Shipping Your Car Somewhere? Read This First

By: Bridget Clerkin September 11, 2018
From choosing a carrier type to your final inspection before handing over the keys, there is a lot to consider before shipping your vehicle.
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Cruising the highway is a great way to move around—and in a place as beautiful as the United States, there are plenty of highways worth moving along.

But sometimes, getting behind the wheel yourself for a trip isn’t possible, or even necessary.

Whether you’re changing residences or transferring vehicle ownership to someone who lives far away, having a car shipped offers a safe, reliable, and easy way to get your vehicle from Point A to Point B.

But before you wave goodbye to your trusty ride, make sure you understand the process. Keep reading for a breakdown of the car shipping process plus some insider tips from the pros and the people who have been through it.

Do Your Research

First and foremost, do your homework.

Most people aren’t familiar with the task of shipping a car. With so much to consider, the process can get confusing pretty quickly.

“We really didn’t know anything at first,” said New Jersey resident Rochelle Croce, referring to herself and her husband, Stephen. “We just went online and started looking at websites and started reading reviews. We had nothing else to go by because we didn’t know anybody else who had done this.”

Familiarizing yourself with the process in general—and some companies, in particular—is a great way to start. But there are a few important factors to keep in mind while you browse the web.

Open vs. Closed Transport

One thing that took Croce by surprise was that she had options in how to ship her car.

“They asked whether we wanted open or closed,” she said. “I had to ask them what that meant.”

  • An open transport is by far the most common way to move a vehicle. It involves stacking the ride on a multi-level, cage-like trailer that can often be seen on the highway, and it is almost always the cheaper method. But, as is true with all things, you get what you pay for: open sides mean your vehicle will be vulnerable to road dust, debris, and the wrath of the elements.
  • Closed transport involves a much smaller trailer, with walls and a roof. The structure will ensure a vehicle isn’t exposed to the dangers of the road. However, it also means there’s less room on the truck, and fewer cars shipped at a time equals a more expensive service. Still, for those transporting pricey rides, the extra money spent may be worthwhile.

Carriers vs. Brokers

Perhaps the biggest distinction in the car-moving world—and one many don’t know about—is whether a company is a carrier or a broker.

  • If a business is a carrier, it means they own their own trucks and equipment. The vertical approach means the companies will be able to sell you a move directly.
  • Brokers, as in other industries, are a form of middlemen. The companies do not own their own rigs, but act as the interface between customer and carrier. Shipments are arranged using outside companies—often businesses a broker has dealt with in the past.

Perhaps the biggest distinction in the car-moving world—and one many don’t know about—is whether a company is a carrier or a broker.

Each method has its own benefits: working with carriers is more streamlined and direct, while brokers may have connections across the country that could help with long-distance trips.

Still, whichever way you choose to go, there are a few considerations any company should have.

“A consumer should research the carrier and the broker, if they use one, to ensure they are reputable companies,” said Eily Cummings, a representative from UniGroup, which runs the auto shipping company United Van Lines. “It’s good to know if they have the proper insurance, a fair claims resolution process, and operating authority.”

Specifically, Cummings said to look out for:

  • Whether a provider is registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the government regulation agency on big-rigs, to ensure safe and legal transport.
  • Proof of insurance. Ask to see it in writing. And if you’re using a broker, ask to see insurance credentials from the carrier they hire as well.

Comparison Shop

Once you know exactly what you want—and how you want to do it—it’s easier to start shopping for it.

But be warned: the cost of shipping a car varies widely and depends on any number of factors, including whether you want an open or closed transport and whether or not the vehicle itself can run.

Distance is, of course, another consideration and may have a huge bearing on the price.

Hauling a new Honda Civic from New York City to Los Angeles, for example, clocks in at around $1,420, according to one shipping company’s calculator. (Closed transportation estimate: $2,170.)

"Sometimes it depends on the schedule . . . They're not going to go cross-country for just one car."

Halving that journey also nearly halves the price. The same car, in an open transport from New York City to Topeka, Kansas, produces an estimate of $960, or $1,395 for an enclosed ride.

But, just as the age-old rule of business suggests, time is also money.

