them, UPS store sells them, Fedex Office sells them. Boxes are kind of overpriced, but whaddyagonnado. From time to time, I've seen "moving kits" of boxes at Costco, and those are a good deal. Book boxes should not be too big—books are heavy, and you don't want to throw your back out handling them. A 14" cube is about as big as I'd go except for big art books. OTOH, your first pound with each box is your most expensive pound, so you want to minimize the number of boxes. Very large boxes (say, 20" on a side or more) are awkward to handle and tend to get floppy. I would avoid shipping them by the USPS or common carrier if I could.

Fill any voids in your boxes with crumpled newsprint or styrofoam peanuts to prevent the box from crushing. Ideally, you should be able to stand on the taped-shut box without it deforming. Anything fragile should be packed with 2" clearance on all sides between the item and the box, with the remaining space completely filled with packing peanuts.

Use real packing tape, not masking tape, not duct tape, none of that crap. Tape over all the seams. If you really want to splash out, get a tape gun. Any very heavy boxes or boxes you feel are more likely to burst should be reinforced with strapping tape (aka filament tape). Wrap it completely around the box so it goes across the seams, in one or two bands.

Anything that you might want to insure against loss or breakage, send UPS or Fedex. You can insure packages with the USPS, but you do not want to deal with their claims process if it ever comes to that. With Fedex/UPS, if there's loss or breakage, you need to be able to document A) what you had, B) what it was worth, and (if broken) C) how you packed it.

Call UPS and ask if you can send a hundredweight shipment with them and have them pick up. Obviously the pick up will save you trouble, and the hundredweight service (which is for a lot of boxes being sent as one shipment to one destination) should save you some money. I think that technically they're not supposed to handle personal effects, but that rule is observed mostly in the breach. You'll need to know the dimensions and weights for each box before you place the order.

Clothing: as long as the box gets there intact, you should be OK. I'd seal the clothes in a trash bag before boxing them in the unlikely event something leaks on the box.

Pottery: Most likely to break. Depends on what you've got and how valuable it is. If it is very breakable and valuable, the best thing to do is double-box it. The inner box should be a tight fit with all voids filled. The outer box should give you that 2" clearance all around and also be completely filled with peanuts. You can do multiple inner boxes in one outer box. If you have things like plates or bowls that stack, stack them with newsprint of 1/8" foam between, then bundle them up in more foam or bubble wrap and float the bundles in the box. If that sounds like too much trouble, the UPS store will pack your stuff. I'm not sure how things work now, but when I worked in the store, we would take responsibility for it if something broke and UPS denied the claim due to improper packing.

If anything does break, take pictures immediately and initiate a claims process.
posted by adamrice at 10:45 AM on August 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

Nth-ing media mail for the books. When I used the mail to help move cross country, I figured I would put a few books in the bottom of each box and then clothes on top, because a box full of books would be heavy. I had never heard of media mail. When I brought my nicely-packed, medium-weight boxes to the post office to be sent, I learned that it would have been cheaper to keep all the books together. As you'd expect, the whole box has to be full of, well, media, to qualify for the cheaper rate. Pack wisely according to the actual price to ship, not according to your common-sense ideas of what might be cheaper or easier.
posted by vytae at 10:57 AM on August 22, 2011

I'd ship the books and get creative packing another suitcase with the clothes and breakable things. Suitcases tend to be pretty reinforced and clothes make excellent packing materials. Stuff socks inside pottery things, stuff like that. Bury them in the suitcase far away from the walls. This is how I've shipped my stuff from Texas to Massachusetts to London and back every 6-9 months, and I've lost one thing to breakage over three years.
posted by MadamM at 11:54 AM on August 22, 2011

We lost two boxes of books to media mail last fall, and I suspect it's because we re-used liquor boxes and they just didn't hold up to several weeks of slowly making their way across country. We even got a piece of one of the boxes back, by mail. It kind of sucked. So, that's a caveat anecdote for you.
posted by deludingmyself at 1:54 PM on August 22, 2011

One trick for the books: if you happen to know anyone who has sway at a bookstore that does online sales, ask if you might be able to pay them to include some of your boxes in their next shipment--that is, if they get a nice business rate that you wouldn't qualify for on your own. This is how I moved roughly 500 pounds of books from Vancouver Island to Toronto for $70 CDN.
posted by Beardman at 3:04 PM on August 22, 2011

Check all your options--you can get quotes online if you have an idea of how much you'll be shipping. I found FedEx was the cheapest option for my move (I priced USPS, UPS, FedEx, Amtrak, and someone else, forget who), but that may not be the case for you. I sent a few small, heavy things via USPS Flat Rate, like my cast iron pans. (wow, did that annoy the lady at the post office...but it did fit in the box, so they let me.) I did Media Mail for books. If you use Media Mail, you cannot ship liquor boxes--I had to take all mine home and re-wrap them so the wine logos were covered. (It may be any box with an ad on it that you can't ship, I just had all wine boxes.) Based on the conditions of my boxes when they arrived, I'd go with new boxes next time, and I would buy good ones from a storage place or Staples. Tape all the edges and corners of every box. Use more than you think you need. Print out your to/from labels on a half-sheet of paper, nice and big, and include one inside each box as well as on the outside. Keep a separate list of everything in each box, and label them all. Mine were marked 1/15, 2/15, etc. Insure stuff. It's pretty cheap. You might consider getting the biggest suitcase you can check and stuffing a bunch of stuff in there, too; a checked bag might be cheaper than a box depending on what you put in it.

I moved this way from MA to DC about two years ago for less than $300, iirc. I had about 10 boxes of regular stuff (clothes, kitchen gear, sewing machine, toiletries, etc) and 8 boxes of books. I would definitely do it again, it was so easy and I saved a ton of money.
posted by min at 6:02 PM on August 22, 2011

For nice delicate things (pottery), as adamrice mentions above, double box. Assume the package is going to be dropped, tossed, rolled, etc. If more than one piece is in the same box, make sure they can't break each other.

Also be warned: if you buy insurance, and file a claim, they will want receipts or some other proof of precise monetary value.

[And even then, they will do their best to underpay your claim, using a variety of standard dodges. (Scammy worthless insurance: Pacific Global Insurance; USPS insurance.)]
posted by coffeefilter at 6:05 PM on August 22, 2011

Amtrak was pure simple & cheap.
posted by mmdei at 7:28 PM on August 22, 2011

Response by poster: BTW as a followup, here is how I did it:
All books/CDs by media mail USPS in boxes with tracking
Everything else sent through the UPS store in boxes with tracking/insurance
Plus a checked bag on the plane for some assorted clothes

And everything got there OK!
posted by melissam at 10:19 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

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