Moving is an inescapable part of military life.

It’s common for military families to move every two to three years on average. If you have PCS orders for a Permanent Change of Station, then there’s a lot you need to know before you begin your move.

As a military spouse, I’ve already moved with my Marine five times, and we’re preparing for our sixth move soon — yes, during the pandemic! Each move has been different:

  • Our first move was without children. Now we have five.
  • We’ve moved overseas and back, driven across the country, and moved within the same state.
  • Sometimes we let the military pack us and other times have packed and moved ourselves. 

One of our biggest moving challenges was the cross-country move, when we drove our minivan with four children across the country in five days. On another move, we were given such short notice that we packed our whole household ourselves in just one week!

Through all these moves, I’ve learned a lot, and sometimes it’s been the hard way. I’m sharing my moving tips to help you be more prepared for your own military PCS move, and hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls I ran into along the way.

What you need to know about PCS moves

First, you need to know that you have a big decision to make about your upcoming PCS move: You can choose to let the military move you, or you can move yourself. Here’s how the two options work: 

Tracking sticker for military PCS moves
If a TSP mover is handling your military move, they will use these tracking stickers on every item. Match them to your official inventory sheet so nothing gets lost.
(Photos at top and above by Lizann Lightfoot)

Option 1: Move with a military-approved moving company (TSP)

If you choose to work with a government-provided moving company or “transportation service provider” (TSP), you make a request via Move.mil, the official military moving portal. A team of professional movers will come to your house and pack everything in one to two days. Then they’ll return and load it all onto a moving truck, which will take it to a warehouse, and then eventually deliver it to your new location. A separate team of PCS movers will unload the truck, assemble your main furniture, and place boxes in the appropriate rooms.

The great thing about letting the military move you is the movers do all the heavy lifting — literally! — and everything is insured, so there’s a claims process to get reimbursed if anything is lost or broken during the move. The downside is that you have to work on their schedule. During the summer peak season you may not get the packing or delivery dates you need, and there’s often a long delay before your belongings are delivered. Since shipments are unloaded from a truck to a warehouse and then re-loaded onto another truck, there’s a higher chance for things to get lost or broken during a military move. These days, during the pandemic, families are also less comfortable having movers come into their home and touch everything, potentially exposing family members to COVID-19. 

PODS container in driveway
Many members of the military have a PODS container delivered to their driveway so they can pack and load gradually.   

Option 2: PPM Move (Personally Procured Move)

If you choose to move yourself, it’s called a PPM (Personally Procured Move). Many families still refer to it as a DITY (Do-it-Yourself) Move. When you opt for a PPM, you’re responsible for the moving process, and the military will reimburse you for the same rate that they would have paid professional movers to handle your household goods. Reimbursement rates are based on the service member’s rank, family size, and the distance of the move. Good news: The reimbursement recently increased from 95% to 100%, giving you more payment for your efforts. A PPM is more work on your end, but if you plan carefully, you can pocket thousands of dollars in return. (For a quick primer on DITY moving and costs, see Self-Moving 101.)

The great thing about a PPM is that it gives you more control and tons of flexibility over the moving process, while allowing you the opportunity to make extra money from your move. You can choose how and when you want to move. You can hire professional assistance for parts of the move or choose to do it all yourself. Here are just a few of the possibilities for a PPM strategy:

  • Rent a moving truck and do all the work yourself. To minimize costs, you can plan to fit all the loading, driving, and unloading in as few days as possible. Or give yourself more breathing room by adding an extra day or two to your rental.
  • Not comfortable driving a huge truck? Get a portable container delivered to your driveway instead. With a company like PODS, which includes a full month rental, you can start packing weeks ahead of time and gradually load your container. When it’s loaded, they pick it up and transport it to your new home — or to a secure storage center for safekeeping until you’re ready to move in.
Save 10% with PODS’ Military Discount: Available to all military active duty, retired, and veterans. Find out more.  
  • If you don’t mind the driving but need help with the lifting, either hire a local crew, or bribe a few friends to help you out on moving day. You can get labor help with loading containers, too, of course.

