How do I keep all my belongings safe while I drive across the country?
September 20, 2011 12:20 PM   Subscribe

A follow-up to this question. Protecting a car full of my belongings while driving cross country for several days: complications: musical instruments, computer gear and cat. How?

In October, I'll be driving from Oakland, CA to Clinton, IA in my car. I'll be doing it by myself, with my cat.

I'm going to be staying at pretty cheap motels in non-urban type places (looking like a night in Elko, NV, Laramie, WY, and Lincoln, NE). How worried should I be about my stuff getting stolen from my car along the way, either during the night at motels or even while I'm stopped along the way using the bathroom or whatever?

I looked into musical instrument insurance, but it looks like you have to buy it for at least a year at a time, and then it only covers instruments. If I were to get insurance, I would want it to cover the bulk of my belongings and only for the short-term. Would something like renters insurance cover this? I'm moving to live in my parents' cabin for a while, so I'm not really technically 'renting', per se, right? And if I have renters insurance, would that cover my belongings while on the road?

Are there any best practices for keeping my stuff safe beyond buying some sort of insurance? I'll be taking my cat and probably my computer inside with me each night into my motel, but my other expensive musical instruments and some less expensive belongings and gear will be left in the car. During the day, will my cat be safe if I leave the windows up while I dash inside a rest stop or cafe?

Please hope me MetaFilter; I've heard a few horror stories about people losing all of their stuff while driving cross country with it.

Thanks in advance! I love you.
posted by Lutoslawski to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd move the instruments out overnight. I wouldn't worry that much about the bathroom -- I did a lot of 7 hour drives, mostly through NYS, with my computer and my cats, and I took all sorts of pee or drink breaks (short ones -- I did eat in the car, though while parked, though occasionally when driving with someone we would eat in the rest areas) and I also regularly pulled into parking lots to nap because moving cars put me to sleep, and I never came close to having anything happen to my stuff. You do want to be careful about your cat when opening and closing the doors, though, and opening windows for tolls etc.
posted by jeather at 12:24 PM on September 20, 2011

Having driven from Milwaukee, WI to ~New Haven, CT a few times with alllll my stuff for college, never once have I had anything stolen. And this was on the interstate where there are plenty of people around at rest stops, etc. who can clearly see all my stuff. I guess I would say cover up your stuff so its not visible-no stickers, cases, etc. showing. Just laying a blanket on top of the stuff will deter some thieves cuz they don't know whats inside. I don't see why you can't take your musical stuff inside? I know its a hassle, but at least its right there while you sleep.

Alternatively, how big is your car? Can you and your cat just sleep inside your vehicle overnight? Most walmarts across the country allow overnight sleeping. The 24/7 ones have bright lights, security cameras, and people moving all the time, so they are pretty safe.

In all, I wouldn't be too worried about your stuff getting stolen.
posted by fuzzysoft at 12:29 PM on September 20, 2011

If you're not already planning on keeping the cat enclosed in a carrier while the car is moving, do yourself and the cat a favor and do so. That is the only way to ensure the cat's safety.
posted by buggzzee23 at 12:30 PM on September 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

Move super-valuable stuff into the room with you at night. Lock the car when you go to the bathroom. You will be fine without all reasonable definitions. I have driven across the country with carsful of stuff a dozen times and never had any problems at all and sometimes I was even sleeping in my car at rest stops. You'd need to talk to your renter's insurance company specifically [and I'd get insurance even if you're not technically "renting" at your folks' place] about what they covered, they can be touchy about stuff stolen out of cars and I'd just flat out ask.
posted by jessamyn at 12:34 PM on September 20, 2011

I second putting the cat in a carrier. Not just the cat's safety, but yours and the other cars on the road with you. Especially driving alone, if the cat freaks out and dives down to your feet or climbs on your head... yeah. Carrier, for sure.
posted by lemniskate at 12:39 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I did this when travelling to Yellowstone National Park for the summer season of employment. I also had 2 bikes (one of them a very nice full suspension rig) on the external hitch rack. I had many of the same concerns you did and was on a very tight budget, which meant cheap hotels, if any.

I solved many of my security problems by being discreet in general and by couch-surfing where possible. It really was a life saver and made the trip much more interesting/fun/friendly. The security problem went from unavoidable to 'average' or 'everyday' level instantly. The cat may be a problem but probably won't if you have enough time to plan.

