How I moved across the country with Amtrak

August 20, 2014 at 5:13 pm

The drive from Chicago to Vancouver, BC is 2,190 miles (3,524 km) through six states of plains and mountains. It took me about 40 hours to complete the drive in a rented SUV packed full of personal belongings. I knew everything wouldn’t fit in the car, though, so I had to search for another way to move everything. Having just left behind a steady income, the costlier options like renting a U-Haul (approximately $1,800) or using a PODS service (over $2,500) were out of the question. This is where Amtrak Express Shipping came in handy.

It turns out Amtrak can ship a lot of your stuff (500 or 250 pounds per shipment, depending on the origin/destination stations) for very little money. The initial 100 pounds is just over $60, and then each subsequent pound is around $0.57. Most of the boxes I obtained from a friend were able to fit my books, clothing (in vacuum bags), and non-fragile kitchen items within the weight limit (50 pounds per box) and size limit (3 feet square).

There are several restrictions on what can be shipped. No electronics, fragile items, furniture, and so on – it’s basically just for books, clothes, office supplies, and the like. For some of us, though, that can be the bulk of the items we end up having to move. Other items like furniture and electronics can be moved another way, or sold and re-purchased (personally, my new apartment is furnished, and I moved some electronics in the car).

You can also ship bicycles via Amtrak. I’ve never taken my bike on Amtrak before because the route I used – Hiawatha between Milwaukee and Chicago – did not allow roll-on bike service. From what I understand the process for shipping the bike is similar to how passengers have to box up their bikes: Buy a bike box ($15), take off the pedals and remove the handlebar (and any accessories that won’t fit, like a basket), and roll the bike into the box for shipment. If this is what passengers on most Amtrak routes must do to take their bikes with them, I will never do this again; it is a complete pain. Finally, shipping bikes is expensive; each bike was considered 100 lbs and treated as its own shipment, so always cost a little over $50.

The experience of bringing the items to Amtrak for shipment is a bit like using a US postal office. It’s slow, everything seems to be written on paper and never entered in a computer, and you leave feeling a little disoriented. I used Chicago’s Union Station, where I had to drive down to the station’s basement (from Clinton St) and place my boxes on a pallet. Amtrak individually weighs each package, and if it’s over 50 lbs, they will not take it. I had three boxes that were over 50 lbs and so I had to take them back, which I was not expecting. In the future, I would weigh the boxes at home before I go.

After about an hour I had paid for all 450 lbs of my belongings – except three boxes – destined for Bellingham, Washington (the closest Amtrak station to Vancouver). I had to make an emergency run down the next day after splitting up the remaining three boxes.

Driving through Montana.

While I was in Montana just three days later, I received a call from Amtrak in Bellingham that my shipment had arrived and was ready to be picked up. I had to pick up the boxes within 48 hours or each box would be subject to a $4 fee per day.

There was one problem when I arrived in Bellingham, though – only one of my shipments (with the bicycles) had made it to Bellingham. The other boxes were sitting in Seattle. The staff at Bellingham station told me that they were an Amtrak Express Shipping Lite station, and could only handle shipments up to 250 lbs due to the size of the station. All of my other boxes were sitting hours away in Seattle, and I had rented a Zipvan for the day in Vancouver to get the boxes. I couldn’t drive all the way down to Seattle (due to Zipvan’s distance restrictions), and Bellingham couldn’t store them.

The staff at Chicago never informed me that they could only ship 250 lbs to Bellingham, while shipments up to 500 lbs would have to be picked up in Seattle. I never received a call from Amtrak in Seattle, either, to let me know that the boxes weren’t going to continue to Bellingham. I ended up renting another van for another day and had to pick up the remaining boxes in Bellingham as the train arrived around 9:40 PM last night (it was supposed to arrive at 9 PM).

Picking up the boxes at the station.

Amtrak waived the fees for holding the boxes in Seattle, but I still had to pay for another van to get down to Bellingham a second time to get the rest of the boxes, and had to be at the station exactly when the train arrived so I could take the boxes directly from the cargo car and put them in my van. If I wasn’t there, I was told Canadian border police would “destroy” the boxes when they got to Vancouver. (Another note: make sure the boxes are labeled with your name, address, and phone, because they are not separated from other cargo).

All told, the experience was fairly easy and all of my items arrived damage-free (I still wrapped books in plastic bags just in case), and I saved a lot of money given the amount of items I shipped (about 20 boxes and 2 bikes in total) and the total distance they traveled. Despite the issues with the weight and station pairs (of which I’m now aware to ask about), I would use Amtrak Express Shipping again to move my clothes and books on a long-distance move.