Things No One Tells You About College: Moving

The only way to move painlessly is to own absolutely nothing. The next best way is to pay someone a lot of money to do it for you. Since you are about to be a college student, neither one of these options is tenable, so you're going to be stuck doing it yourself.

First: Buy real luggage. You will thank me later. It can be cheap clearance luggage, but the idea here is to get a set of nesting suitcases which can be disengaged and filled with things for transport, and then reassembled into a matryoshka that takes up no more space than the largest piece in the set when they're all empty again. The wheels and towing handles will make your life much easier when you inevitably end up filling one of them with heavy things like books or shoes or your collection of lead scrap. The smallest one, usually overhead-bin size, will also come in handy on those rare occasions when some class project requires you to haul a lot of presentation materials across campus in the rain. Most sets also have enough free space inside to cram spare collapsible duffel bags in around the hard-sided suitcases.

Get a laptop bag. The neoprene skins are nice, but have no padding and no handles. I know your iPad fits inside your tote, but you want a way to drag a proper computer around when you have no hands free, which has some chance of surviving getting banged around by other pieces of baggage. Get one with an adjustable strap and forty-seven pockets, if possible. Messenger bags with padded laptop compartments are available, and often cheaper than the leather(ette) kind marketed to business travelers. Victorinox -- the Swiss army knife people -- makes some pretty nice fabric ones for about $40.

If you have a pet that you intend to bring with you, you'll also need a travel cage. If you have particularly laid-back rodents like I do, you can take them on public transit in a cardboard box lined with a towel, but for long trips or larger critters, you're going to want some sort of carrier. You can sedate most animals for travel with a proportional dose of Benadryl -- my rat is about 1% of my weight, so instead of getting 25-50mg every 6 hours, he'd get 0.25-0.5mg of the stuff -- but check with a vet first, and test before you try driving around like that. Some cats don't like getting the whirlies and go absolutely berserk. For fish or other aquatic creatures, mostly what you need is a smaller container with a secure lid.

If your move will be reasonably permanent (i.e., you're going a long way and intend to stay over summers), and you are planning on making the initial move by driving, then you might also consider investing in some steamer trunks or footlockers. These are large sturdy boxes made of particle board or metal, with a locking hasp, which are large enough to contain objects like musical instruments or desk lamps which might otherwise be shoved awkwardly into the back of the car. I used to pack mine with miscellaneous computer parts and pad them with duvets which were too large to cram into any of my other bags. They can get horrifyingly expensive if you try to ship them with your stuff inside, but if you're going by road, they stack conveniently in truck beds, and they double as impromptu furniture plus storage space when you arrive.

The first thing you should do when you get all of this home is to find some kind of truly obnoxious tag, ribbon, or fabric scraps, and tie bits of it onto the handle of each piece. Unless you bought a set of suitcases covered in golden flamingos the last time you were in Las Vegas, your luggage is going to look very generic, and you want a way to tell which bits are yours at a glance.

Second: Many people in your life will be very proud of you for going off to college. They will want to buy you things in celebration of this event. Do everything in your power to prevent them from giving you physical objects. Miss Manners says it's gauche to ask for money or prepaid cards in lieu of gifts when people offer you hand you things as part of their congratulations, but Miss Manners is not moving into a dorm room so small that putting POWs in there would violate the Geneva Convention. (True fact: The Convention requires prisoners of war be housed in a cell at least 20' x 20' in size, and to be fed for free. Your university does not like you that much.) Get creative, if necessary. Tell them you have realized the futility of material goods and you intend to live like a monk for a few years. Because every time someone hands you a thing, realize that you will have to move this, and despair.

Inevitably, you'll accumulate cruft while living at the dorm that you'll then have to divest yourself of before you move home or overseas or boot camp or wherever you're going for the summer. You can always tell when it's moving weekend at the local university, because suddenly the dorm hallways and sidewalks in the neighborhoods where the students live sprout desks and chairs and boxes of books and clothing. They often have signs that say FREE! or TAKE ME!, which is college student code for "I do not like this item enough to carry it any farther than my doorstep." They really mean this. Take anything you think you like enough to add to your pile of possessions, and feel free to settle your own pile of unmovable junk outside your door.

Third: Do not bother buying nice furniture at any point. You will resent it more and more every time you have to haul it from place to place, until you will eventually just drop it curbside, swearing and inventing ever more elaborate ways to impugn the parentage of the person responsible for its manufacture. Coffee tables are like high school sweethearts: You'll always have fond memories of your first, many of them involving contraband beer and sex in inappropriate places, but you'll eventually outgrow the relationship, and have to move on. Unlike high school sweethearts, however, coffee tables cost money, which you would be essentially throwing away on something you're eventually just going to abandon in the communal living room anyhow.

Instead, you should obtain the traditional college collection of milk crates, cinder blocks, plastic shelves, and unfinished wooden planks from the local Home Depot. They are cheap, you won't feel bad when you finally ditch them, and assembling them into structures that won't fall down under the weight of your books or saucepans gives you practical experience in both engineering and blind faith.

Before you even begin to pack, take the time to go through your worldly possessions and think very hard about which ones you actually care about. I suggest starting right after the graduation party hangover subsides, and you can stand up without ralphing again. As a general rule of thumb, if you haven't used it in a year, and it's not a special-occasion item or of great sentimental value, you don't need it. Fob it off on someone else. This is particularly true of everyday clothing, as after about a month of classes you will have perfected the art of waking up ten minutes before a class that's a five-minute walk from your dorm, and squeaking into lectures just before the professor shows up. Be realistic and ask yourself whether you are really going to dry clean anything that isn't a nice topcoat or formal wear while you're at college (the answer is 'no'), and either put it in storage or give it away.

Items that you don't need can be sold on eBay or to secondhand shops for extra cash if they have any value, or donated to Goodwill if they don't. It's generally worthwhile to try selling quality clothing or shoes in good condition, and sometimes books and media, especially if you're willing to sell them in lots. You can take a stab at selling tchotchkes, but the odds you'll find someone weird enough to buy your random bric-a-brac are lower. Used electronics are worth very little.

The one exception to this clean-sweep philosophy is bedding. Of all the things people have complained about while helping me move, I have never heard the sentence, "You have too many goddamn blankets." Blankets and pillows are useful for packing in and around things you don't otherwise want jostled around in the back seat of the car, and are not that heavy when untangled and moved individually. Really important stuff can be rolled up in a sleeping bag or the egg-crate foam you're using as a mattress topper. I wouldn't take any down comforters with me, but the kind with cotton/poly shells and synthetic stuffing inside can be bunged directly into the washer and dryer when you inevitably spill your drink (or worse, bong water) all over while building an incredibly sweet blanket fort with your friends at 3 am.


  1. Ahhhh, genius advice. I went to uni with my worldly belongings filling the back of a suzuki wagon (a dinky little car). After three years of undergrad it took two estate car loads to get me home. Now, after three years of postgrad I have two wide 6ft bookcases, a large chest of drawers and a small chest of drawers, a bedside table, a collapsible dining table, folding chairs, a desk chair, a short bookcase, a 5ft long set of boxes on wheels and a bike. And a hamster in a cage. I am going to need to hire a van to move me to my next place in two months time. :-(


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