What are Van Lines and how do they Work?

The most recognizable moving companies have a complex system, we break it down.

What are Van Lines?

Van Lines are large, multi-state networks of moving companies that operate in conjunction with one another under well-known brand names.

Sounds complicated, right?

Don’t worry, it’s really not.

In fact it’s pretty straightforward, but unless you’re a seasoned pro there’s lots you may not know.

Do We Recommend Hiring Van Lines

Before we get into any of the details on how the van lines model works, the question you’re probably most curious about:

Should I hire a van line?

The big van lines companies have a lot of experience in the industry. They’ve deservedly made a name for themselves over the years and no one will take that away from them.

However, since these companies are so big, there is a lot of overhead involved. These elevated costs inevitably fall onto the consumer.

Therefore, for most people relocating out of state, we recommend hiring one of the top independent moving companies.

Why?

These companies are also reputable but your individual service means a lot more to them so their commitment to you will be higher.

Also, huge van lines companies have so much infrastructure around the United States and are equipped for specialty moves to very remote areas and across the world. If you’re doing a standard move across the country, you don’t want to pay for these extra options.

They won’t charge you for a move to London if you’re just moving from New York to Florida but here’s an example.

When you decide to go to a large state university, you understand that part of your tuition cost is going to the inflated sports programs. They’re not charging you for the tickets to the games, but 100% of your tuition isn’t going straight to your personal education.

It’s the same idea.

When Do We Recommend Van Lines?

Because of their vast network, years of experience, and infrastructure, we recommend using van lines for international moves or if you are moving to or from a remote location.

Van lines will ALWAYS be better than online brokers that promote the cheapest moving prices but end up providing a less than desirable service.

Either way, compare your quotes using our moving cost calculator.

The Big Players

Many big van lines enjoy impressive brand recognition, and some have been around for nearly a century.

You’ve probably seen their trucks on the highway, or maybe even used them for past moves.

Here we’re talking about the industry’s heavy hitters.

Companies like:

All-told they have thousands of moving trucks of all shapes and sizes on the country’s roads on any given day.

They employ armies of well-trained and hard-working men and women that specialize in everything from packing and crating, to moving and driving commercial vehicles.

The largest van lines have hundreds of authorized agents in big cities and rural areas working together to provide the services their customers expect.

Nearly all van line agents are independently owned and operated business, but the standards to which they’re held are much higher than what you’ll find at most mom-and-pop moving companies.

Before moving on, however, it’s important to note that there are plenty of high-quality, independently owned, and operated moving companies out there too.

We’ll delve more into that shortly, but for now, we’ll look at how the van line agency system works.

How do Van Lines Operate?

To illustrate how the van line agency system works, let’s look at a fictitious move.

One from New York City to Los Angeles, California.

We’ll assume that after careful consideration you’ve decided to use Atlas Van Lines.

Since they sent a local representative out to assess your moving needs and give you an in-home estimate, you’ll book your relocation through them.

They’re called the booking agent.

Let’s call them A-Plus Movers.

Once you’ve signed the paperwork and agreed on a move date, the move coordinators at A-Plus will register your move in Atlas’ computer system.

In most instances, A-Plus will provide origin services like packing and crating if you need them, but they may not handle the transportation portion of your move.

But don’t worry.

You’ll still have an Atlas driver, but he or she may be from any one of the company’s other nationwide agents.

Before assigning a driver to your move, load planners at the corporate office will look at a number of factors including:

  • your origin city (in this case New York)
  • the estimated weight of your shipment
  • load date
  • delivery window
  • destination city (Los Angeles)

They’ll see which drivers will be in the area on your move date, have enough space on their trucks to accommodate your shipment, are going to California or other western states along the way, and if their other customers’ delivery dates coincide with yours.

In some instances (like during the non-peak season between September and April) there may be a number of available drivers who meet the above requirements.

In such cases, the van line may assign the load to the driver with the lowest claims.

In the peak moving season from about May to August, however, there may only be one driver available

Insider’s Insight: Differences between drivers are common, but most van lines have strict quality assurance guidelines in place, so their van operators generally perform at very high levels compared to the rest of the industry.

Now let’s pretend that Atlas’ load planners have assigned you a van operator named Jimmy who works for an agent in Nebraska called Prime Time Movers.

As luck would have it, he’ll be in the New York area on your move date, he’s going to sunny Southern California, and he has plenty of available space on his truck.

In this case, Prime Time Movers is the hauling agent.

Fast forward.

A-Plus movers has now booked your move and packed your items, and Jimmy and his crew have loaded everything onto the truck.

And abracadabra, a week later his shiny rig is pulling into LA.

But there’s a problem.

Your new home isn’t ready.

You need last-minute storage.

Maybe for a month… possibly longer.

What to do?

Panic?

Not necessarily, because Atlas has a number of agents in LA, all of which have warehouses where you can store your household goods.

