How to Move Across the Country in a Suitcase

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How to move your life in a suitcase.

The first time a person moves far away from home is often challenging.  Whether it is for the first "real-job", or for school, becoming established in a new place requires patience and adjustment.  There will probably be some culture shock, the need to find new friends, and the need to get new stuff and the need to move the stuff you are keeping.  Money makes all of these challenges a lot easier, but even when poor, they are possible to overcome.  I moved across the U.S. four times in eight years as I completed my graduate and post-graduate education and started my first job and I almost aways had less than $1000 for everything including airfare and the deposit on my new apartment.  Now I am helping my sister with her first cross country move.  I have found some effective methods for getting the job done.

If you do not have a car:

1. Try to find a flight that will let you take the most suitcases possible.  Southwest and Jetblue are the most generous I am aware of.  If you book early enough, they often sell some of the most affordable tickets as well. 

2. Get some inexpensive suitcases at a thrift store, or borrow some.  Make sure they have wheels.  A combination of hardshell and soft suitcases is a good idea.  The soft ones are lighter, but the hard-shells can protect breakables.  Even though airlines only let you take two suitcases at most, pack as much as possible so that when close friends and family come to visit, they can easily bring a suitcase of your stuff.  Also, when you go back home for holidays, vacations, weddings, and funerals, your stuff is packed and ready to go.  You can spend your time with the people you care about rather than going through your stuff.

3. Pack smart.  The 50 pound weight limit on checked suitcases comes up quickly, when trying to pack all of your earthly posessions into a bag.  There is no weight limit for carry-on bags, but they are smaller, and have more security restrictions.  For example, liquids and sharp objects won't pass airport security. There is a free app called "My TSA" that allows you to look up a wide variety of objects to determine whether they are allowable in checked of carry-on baggage.  It is a good idea to divide up possessions into categories such as:

A. Items that must go in checked luggage due to security

B. Small and heavy items that would fit in a carry-on suitcase

C. Soft items that can be used as packing material.

D. Breakable items that need padding around them.

Prioritize the items in each pile as if for a camping trip.  Survival is key and you won't be able to take everything.  Your favorite book or photo album might have the most sentimental value, but when you are trying to fix a meal for the first time, a can-opener is a lot more practical.  Your favorite dress for going out is fine to take, but first make sure you have enough everyday clothes for school/work and at least one pair of practical/comfortable shoes.

Once the stuff is prioritized, it is time to pack!

Checked bag

A. Get some large zipper seal vacuum bags for bedding and clothes.  (Costco routinely has them, and they are also available online.)

B. Fold or roll whatever goes into the bag as neatly as possible.  This minimizes the space it requires. 

C. When the bag is full, seal the zipper and stick it in the bottom of the suitcase, but don't suck the air out yet. Leave the port

D. Arrange some lightweight breakable items that require packing material on top of the vacuum bag.

E.  Fill another vacuum bag with soft materials and place it on top of the breakable materials.

F. Connect a vacuum hose to the port on the bottom bag with the vacuum still off.  You will have to push the top bag aside a little bit so that the vacuum can reach the port.  Once the hose is in place, gently press down on the top bag, so that the breakable objects press down into the bottom of the bag. You may need another person to help with this.  The idea is to make impressions of the breakable items in the vaccuum bags as the air is removed so that they will sit securely in place.  Turn the vaccuum on and suck all of the air out of the bottom bag.  When that is done, suck the air out of the top bag while still pushing down on it.  Make sure that the suitcase can be closed, and it there is any problem, simply let air into the bags and and repeat this step making sure to adjust everything out of the way.  

G. With the suitcase closed, weigh it.  Do this by first weighing yourself, then weigh yourself while holding the suitcase.  Subtract your individual weight from your weight with the suitcase.  That number is the weight of the suitcase.  

H. If the suitcase does not weigh 50 pounds and if there is space left in it, small unbreakable items can be placed over and around the top vacuum bag.

Carry-On Bag

The carry-on bag is a great place to pack heavy things that you don't want dropped, like small appliances, and dishes.  It is also a good place for other heavy items such as silverware and metal kitchen utensils.  If you need to use packing material, use clothing in vaccum bags (as above).  Pack this bag as tightly as possible without destroying seams or zippers.  Since weight is not a criteria for this bag, there is no reason not to.  If you have the patience, treat packing this bag like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.  Think about how objects will fit around each other and plan out where things will go. 

When you get on the plane, there is almost a strong man willing to help get a heavy bag in the overhead bin.  Make sure you don't drop it on anyone.

Personal Item

The Personal Item is a great place to pack small and heavy items such as books, jewelry, and important papers.  Make sure the bag is strong enough to carry a very full load.

What to Wear

Regardless of the season, it is a good idea to wear your bulkiest clothing and possibly layers.  Boots, sweaters and coats can take up a lot of space in a bag, so why not wear them if you are going to need them.  You can also put things in the pockets.  You can take the coat off when you get on the plane.  


When you are getting to and from the airport, having a ride is the nicest option.  If that isn't possible, an airport shuttle is the next nicest option.  In many cities there is one that can take you to your door.  Busses are doable and the drivers are usually patient with people who have a lot of bags.  If your new location isn't too far away, a cab is also really nice.  In the airport, take some quarters so you can get luggage carts.

Setting up Your New Life

Once you have unpacked, there will still be a lot of things you need.  Find a few nearby thriftstores and check them out.  While your dwelling remains bare, get out and enjoy your new town as much as you can.  Even small towns have community festivals, free concerts and plays in the park, and other events where you can go out.  If you have the time, try to hit a few spots of interests to tourists, because you probably won't after you have lived in the town a while.  Many of them are actually somewhat interesting.  While you are doing that, you will get a feel for the culture of the place you are in.  It is quite likely that many of the things you used to enjoy may not be available to you in your new location, so try to find new activities and places to enjoy. 

Starting out fresh in a new place usually has a few challenges, but if kind and interesting people live around you (and I assure you they will), then you can be assured that those challenges can be overcome.

1 comment

carol roach
Posted on Jan 12, 2012