Now that the reality of COVID life has started to sink in, I’m seeing a large number of friends, acquaintences, and strangers decide to move out of high cost-of-living areas to cheaper places, either in other parts of the country or back home with their parents.

If you’re making a move that:

  • Doesn’t involve furniture
  • Is close to a large metro area

The cheapest way to move your things is with Amtrak.

Not many people know that Amtrak has an shipping service completely separate from passenger travel. You can ship both personal, commercial freight, and human remains (seriously!) without having to buy a train ticket for cheap. The first 100 lbs. cost a flat $67 and each additional pound is just $0.57.

Here’s how to make it happen, including some hard-learned lessons from yours truly:

  1. Call Amtrak—Not all stations have freight services. The main determiner is the station size. The stations need to be large enough to have sufficient space to store packages while they wait for people to pick them up. The podunk station in the small mountain town you escaped to when COVID hit will most likely not offer this service. However, most mid-major American cities, especially those on major rail corridors, should have the capcity to do so. It’s better to check ahead, trust me.

  2. Separate your books, CDs, etc. from the rest of your luggage—Books are super heavy and are disproportionately expensive to ship. Instead, send them in a shipment with the US Postal Service using their special Media Mail rate. It costs $0.54/lb, so only slightly cheaper than Amtrack, but it gets delivered directly to your door.

  3. Buy empty boxes and packing tape—The largest box size that Amtrak will accept is 3x3x3. I do not recommend using boxes that are this size. Remember, Amtrak charges you for weight, not for the number of parcels. Here’s the problem with larger boxes: you will pack them until they are full, which will often put them over the 50 lb/piece limit. If you don’t pack them full, they will lose some of their structural integrity and crush easier. Smaller parcels are also easier to pick up and move.

  4. Pack your boxes, thoughtfully—I packed my boxes like I was at the grocery store. Heavy, non-crushable stuff at the bottom, lighter things on top. This weight distribution was also necessary to stay under the 50 lb weight limit. However, I can tell you from experience, a bottom-heavy 50 lb box is a lot harder to pick up than a 50lb box with that weight evenly distributed in the box.

    DO NOT SEAL YOUR BOXES UNTIL YOU GET TO THE STATION.

  5. Go to your closest Amtrak station—Make sure to bring an empty box or two and some packing tape. It’s way easier to do this with a friend. Have your friend sit in the car in the loading zone while you run inside. DO NOT UNLOAD YOUR PACKAGES YET. Go to the ticket coutner and tell them that you are shipping items. They will hand you a shipping form to fill out. At this point, they will most likely direct you to a specific part of the building, separate from the passenger terminal, where you should drop off your luggage. Get a large flat luggage truck, unload your luggage, and bring them to the designated area. Someone will meet you there, measure your luggage to make sure it meets the volume requirements, then weigh your luggage. Wear comfortable clothes because you’ll be the one doing all the lifting. Put your luggage on the scale. If your boxes are over the weight limit, remove items until it meets the requirements (you can do this becuase you didn’t seal your boxes like I told you to do, right?). Only once all your boxes are confirmed to meet the weight limit should you seal them. At this point, the Amtrak staffer will have the total weight of your shipment which determines the price. Head back to the ticket counter and pay for your shipment. You can buy extra insurance if you want, I’ve always declined and the packages have shown up in pretty good condition (boxes aren’t extremely worn, no torn or smushed corners, etc.)

  6. Wait—The Amtrak employee will give you an estimated time of arrival. I think it took 3 days for my packages to go from Oakland to Greensboro. Amtrak often has a reputation for being late. While that may change the time of day your package ends up arriving, the calendar date estimate should be accurate.

  7. Pick up your packages—Amtrak will call you when your packages arrive. Head to the station to pick them up. You need to do this within 48 hours of arrival or else you will be charged storage fees. Again, you will be expected to do all the lifting so make sure you’re prepared. Look over the packages to make sure they are in good condition. If they are in poor condition, make sure to document that at the station with video for later claims if necessary.

Congratulations! You’re done!

A couple of other things to note:

  • Bikes are not subject to the volume requirements. I took my fancy road bike to a local shop and paid them ~$60 to break down my bike and put it in an extra bike box they had left over from a new bike they had ordered from the store.
  • Wikipedia says that other bulky items, like golf clubs, snow sports gear, surfboards, baby equipment like strollers, car seats, playpens, etc. are allowed if they are in an appropriate container but the Amtrak website only specifically mentions bikes (and human remains, of course).
  • If you’re flying to your destination, take as much as you can within your luggage allowance. It might make sense to fly Southwest, if you can, so you can get two free checked bags (which, maxed out, allow you to account for ~80lbs of weight).