Sure they’ll charge you extra for the service, but you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’re dealing with another agent in the Atlas system—as opposed to a local company you know absolutely nothing about.

In the end, we’ll assume you stored your items at the warehouse of West Coast Relocation Systems… another fictional Atlas agent.

They’re the destination agent.

Now they’re your point of contact for additional services like delivery from storage to your new home when it’s ready, as well as unpacking and uncrating.

This simple example shows how by working together, agencies from all over the country can pull off even tricky moves with relative ease.

Van Lines or Independent Movers—Which are Better?

It’s a question as old as the hills, and one that’s not particularly easy to answer.

Numerous factors should be taken into account when determining which is better in your particular situation, but it’s usually based on whether you’re moving locally or out of state.

Either way, first consider the following…

Van Lines have interstate operating authority ONLY. Even though you can book local moves with van line agents, the van line itself won’t be involved, because they’re only legally allowed to engage in interstate commerce.

Though many customer reviews indicate positive experiences moving from one state to another with independent moving companies, there’s definitely added risk when going this route if you end up with the wrong company.

If something goes wrong and you need help rectifying the situation, there are limited avenues of recourse with these independent companies.

If you’re lucky you may get the operations manager or owner on the phone, but if they’re not willing to help you’ll have few options.

If on the other hand, you have a problem with a national van line, their corporate headquarters is never more than a call away—and they take customer complaints very seriously.

Likewise, independent movers may be good options if you’re moving directly from one residence to another, but like in the previous example, what if you need last-minute storage in a distant state?

If you booked your move through an independent mover in rural Arkansas, chances are good that they have absolutely no connections in Los Angeles.

They may tell you otherwise, but can you trust them?

And do you know anything about the company they’re recommending?

Probably not—on both counts.

Quality is another issue that often separates van line agents from their independent moving counterparts.

Van Lines usually have comprehensive nationwide programs that continually train drivers, packers, movers, and office staff to ensure that they maintain the levels of quality customers expect.

Some of the best independent movers have similar programs, but many don’t.

Van Lines vs. Brokers

Like flounder and tree frogs, brokers and van lines are entirely different animals.

In a nutshell, van lines are large close-knit affiliations of quality-driven companies that own trucks, employ trained professionals, and operate warehouse facilities across the country.

Fly-by-night brokers, on the other hand, may just be a couple of sweaty guys (and gals) in a musty office passing themselves off as a van line to unsuspecting consumers.

Though they get a bad rap, it’s not fair to paint all brokers with the same dirty brush.

There are good ones out there, but as the old adage goes, it’s usually the rotten apples that spoil the whole bunch.

Some brokers claim to be part of a large network of movers that rival the big van lines, but this is rarely the case.

Sure, they may deal with independent movers from various parts of the country on a regular basis, but unlike van lines, there’s almost never any formal affiliation.

That means you’ll probably end up dealing with multiple business entities, each of which is looking out for its own best interest.

In fact, many independent moving companies align themselves with brokers because they don’t have what it takes to become agents for big national van lines like United, Atlas, and others.

Nefarious brokers use lots of sneaky tactics to pass themselves off as something they’re not, and they can be hard to spot for the uninitiated.

One of the most common methods is using names similar to those of well-known van lines.

For example…

United Van Systems IS NOT the same as United Van Lines.

A-Atlas Van Lines IS NOT the same as Atlas Van Lines.

For a more detailed analysis of how this looks in the real world, check out United Nation Van Lines.

Hence, vetting companies thoroughly and choosing one you can trust is imperative.

If it all seems overwhelming, fear not—we can help.

Moving Services Provided by Major Van Lines

Here are some of the moving services typically available by these companies:

Final Thoughts

Consolidations…

In the not too distant past, there were a number of large shakeups in the moving and storage business.

Big companies that had previously operated as independent van lines began merging with competitors.

Here we’re primarily talking about United Van Lines and Mayflower Transit, and Allied Van Lines and North American Van Lines.

Now United and Mayflower are owned by a holding company called UniGroup, North American and Allied by another called SIRVA.

Though these affiliations tend to make companies stronger, it also means that if you book a move with United for example, you may end up having a Mayflower truck, driver and crew handle your move.

For most customers, it isn’t a big deal.

But if you’ve had a negative experience with Mayflower in the past, it could be.

Right to haul…

If you book an interstate move with a national van line agent, they generally have the option of hauling your shipment.

Some large agents haul much of what they book.

It’s a big selling point because limiting customer’s exposure to other agencies’ drivers and move coordinators generally makes for a more seamless experience.

When screening movers, ask if this is something they can do.

Do your Homework…

In some instances opting to work with a van line is a wise choice, but all agents aren’t created equally.

In addition to vetting the van line, look into the background of the particular agent you’re considering booking with.

Good options include the websites of the American Moving & Storage Association (AMSA) and your local Better Business Bureau, and as always, recommendations from friends, family members, and coworkers.

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