The military will reimburse most moving expenses, including a moving truck, portable storage containers, packing supplies, gas, and labor. The more you do yourself, the more money you can pocket when you get your lump sum payment in the end — and the fewer people you’ll expose your family to during the pandemic. The major downside of a PPM is that it’s a lot more work if you choose not to hire hourly labor help. Also, depending on your insurance plan, you will have fewer reimbursement options if you drop your TV or don’t pack your china set carefully. On the other hand, the damage claims rate with full-service movers is 10 times the rate with PODS, as you’re less likely to break something when you’re in control of packing your own stuff and not mixing it in with other people’s belongings in a truck or warehouse.

Get free, fast shipping on moving supplies. And don’t forget to turn in all your receipts for reimbursement! 
Dining room with packing boxes for moving
Whether you’re using TSP military movers or doing it yourself, start organizing and packing for your move as early as possible.
(Photo by Lizann Lightfoot)

Prep for your military PCS move like a pro

If you want your move to go smoothly, you need to do your research and prepare ahead of time. Whether you choose to use military moving companies or move yourself, there is still prep work that will help things go right throughout the move. Read these tips from someone who has been through several PCS moves and seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

If you’re using TSP military movers…

Prepare your house for Packing Day. You can begin to prepare for PCS moves weeks in advance. Even though the military moving company will pack everything for you, it’s up to you to get things organized and ready for them. 

  • Downsize what you have to move by decluttering room by room.  
  • Take photos or videos of all your furniture and high-value items, so you can prove that things were in good condition and working properly before the move. 
  • Take a picture of the back of your TV, then disconnect the wires and wrap and label them. 
  • Take down curtains, curtain rods, and picture frames from the walls. 
  • If you have hobby items or books spread throughout the house, gather similar items together in one place so they will all get packed together.

Create “Do Not Pack” spaces. The movers will pack everything, including your cell phone, your charger, the bag of clothes you need for your hotel stay, etc. To prevent having something you need during your move being packed in a warehouse for weeks, clean out one small room or closet. Label it clearly so the movers know to stay out. Keep your moving paperwork here, your travel essentials, and anything precious you will hand-carry in the car during your move. This is also a good place to crate your pets on moving day.

Man and woman packing dishes for moving

If you’re moving yourself…

Research packing tips. There are tons of tips available online to help you pack like a moving pro. 

  • Instead of reusing cardboard boxes, it’s worthwhile to purchase packing supplies from a moving store or online. 
  • Put plastic furniture wrap around wooden furniture to protect the edges from scratching. 
  • Bubble wrap and moving paper can protect individual items in boxes. 
  • Use moving blankets that protect bulky furniture or appliances. Nothing should be exposed, as items will shift during transport.

Save all receipts. The military will only reimburse your moving expenses if you do the correct paperwork. 

  • Set up your move on Move.mil. 
  • Activate and use your Government Travel Charge Card for official purchases.
  • Get a weight ticket when your moving truck or container is empty, then another when it’s full.
  • Save all your moving-related receipts in one binder to make your reimbursement claim easier. 

Get help. Even though you’re moving yourself, you don’t have to do all the work! Invite friends and neighbors to help on moving day, or hire professional movers to help with the packing or loading. Pay a moving container company to drive your things to the new destination. This frees you up for a more relaxing road trip. You can visit family members or turn it into a mini-vacation to make the most of your travel per diem.

A military PCS move is a lot of work, which is the last thing military families need. But if you follow these tips and start preparing early, you can avoid hassles, reduce stress, and set yourself up for a successful military move. 

Lizann Lightfoot is the Content Editor for PCSgrades, a company that helps military families through PCS moves with trusted reviews by and for the military community. She is also the author of the Seasoned Spouse blog, which provides encouraging advice for military families. Her new book, “Open When You Love Someone in the Military,” will be released in 2021.