What’s the True Truck Rental Cost for a Long-Distance Move?

The upfront cost is just the beginning, find out everything you need to factor for your next DIY move.

Following Interstates 5 and 10, the distance between San Francisco, California, and Houston, Texas is about 2,000 miles.

For most travelers, it’s a 4 or 5-day trip.

From political views and weather to food and climate, the cities are polar opposites in many respects.

Nevertheless, the corridor between California and Texas is the most heavily trafficked moving route in the country.

According to census data, more than 200,000 people moved between the two states in 2018-2019.

The vast majority moved from California to Texas, and many handled their moves themselves.

Though DIY moves are good options for savvy families looking to save a few bucks, they’re usually not as cheap as they’re made out to be.

Using a fictitious example of a 1-child family living in a 2-bedroom home, we’ll see why.

Demand

Common sense says that renting a truck for a trip from San Francisco to Houston should cost the same as one going in the opposite direction, but that’s definitely not the case.

Since the volume of moves from California to Texas is much higher than from Texas to California, supply and demand dictate that the rates are much higher for the former.

According to U-Haul’s website, the price for a 20-foot van from San Francisco to Houston in mid-October is nearly $3,500.

The same truck on the same date going the other direction is just over $800.

Since demand is high in California and low in Texas, U-Haul slashes its rates on trucks in Texas going to California.

By doing this they not only make $800, but their customers deliver their trucks to high demand areas where outbound rates are four times higher.

Packing

Packing and moving a 2-bedroom home is no small feat.

Packing alone may require between 50 and 100 boxes, and though that may seem like child’s play, after stepping back and considering everything involved you’ll likely come away with a fresh new perspective.

Let’s assume it’ll take 60 boxes to pack your home.

If you’re a diehard penny-pincher you’ll need to find used ones on Craig’s List, in grocery store dumpsters, or in the garages of friends and family who’ve moved recently.

How to Find Free Moving Boxes

Of course, you can buy new ones too, and though it’s a lot more convenient, it’s not cheap.

To pack correctly you’ll need a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate everything from glassware and electronics, to bedding, toys, and pictures.

Cartons alone could cost hundreds of dollars, not to mention packing paper and tape, and we can’t forget about the time it’ll take you to pack.

There’s no way to accurately estimate how much packing would cost on a fictitious move like this one, but between labor and material, $500 or $1,000 isn’t out of the question.

Moving

Moving is full of variables, but emptying the contents of a standard 2-bedroom home usually takes a professional 3-man moving crew about 8 hours.

If you’re doing a DIY move, you’ll be much less efficient, and will therefore need a larger crew and more time.

Friends and family may help, but unless they’re young and fit you shouldn’t expect much.

Though they probably won’t charge you for their time, you’ll still need to feed them and make sure they stay hydrated.

If free help isn’t an option, you may want to consider companies that provide labor only like HireAHelper.

For our mid-October move from San Francisco to Houston, they provided a number of instant estimates that initially looked pretty low.

However, they were based on 2 men for 2 hours.

Most were between $175 and $200, or about $50 per man per hour.

A 2-man crew wouldn’t make much of a dent in a 2-bedroom house in 2 hours.

Instead, at those rates, 3 men for 8 hours would put the cost somewhere around $1,200.

Yikes.

That’s expensive, especially when the labor for professional moving companies is generally between $25 and $40 per man-hour.

Fuel

The average 5,000 pound SUV gets less than 20 miles per gallon on the highway.

U-Haul’s largest truck is five times heavier.

Add an inexperienced driver, mountainous terrain, and an overworked air-conditioner and you’ll be lucky to get 10 miles per gallon.

According to AAA, in mid-September 2020 the average cost of gasoline nationwide was $2.18.

At 10 miles per gallon, the trip from San Francisco to Houston would require 200 gallons.

Multiply that times $2.18 and you’re looking at about $436 for gas alone.

At 8 miles per gallon, the cost shoots to $545.

Insider’s Tip: Though most moving trucks have gasoline engines, some have diesels. Knowing which you’re getting before hitting the road is imperative. Putting the wrong fuel into a rental truck could leave you with a hefty bill for replacing an engine.

