Cross-country move with small cargo trailer: terrible or great idea?
February 17, 2015 12:23 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are moving cross country from Denver to Orlando, FL. We have two cars and a 1400 sq. ft. house full of furniture and stuff. We have looked into renting trucks and ABF U-pack and they all seem prohibitively expensive, eg. in the few thousand dollar range. Plus, if we rent a truck we have to trailer our other car. Our latest idea is to rent a small U-haul trailer, get rid of A LOT of our stuff, and trailer out there what we need in two or three trips. We have until about June 1st to be completely moved. However, the U-Haul trailers are heavy --about 1000 lbs-- and our car can only tow 1500lbs (2014 Subaru Crosstrek). This doesn't leave much room for things. Our latest idea is to buy a second-hand cargo trailer, about 5x8 ft, for $1500 or so, and use that. The trailers we have looked at weigh more like 700lbs. Then, when we are done with the trailer, we can sell it at a small loss. Is this a terrible idea? Has anyone pulled a trailer with such a small car? How much stuff can we carry and not exceed our 800lb limit?
posted by subtlemel to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As someone who has worked for Uhaul in reservations this is the sort of idea that would make us employees roll our eyes and think "oh that poor soul." You are not going to fit enough in there and you are going to kill your car. Don't do it.
posted by celtalitha at 12:47 PM on February 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

I drove a 1993 Chevy Lumina sedan for a long time, and moved from New England to Chicago. We checked the towing capacity and so forth, and got a U-Haul trailer, loaded it up, and hit the road. We were almost out of the parking lot when my brakes started burning up. We dealt with U-Haul, switched up to a truck, left the Lumina behind and were much happier as a result.

Moral: The Lumina was a piece of crap, so YMMV. However, for me at least, we were able to tell pretty much right away that it wasn't going to work out. The truck was great.

Suggestion 1: You'll likely want to get your car checked out before your trip. Just say, "Hey, we're going on a 2000 (or whatever) mile trip, will the car make it in once piece?" and let the mechanic do the rest. Ask them about the trailer, and see what they say about it fitting into your plans.

Suggestion 2: Obviously money is important, and there's too little of it, but think about the actual costs (time, money, effort, wear and tear, gas, etc.) that would come from, say, three trips from Colorado to Florida. This is a 30-hour trip each way, probably 3,750 miles total. That's miserable, and something I would bet you'd really only like to do once. Doing it twice or 2.5 times will suck and you will not be looking forward to the drive back to Colorado after you've done the drive to Florida the first time. You ESPECIALLY won't be looking forward to the drive back to Colorado after you've done it twice. I've driven back and forth between Vermont and Chicago probably five or six times in the last two years, and it starts fun but gets pretty awful around hour 10. I can't imagine what it's like at hour 24.

So, if you can at all swing it, you should get a truck and do it in one trip. I would still get rid of a bunch of stuff and get the smallest possible truck. Honestly, I see your small trailer + car + several trips plan as super possible, but certainly also "character building" in a way that is actually completely nightmarish.

On preview, what celtalitha said.
posted by papayaninja at 12:48 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Have you really run the number on the gas part of this? Denver to Orlando is about 1800 miles each way. We have towed a trailer with a number of different vehicles and pulling a trailer generally cuts your gas mileage by around half (=ish) (depending on vehicle, but yours sounds smaller).

So: two round trips = 7200 miles / (lets say) 20 mpg * (lets say) $2.50 per gallon in gas. That's $900 in gas for just two round trips, $1,350 in gas for three round trips. Then also factor in the additional maintenance your car will need after undergoing the wear and tear of that journey two or three times, plus (even cheap) hotels as you travel cross country. Plus, of course, the value of your time - two and a half days out, then unload, then two and a half days back, load up again, rinse and repeat. You'll be exhausted and angry by the time its over, even if you spread the trips out over a couple of months.

We pull a trailer about 900 miles a couple of times a year with a similar sized vehicle, and its no picnic. Its slow. You get tired pretty quickly just from the additional vigilance of making sure all is right with both the trailer and the car. Not to mention that pulling an empty trailer is a whole different experience from pulling ful one - kind of like having a parasail bolted to the back of your car.