Let me know via PM if you have any questions or concerns and I'll go into them at length.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:40 PM on September 20, 2011

Please make sure your cat has a collar with an ID tag, and you might think of getting a microchip. My sister lost a cat when it bolted from the car when she stopped on a trip.

The carrier is the best idea, but some kitties just can't handle them for long periods of time.

Second "hiding" your stuff in your car. Walking by, you shouldn't see anything interesting.
posted by Marky at 12:45 PM on September 20, 2011

Please put a tag or have your cat microchipped before you leave. If kitty gets away it would be hard to find them.

As for your stuff, If you really don't want to replace it take it inside.

Does your car insurance cover you for theft from your vehicle? I would check with them.
posted by cairnoflore at 12:47 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, the cat should be in a carrier if it's unattended in the car, and probably even when you're in the car and driving. The exception would be if you've done many driving trips before and are 100% sure that the cat isn't going to try something stupid like hiding under the pedals or suchlike. (My cat tried to do that the first time we did a driving move. I'm glad that I was only a mile or two from a rest stop in that event.)

Other than that, my MO on those long driving trips has been to not leave anything valuable visible in the passenger compartment, but you'll *probably* be all right leaving valuables in the trunk. What you're really trying to guard against is smash-and-grab car thieves; if the car itself is stolen while you're on the road, then you've got bigger problems than your computer being gone.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:51 PM on September 20, 2011

If you're going to leave the stuff in your car overnight, don't just hide it with a blanket (which leads some thieves to be curious enough to want to see if you've got a pile of iPads in there or something). Try to camouflage it as trash. Seriously, wrap your stuff up in a mix of black and white garbage bags and strew some empty Doritos bags and soda-stained newspapers and fast food cups on top of all that. Make it look icky, and make it look like you're on the way to the dump in the morning if you can.

Park as close as possible to the motel front office, under the brightest lights, even if there are spots closer to your room.

And be sure to take photographs (ideally timestamped) of all of the musical equipment and other valuables before you go -- it will definitely help if you need to file an insurance claim.

With luck, none of that will be necessary, but I've had my car broken into, multiple times, for a lot less than a big pile of personal belongings.

Have a safe (and fun) trip!
posted by argonauta at 12:54 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Keep the valuables hidden would be my suggestion. Do you have a bunch of stuff that would be less attractive to thieves or boring. Things like bedding, pots and pans. Make sure they are on the top and visible and keep anything of interest well hidden. Throw a blanket over the lot when you stop at night. Do you have a car alarm? It might be worth thinking about getting one. Park in well trafficked areas under a street light if possible.

With your cat make sure its microchipped and maybe a collar and tag as well just in case, it would be terribly sad to have it slip out at a rest stop. Be careful at rest stops I have driven from Adelaide to Darwin (about a 3 day drive) with my dog and all belongings. I very carefully made sure my dog was safe in the car and the door locked while I dashed to the restroom only to find I had also very carefully locked my keys in the car in outback Australia. I was pretty much alone in the middle of no where the car slowly getting hotter and hotter and my dog freaking out. Luckily at that point a road train drove by and a kindly trucker jimmied the car lock for me before my dog got too heat stressed. So my main suggestion would be know where your keys are at all times.
posted by wwax at 1:03 PM on September 20, 2011

Mr. BuffaloChickenWing and I moved from NC to TX - a 23 hour trip. We stayed two separate nights in hotels.

The dog and 2 cats were in carriers in our small SUV -driven by Mr. BuffaloChickenWing.

The rest of our stuff (including his music equipment) were in the Penske truck we rented - driven by my father-in-law.

We brought the animals into the hotel room and left everything else in the Penske truck with a large disc lock. Nothing got stolen. Park under bright lights and close to your room as argonauta suggested.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 1:04 PM on September 20, 2011

Response by poster: Please put a tag or have your cat microchipped before you leave. If kitty gets away it would be hard to find them.

He is, don't worry!

Not just the cat's safety, but yours and the other cars on the road with you. Especially driving alone, if the cat freaks out and dives down to your feet or climbs on your head... yeah.

Yeah, unfortunately, now that I think about it, I will probably have to keep him in a carrier pretty much the whole time. He hates the car, and I don't want him to bolt under the pedals.

Does your car insurance cover you for theft from your vehicle?

No; I just have the basic liability insurance on it. It's and older car, gazillions of miles.