“Sometimes it depends on the schedule,” said Croce, who’s shipped several cars from her New Jersey home to California. “If you have a timeline, it costs more. They’re not going to go cross-country for just one car. It’s also a reason why it may take longer for them to pick up the car—they have to wait until they have enough in line to make the trip profitable. Otherwise, the companies tend to wait until they have a full truck, especially for a long trip.”

Indeed, the same auto shipment calculator notes that an open transport trip from NYC to L.A. can be as low as $1,345—if you’re willing to “compete for truck space” with everyone else. An expedited order, which makes your order “hyper competitive” among those bidding for a ride, can run as much as $1,520.

The key is to find a few companies you like, then comparison shop their prices. Still, Cummings warns that even a good price may come with hidden costs.

“Be wary of low estimates, especially from brokers,” she said. “If there is not enough money advertised to carriers to sell the move of your vehicle, it’ll be a long wait.”

Coordinate

KeyHandover
Having good communication is key—with both your shipping company, and the person who's receiving the vehicle at its destination.
You’re not likely shipping your car to yourself, so there’s going to be some communication needed from the receiving end.

Most importantly, you should establish a pick-up date with whomever the car is being delivered to—and, of course, the shipping company. Determining whether a business provides a required delivery date is the first step.

If flexibility is not an option, you should exercise some further precaution, Cummings said.

“You should ask what the delay claim compensation looks like if the carrier is late in making a required delivery date. The carrier should be able to point to something in writing.”

While it seems obvious to make plans with whomever will be picking up the vehicle, you’ll also need to do some coordination with the company doing the collecting.

They may send a representative to come inspect the vehicle ahead of the shipping date, as they did with Croce’s first experience shipping a car cross-country, or they may do the inspection and pick-up all at once, as they did on her second go-round.

Your living arrangements may also play a role.

“They ask you ahead of time, ‘Are you in an apartment complex? A house? A big city?’” Croce said. “It makes a difference in whether they can come get the car from you or if you have to make arrangements for them to pick it up somewhere else.”

Again, Croce had two different experiences with two different shipments (made with two different companies).

While the second shipment involved a much smaller truck capable of driving down her suburban street, the first involved a much larger big-rig, which Croce and her husband had to meet at a nearby shopping center to allow enough clearance for the large vehicle.

And if you’re moving or sending the car to someone you know, it may be possible to get more bang for your buck by storing other items in the vehicle. Some companies allow customers to include up to a certain amount of weight of extra items inside their auto.

But regardless of how your move is arranged, one piece of timing will always be fixed: paying for the trip will happen at the end of the journey.

Cummings and Croce both warn against making deposits on a shipment, and you should never pay a company up front.

Of course, making sure whomever the car is delivered to knows about—and will be able to handle—the cost is one more thing to coordinate.

Prepare for Departure

Once the pick-up date has arrived, you should be ready before the carrier gets there.

“When they come to pick up the car, they’re going to inspect it for any scratches or dings. They have a form with a picture of a car, and they mark it all down so you can tell later if something was already there,” Croce said. “Before they came, we checked the car ourselves first, to make sure our assessment of the condition would match the company’s. We also took pictures, on all the different sides, front and back, and the interior, so we could prove, ‘This is the car we sent.’”

Cummings agreed that from the company’s end, careful inspections at both loading and delivery are “crucial.”

Along with thorough documentation of any pre-existing conditions of the car, she recommends reading up on the checklist provided by United Van Lines and ensuring that:

  • The odometer reading is recorded at both pick-up and delivery.
  • All personal belongings are removed from the vehicle.
  • The car is clean.
  • The vehicle has no more than half a tank of gas, but no less than a quarter.
  • The car alarm system is disabled.
  • The vehicle battery is secured with a mounting bracket.
  • Spare tires and car covers are placed in the trunk.
  • Accessories such as bike or surfing racks, as well as oversized antennae, are removed.
  • Any auto-pay devices, such as E-Z Pass, are removed from the car.

Cummings shared that this last point has recently thrown some customers for a spin.

“Many customers have received surprise bills from toll authorities when they leave their transponder in the vehicle and it’s carried interstate,” Cummings said.

Once you’re done thoroughly preparing the car for its departure, it’s time for the last—and most important—step: saying goodbye.

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