My advice would be to rent the truck, and have one of you drive the truck and the other drive the car. Even if you can only do 8-9 hour days that way (so the trip takes longer) you'll still be saving A LOT of time and energy overall vs. your plan.
posted by anastasiav at 12:49 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

1) If you're willing to take 2-3 trips just to haul your stuff on a trailer, why not rent a truck, drive it out there, and drive/fly back for the other car? Or vice-versa? If it's just money, then:

2) Once you add up the cost of a) the trailer, b) gas & motel for multiple cross-country trips - and the trailer's going to increase that - and c) the cost of replacing your things if you need to, how much less is it than some kind of moving container system or renting a truck? Is it worth the hassle and worry? Is it worth the necessary time it will take?

3) Have you looked into hiring a cross-country moving company? You might be surprised at how much it costs, especially if you pack your things yourself. You also have the added advantage that they load and unload everything, so if you need to hire someone for heavier items anyway. . .

3) How much experience do you have driving a trailer, especially a heavily loaded, possibly improperly balanced one? If you have none, just because people do it all the time doesn't mean it's safe. How are you going to keep track of the weight on the trailer?

4) It's hard to answer "how much stuff can we carry" without knowing what your stuff is, i.e. boxes of blankets are considerably less than boxes of books, and if you have furniture that can add up quickly (and again, if you get rid of furniture, how much will it cost to replace it?).

I'm only asking these questions because if you have the spare change to buy a trailer, you might really consider other options. I've moved cross-country twice and it's horrible enough as it is without adding hauling a trailer multiple times to it. It sucks and it's expensive, but if you can spend another thousand or a few extra hundred with another option, it's totally worth it. (My favorite was moving with a pod. It cost ~3000 bucks, all told, but we drove the trip once, didn't have to worry about driving a truck or trailer, and it was totally worth it.)
posted by barchan at 12:52 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Compare the costs of a round-trip rental vs one-way. Usually you pay a premium for the one-way, just like rental cars. If you're willing to make multiple trips anyway: rent the truck, drive it to florida, drive it back empty, return it, and drive the car back to florida.
posted by HermitDog at 12:57 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to mention that in the 1500 lbs calculation you need to factor in the weight of the occupants and other contents of the vehicle. Towing a bunch of weight in an SUV shaped car is a bad idea.

Rent the moving truck.
posted by axismundi at 1:05 PM on February 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Here's how I would visualize 500 pounds.

A standard suitcase if packed to the gills is about 50lbs when you check in at the airport.
10 suitcases = 500 pounds.

How many 10 suitcase blocks of space does your stuff fit in?

That how many trips you need to take.

Rent a truck!
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:15 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am not sure what you think is reasonable, but I had a car delivered on a car hauler from NY to South Carolina for less than $250. Consider shipping one of your cars while one drives the U-Haul truck.
posted by 724A at 1:17 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

We moved from SF to Tampa in 2013. I thought PODS or U-pack would be the way to go, but they were actually more expensive than a real moving company like United or Mayflower.

We shipped a car, drove one car with pets, and paid United to move our stuff. For me, the value of not having to actually load and unload the truck is worth the expense of movers. So yeah, get a quote from real movers.

And your trailer idea is flat-out unfeasible. Rent a truck or hire real
posted by gnutron at 2:15 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'd just do the thing where you rent a portion of a trailer from ABF. We did that to move from San Diego to Wisconsin last August, and it ended up costing us a little less than $2K for delivery to our door for 7 feet of trailer space. While all our stuff went in the ABF trailer, we drove our two cars and stayed at a Motel 6 every night, and ate peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for lunch every day, which also cost us around $2K total for gas, hotels, and food. We considered a trailer too, but with the unknown complications to my car, the limited capacity, worrying about the contents every time we stopped, and the safety concerns trying to drive with that thing over the Rockies, it didn't make much sense for us, and I drive a pickup truck that can actually haul stuff.