So, it seems like bringing my stuff in every night is the best way to go. Silly me, as I didn't really think about that. I mean, unfortunately some of the things are like a large stage piano, which barely fits in my tiny car, and taking it in and out is a bit of a production, but so it goes. Seems to be the smartest option.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:18 PM on September 20, 2011

I have found that a lot of cats who hate the car hate it a lot at the beginning but are okay 30-60 minutes into it.
posted by jeather at 1:19 PM on September 20, 2011

A piano?! I would leave it in the car covered with a blanket.
posted by exogenous at 1:34 PM on September 20, 2011

I've moved back and forth across the country, with a cat, several times. Here's what I've done:

1. If possible, adjust route / timetable to stay in (pet-friendly) places with more secure parking. This often involves staying at casinos. They tend to have more safe / secure parking than regular old motels because they tend to depend more on repeat business rather than travelers passing through, so they have a more vested interest in their customers not having bad associations with the place.

2. Recognizably valuable / portable items come into the motel room at night. For me it was pretty much just a laptop, but I'd put guitars in this category as well. Probably not a stage piano (like a Rhodes?), though. If it's big enough to be a pain in the ass for you to bring inside, it's probably big enough for it to be a pain in the ass for a casual passerby to steal. Probably. Wrap it in a sheet or a blanket or something, though.

3. Cat stays in a carrier at all times except inside the motel room. Get the largest possible pet carrier that will fit in the space available to you (I used one that's intended for a dog rather than a cat) and fill it with things that will smell familiar and comfortable to the cat: a pet blanket it's used to sleeping on, a favorite toy, a pair of your dirty socks (seriously!), a t-shirt you've worn a couple of times without washing, etc. However, don't put anything in there you don't want to get cat pee on. There's a pretty good chance the cat may just decide to go ahead and pee . Pursuant to that, put down fresh absorbent whatever (newspaper, towel, clean rags, whatever) both inside the carrier and between the carrier and the car seat. Be prepared to change this every day.

4. Bring several disposable litter boxes with you-- one for each night you're staying in a motel. Throw them away each morning.

5. Books on tape are better than music for many (most?) cats. The sound of someone talking makes things a little less strange than hours and hours of music with no talking. Be mindful of how close the carrier is to any of speakers, however.

Check your mefi mail for another piece of information.
posted by dersins at 2:03 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I did this, I brought most things in with me overnight, and parked as close to the hotel office as I could in the hopes of deterring theft of the rest of my things.

It was too hot to leave the cat in the car at all, so I took him in with me during bathroom breaks and mostly ate at drive-throughs.

In the evenings, I took the cat (in carrier) into the hotel's office to check in, then put him in the bathroom and closed the door. I left him in his carrier until I was finished carrying everything else in and setting up his food and litter box, and only then would I open the bathroom door and let him out of his carrier for the night. If I needed to leave the hotel room, I would close him in the bathroom while I was gone, to make sure he couldn't dart out when I left and returned.

I kept him in the carrier in the car at all times, because he's kind of a jerk and would immediately hide under the pedals, if given a chance.

When things did get stolen out of my car (not on this trip), it was covered under homeowners insurance, not car insurance.
posted by mgar at 2:17 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think being seen carrying a large expensive thing from your car to your hotel room is probably a worse theft risk than leaving it camouflaged in the car.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:17 PM on September 20, 2011

Response by poster: like a Rhodes?

Yeah, it's a Roland RD700.

And #3 & #4 are great advice, thanks. Taking both of those.

Books on tape are better than music for many (most?) cats.

Yeah, I was thinking that. I've burned about 50 hours of lectures from iTunes U to CDs.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:19 PM on September 20, 2011

Dude, call some places that offer renter's insurance. Some of them will cover this and it's not that expensive.
posted by one_bean at 3:07 PM on September 20, 2011

I just moved across the US - I shipped most of my things, but drove with anything that'd be hard to replace (photos/etc) and also quite a few expensive/breakable items. Most nights I brought the irreplaceable stuff into my hotel room, but everything else stayed in the car. I got my renter's insurance through USAA - they covered the things in my car, as well as everything I'd sent in a shipping container (including coverage for the month that container spent in storage.) $20K in insurance, with a fairly low deductible and some other computer coverage ended up around $250/year I think.