Food

Many Americans prefer restaurants to shopping for ingredients and cooking at home.

At least until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the incidence of dining out had been on the rise for years.

Most of us would agree that it’s more fun and the food is usually tastier, but it’s also more expensive than staying in.

A moderately frugal family of three could probably get by on $75 a day for food while on the road.

Of course, that number could swing wildly either way depending on eating habits and tastes, but for four days that comes to a whopping $300.

For some small families in rural parts of the country, that’s two or three weeks worth of food.

Lodging

According to Statista, the average national cost of a hotel room in July 2020 was $101 per night.

Sounds high doesn’t it?

It is possible to find less expensive options in some areas, but at that rate, four days of lodging would add another $400 to your ever-growing moving bill.

Other Considerations

Season

Moving from San Francisco to Houston in June will cost you a lot more than it will in November.

Why?

It all goes back to demand.

In the moving business, June through September is referred to as ‘peak season.’

Of all the families that move throughout the year, more than half do so in this 3-4 month period.

Hence, demand increases, and so do prices.

If you’re flexible, postponing your moving until the fall or winter could save you big bucks.

Route

Following I-5 and I-10 from San Francisco to Houston will take you through cities like LA, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Cruces, El Paso, and San Antonio.

For those who’ve never made the trek, the route is full of amazingly beautiful southwest landscapes.

But some of it is treacherous too, especially in the mountainous areas north of LA and on the California-Arizona border.

Driving a heavy truck you’re not familiar with can be stressful, especially on long grades and in inclement weather.

Also, consider what it’d be like breaking down in remote Western Arizona when the thermometer is bumping 120 and you’re 23 miles from the nearest service station.

Oh, and maybe there’s no cellphone reception.

Not a good situation, especially for a family traveling with a little one.

Insurance

If you’ve decided on a U-Haul or a rental truck from another company, you’ll want to make sure you know their insurance policy inside and out before signing on the dotted line.

It’s amazing what you’ll find when you read the fine print.

Here’s something you may find particularly relevant–

“Damage caused by improper packing, normal shifting of cargo in transit or theft of cargo is not covered.

In short, know what is covered, and what isn’t.

Alternately, many insurance companies offer short-term policies that cover things like driving a rental truck from one state to another.

Check with your auto insurer to see if they do.

If so, their policy may be much less expensive than what you’ll get from the truck rental company.

Again, just make sure you know exactly what is and isn’t covered.

Comfort and Safety

If you’re single, just out of college, and looking for adventure, a cross-country road trip may be just what the doctor ordered.

However, if you’re middle-aged, spoiled, and have a bad back, spending 8 or 10 hours a day for 5 days in a cramped cab on a hot vinyl seat may be about as unpleasant as an IRS audit.

Likewise, though America’s highways are relatively safe, few things stand out more to opportunistic criminals than families in slow-moving moving vans in the middle of nowhere.

Take things like this into account for yourself, your spouse, and your child.

Specialty items

Hot tubs, pool tables, and other specialty items can turn otherwise easy moves into huge hassles.

They need servicing and disassembly before they’re moved–jobs usually best left to professionals.

You can have specialty 3rd-party service companies handle them at origin and destination, but they’ll charge you an arm and a leg.

Alternatives

Container Moving Companies

Container moving companies are becoming increasingly popular these days.

They’re relatively convenient and inexpensive options for do-it-yourselfers who’d rather leave the driving to someone else, and most companies have extensive nationwide coverage.


Professional Movers

Though they’re prohibitively pricey for some consumers, the cost difference between professional movers and DIY moves may not be as big as you think.

In fact, when all factors are considered, the true cost of renting a truck may not be too far from what some professional movers charge.

In the end, full-service movers usually cost more, but another thousand dollars or so might be a small price to pay to have the packing, moving, and driving taken care of for you

After all, it’s hard to put a price on peace of mind.

Just remember, the numbers we’ve used aren’t hard and fast.

We’ve done our best to base them on current data, but they’re meant to be used as references only.

For a more accurate idea of what your move will cost, you can do the legwork yourself, or check out our online moving calculator.

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