So, basically, renting the trailer space cost as much as us driving ONE WAY across country. Compared to going back and forth 3 times? Gas is quite a bit cheaper now, but you're seriously looking at at least $150 every day on the road just with one car, probably more around 200 with two, and you're knocking an extra week and a half or so out of your life. I don't see what you're gaining with the trailer plan.
posted by LionIndex at 2:34 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Rent a truck. Or consider ditching the trailer altogether. How much of your stuff is irreplaceable or cost-prohibitive to replace? Figure out your replacement cost of the stuff you would need to leave behind if you were just moving in your cars (all furniture, lots of big soft things like pillows, lots of kitchen stuff) and weigh it against the cost of a moving truck. Is a moving truck still considerably more expensive? Then leave your stuff behind and replace it bit by bit in Florida. They have stuff there too. My wife and I took this approach on a cross-country move and it was pretty refreshing, though we were certainly not very far along in our nesting, and doing the same thing would be more difficult now. But it would probably be equally refreshing.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:47 PM on February 17, 2015

Can anyone verify that our MPG would be halved if we pull a 1500 lb trailer? Also, to clarify; we have to drive out at the end of March anyways, so it makes sense to take the trailer. The second trip would be in June, so it's not like they are back-to-back.
posted by subtlemel at 6:52 PM on February 17, 2015

I posted a huge reply in a very similar previous thread with tons of cool math and stuff.

Basically, it is NEVER going to be cheaper to not just rent a big enough truck to do it all in one go. Even assuming your car could tow 20,000 pounds, if you have to make multiple trips this. will. not. be. cheaper.

If you can't afford to move it all in a truck, you can't afford to do it. If it seems like thats too much money, then either that's just what it costs and you need to buck up or you can't do it.

It's not just driving 1800 miles repeatedly. It's gas, the inevitable issues you'll have like blowing a tire on the trailer(i've NEVER seen or done a trip like this where there wasn't one flat or suddenly mysteriously low tire, and more than one emergency OH FUCK SHIT pull over), all the food and incidentals along the way.

The more long drives i go on, the more i realize you should make a realistic budget of what the trip will cost and then, if it's under $1000 double it, and if it's over $1000 add 4-500.

Other people have made similar points above, but yea, this is a false economy thing. Multiple trips with a trailer is going to end up costing you TONS of money you didn't want to spend, and you're going to hate it.

There's another point to be made that a car like that really isn't made to tow anything(maybe, maybe, one of those tiny trailers that holds a single jet ski or a motorcycle. or a TINY cargo trailer, the kind you see that sometimes even has one wheel). It's rated because they know people will try and do it, but it's not going to be any fun or even very safe to drive. It's not a truck, or even a big heavy older car that could(and was in a sense, made to) take it.

An additional point, on my "double it" thing,
So: two round trips = 7200 miles / (lets say) 20 mpg * (lets say)

You will never get 20mpg. Even purpose built vehicles get half that. Double all these numbers, at least.

There is no solution here that makes sense other than renting a big enough truck to do it all in one trip. Anything else(that isn't paying someone else to do it) is a path to madness and blowing more money. This kind of thing only makes sense if you're making one trip, you already have the tow vehicle and trailer, and know you want them there when you get there.

If you want both cars with you at the final destination, i think it would even be worth it to pay a friend a bit of money to drive one of them and buy them a plane ticket back.

Listen to a guy whose driven thousands of miles in decommissioned city buses in questionable condition, hauled tons of stuff, driven tons of sketchy vehicles and trucks... just rent a damn truck. or ship the stuff. or SOMETHING. I think this is a terrible idea, and i'm mr "eh, fuck it".

On preview, how about packing it all in a couple crates and shipping it with an LTL carrier finder service like this? have you looked in to PODS type storage/moving solutions?
posted by emptythought at 6:54 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I hope by now everyone has convinced you not to do the small trailer thing. But if not: take the weird-ass weather we're having into account. I once pulled a U-Haul trailer from New Orleans to Virginia in mid-February. We hit a patch of glare ice on the Interstate at night - you know those Jack Chick comics that show Angels sitting next to us regular mortals, helping us surmount life's obstacles? Honestly, I don't remember much about anything after the trailer started to jack-knife, but I think it was something like that, because we didn't die.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:09 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

We have looked into renting trucks [. . . ]they all seem prohibitively expensive, eg. in the few thousand dollar range.