You could cancel it after your move, but it's good coverage to have. I looked at quite a few providers; USAA wasn't the cheapest (nor the most expensive) but they offered the best coverage for everything during transit - I found that companies offering to save me money were generally doing it by providing lousier insurance.
posted by ethand at 3:24 PM on September 20, 2011

From Ms. Vegetable, who works for a major insurance company.
Ethand and mgar are correct that these items would be covered under a renters/homeowners policy. A few thoughts:
- consider comprehensive coverage for the car for the move, really. It should be cheap and would cover the car itself getting stolen.
- get renters insurance. It is cheap. Get it for the year and then cancel if you need to, but it's really worth it and i recommend it even when you get there.
- get a rider attached to your renters policy with your instruments covered. If you play professionally, you might have to pay more, but it is totally worth it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:14 PM on September 20, 2011

I've spent a lot of time driving around with a lot of my stuff in the back of my car, and I've never had anything stolen even when I had to park downtown in big cities. I've had a lot of friends who have done the same (we're a slightly transient lot) and they've never had any problems either. I think the main goal is to make your car look as boring as possible, so that a thief won't even bother. To that end, I don't think you have to create fake trash, but here are some other ideas:

If you usually wash your car frequently, stop. Let it get dusty. A shining, perfectly clean car draws attention in a way that a dusty, sort of dirty one doesn't. It helps if you don't have a really fancy car to begin with.

Pack all your stuff in the most boring looking bags you've got: old duffel bags, cardboard boxes, thick trash bags. Make sure the outer-wrapping for your piano is an old, unremarkable colored blanket or something. And put things in bags rather than letting it lie around loose, or stuffing into see-through milk crates, etc. An individual object can catch someone's eye in a way that an old red duffel bag just doesn't.

Pack everything as well as possible, and keep it all as low as possible. If you've got a car like a Subaru, fill everything up to window level first before you start going higher, and then fill the very back before you start piling stuff on the back seat. Sometimes more stuff fits in the back than you think, and if you can, I think it's better to make it look--to the casual observer--like you've just got a trunk full of stuff rather than an entire car's worth.

Don't put any boxes, etc, on the roof. As much as possible, you want your car to not scream, "LOOK AT ME! I'm moving with all my stuff here!"
posted by colfax at 6:33 PM on September 20, 2011

If you're not already planning on keeping the cat enclosed in a carrier while the car is moving, do yourself and the cat a favor and do so. That is the only way to ensure the cat's safety.

Two cents about this. I drove cross country with two cats in a minivan. I brought a nice big carrier for them, but they HATED it. Non-stop yowlfest. So I let them have free reign of the van. Had to push them out of the way a few times on the first day, but by the second day they had stopped yowling and slept for the rest of the trip, nested snugly amid my worldly possessions.

I was afraid the cats would try to escape when I opened the car door, but this was not a problem --- they would hide deeper in the car when the door was open.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:04 PM on September 20, 2011

I would add that you should make a point to never, ever look nervous or concerned about the stuff in your car, don't look around to see if anyone's watching you or appear to be aware that you're alone and vulnerable. Act like you've done this trip a dozen times and it's a kick and you're having fun and know exactly what you're doing.

When you pull into a motel parking lot or a quick mart or gas station, eyeball the place carefully as you pull in, but do it furtively. If anything truly perks your intuition, you might consider going on to the next place - or to the nearest Wal-Mart parking lot to sleep. You're always safest in your car, but you must look cool as a cucumber, not nervous, or you'll attract unwanted attention. If you're a young, pretty female, as I suspect, don't be so pretty on your trip - just try not to attract attention. And I'd definitely take my musical instruments into the motel room at night, as well as the computer and cat, iPad, cell phone, etc. I also like the idea of the inside of your car looking more messy than anything else. One thing I used to do when I moved across the states is to put my clothes in the very last thing, on hangers, and just spread them all over the top of everything else. It actually kept them from getting smushed and wrinkled and effectively covered up anything that might be of interest to a nosy thief. That also meant the clothes were the first thing out and into the closets, which was handy also.

Good luck to you - hope your trip is great fun. Don't be afraid - just go for it.
posted by aryma at 9:14 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I moved cross-country I left everything in the car except a laundry basket full of CDs which I carried everywhere, religiously. If only mp3s had been invented! The only semi-valuable thing I had with me was a (very old) mountain bike on a bike rack on the back of the car. I don't think I ever even took that inside, except maybe once. If something is important enough to you that you can't replace it, decide whether it's worth the trouble to move it inside for the night and act accordingly.
posted by bendy at 9:58 PM on September 20, 2011

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