Um, where have you looked into truck rental? Because I just did the online quote thing for U-Haul, Ryder, Budget, and Penske for your trip, one way, and they all came out to $1500 or less. And the high prices were for the 24' or 26' trucks, which are more-or-less the biggest trucks you can get your hands on without a commercial driver's license. 15/16- foot trucks would be about $1K. All are at least a 1-week rental, and no additional mileage costs.

If you're worried about the "room size" estimates for each truck size, I think those are kinda based on people just cramming everything they own in there willy-nilly. I load and drive these size trucks very regularly for work (and have helped a bunch of people move), and if you're at all good at Tetris and do some smart things with boxing as much as you can and ditching some unnecessary/easily replaceable/oddly shaped pieces (like, say, Ikea bookshelves or a big-box-store computer desk), you can put a LOT of stuff in a truck.

And yes, hauling a trailer is far more difficult and annoying and stressful than driving a truck. Your plan might save you some cash, but it sounds like a nightmare. Ship one of the cars, or do the truck as a round-trip and drive the cars to Florida.

Oh yeah, and empty trailers behave much differently than full ones, so just when you've got the hang of things, you'll dump your load and make an 1800-mile trip back to Colorado with a giant sail attached to the back of your car, wanting to tug it off the road every time the wind shifts.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:17 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

You will never get 20mpg. Even purpose built vehicles get half that. Double all these numbers, at least.

I don't own a Crosstrek, but I recently pulled a crappy Uhaul trailer (so: heavy and poorly maintained) with my truck. It's a small truck so the trailer was right at the upper end of the towing capacity, which is never a good idea, but the mileage hit wasn't bad. Instead of 20mpg I got around 15, which matches my experience towing with other vehicles. At work we tow small trailers with diesel 3/4 and one ton pickups, and the only times we drop the mpg by half is when we are towing way over capacity over mountain passes. I don't track mpg by trip on the work trucks, but we get around 15mpg average and those poor trucks get beaten like rented mules.

Buying instead of renting can make sense, but as has been said a bunch of times you have to run the numbers and be as realistic as you can. Add in maintenance, be pessimistic about resale value, and be realistic about how much your stuff weighs compared to the trailer's capacity (and be realistic if your car can actually tow it safely). I'd only buy if doing so was WAY better than renting -- if the numbers are even slightly close, rent or pay for professional movers (which, as has been noted, can be close in price to truck rental costs).
posted by Dip Flash at 7:18 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also worth thinking about is that your rated tow weight isn't just a flat 1500 pounds no matter what - you should probably check your owner's manual and/or contact your dealer or Subaru directly, but on this Cars 101 page on the 2013 Crosstrek, the towing specs are:
towing a trailer, with trailer brakes 1500lbs, without trailer brakes 1000lbs.
When towing a trailer in high heat or up a long grade 750lbs.
200lb tongue weight
I'm not at all sure that brakes are common on small 5x8 cargo trailers, and either way the tongue weight rating means you'll have to pay close attention to how you pack the trailer every time (How Stuff Works tongue weight link.)

I'll second emptythought that the tow package on your car is meant for hooking up a small camper or an open trailer with a couple of dirt bikes and driving a couple hundred miles or so, not for loading as many of your possessions as you can fit into a cargo trailer and driving thousands of miles.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:06 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Other things of note: subarus automatic transmissions seem to overheat easier than other cars. My dads forester has had the high temp light pop on for a few seconds simply with a car full of big lunkheads and some random not-lead junk in the trunk up a big highway hill. You're going to go up hills with said trailer. Your transmission will implode.

The comments about a truck not seeing as but if a mileage hit relate to different gearing, an engine designed from the ground up for torque over raw power and grunting things around, the lesser hit you're taking on aerodynamics on a vehicle that wasn't all that aero in the first place, and other factors. Passenger cars just take a much larger hit.

Ignore uhauls guides about "cubing out"(read: x amount of house will fill y amount of trailer). They're as silly as McDonald's serving sizes. I've done an entire one bedroom apartment with lots of large furniture in a 15' and there was extra room. I'm trying a 10 next time unless the prices are identical. I'd do a 17 for a two bedroom no problem.

For perspective, I recently repacked a friends 17 into a 10. The 17 looked "full". Carefully packed the 10 had almost a quarter of empty room. You WANT it packed tightly, so stuff doesn't bounce/roll around. The only times I pack loose is if i know I have more than one load because of large stuff, and just want to blast through. For a long trip? Tetris time. You don't need a huge, expensive truck. Those suck to drive on the highway(especially in bad weather and on hills. I swear they should require a license), and generally seem to be older and in worse shape.

If you aren't great at packing tightly, enlist a friend who is. I get conned in to it fairly often.
posted by emptythought at 10:32 PM on February 17, 2015

I tow a cargo trailer a couple of times per month with a Ford Escape that I bought with this towing purpose in mind. Basics? The towing vehicle must have engine power, brakes, and transmission design that can handle the load. (Conical continuous torque transmissions are not for towing.) Pack trailer tightlly as emptythought observes. Triple check both safety chains, hitch pin, electrical, tires, and doors. Pull a few feet, stop, and check ball lock. High winds? You have a sailboat but not an ocean of maneuverability. Going up hill can kill your vehicle. Going downhill can kill you. There's a whole website!, etc. For my towing the eight miles round trip with no big hills, no problem now. The above points come from following others pulling this trailer. That experience convinces me that multi-day trips would be nuts.
posted by gregoreo at 3:40 AM on February 18, 2015

The costs you're mentioning are adding up, and they aren't that small.

Instead, have you looked into hiring a moving company? Why not go to, find three reputable cross-country movers serving your area, and get quotes?

I've moved across the country or across multiple state lines about a dozen times. You'll probably pay more, but maybe not as much as you're thinking - even if you value your own time at zero and assume the trailer risk without fear.

This might even be one of those times where doing it the "normal" way would be Pareto-superior to this convoluted operation you're contemplating.
posted by ccl6yl at 9:51 AM on February 18, 2015

Bear in mind that your max speed will be 55mph while pulling said trailer. I've driven cross country with a 4 by 6 uhaul trailer behind a Mazda Protege and I'd sooner burn my belongings than make that trip again.

You will have to drive slowly, and carefully, and you will probably trash your transmission on the giant downgrade that is going east from Denver. You won't be able to bring enough stuff to make it worthwhile. You also have to figure that your sanity is worth something.

I'm a big fan of a POD or ABF rent by the foot. It's worth it.
posted by checkitnice at 4:44 PM on February 18, 2015

UPDATE! So against all better advice (you guys are going to hate me) we did it anyways. We found a decent used trailer and installed a Curt trailer hitch on the Subaru. We loaded a few pieces of furniture and some necessities. I figure we were right around 1500 lbs. Tongue weight was about 200 lbs, which is a little more than ideal.

The Crosstrek did really well. Of course, acceleration and braking were degraded, but not to any extreme amount. Mileage suffered the most. If we kept our maximum speed at 60-65mph we were getting about 20 MPG, but as we gained confidence and upped our speed to 70-75 mph that dropped to about 15 MPG. Normally the Subaru gets over 30 on the highway. So we did have to stop for gas a lot. We were on the road for about 30 hours. We stopped in Tulsa and Mobile, and made a shorter 3-hour stop in Destin to see some relatives.

We ran out of gas in the middle of Arkansas. When you are only getting 15 MPG this happens suddenly. Luckily a friendly state trooper gave me a ride to the gas station 2 miles away. This was the worst thing that happened.

Once we were in Orlando the trailer came in really handy to pick up a few pieces of furniture we bought off Craigslist. We left the trailer there.

No, we won't be doing it again. We have too much stuff. We will probably use ABF to haul the rest out there in June. But at least for now we have some furniture and essentials at the new house.
posted by subtlemel at 11:48 AM on April 13, 2015

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