Moving to the UK (Pt 3): Moving and Traveling

For a month, I tracked the open seas to make sure the large container ship called the Hoechst Express had not sunk somewhere in the Atlantic. Mind you, the ship is 300m long. But at the peak of our moving stress, I was not always rational.

Even in an age where one rarely is surprised by what can be found on the internet, I was pretty impressed by the tracking available for commercial ships, available at They know where every commercial vessel is at any given point of time anywhere in the world. Stunning, really.

Somewhere on one of these dots is all of our possessions.
Somewhere on one of these dots is all of our possessions.

So I knew, fortunately, when my friend the Hoechst Express arrived in Canada, then the Netherlands, then London, and finally the port where our piddly little wooden crate of stuff would be unloaded and, by the seemingly miraculous intervention of God, make it to our doorstep the day we moved in. Which brings me, of course, to the third part in the series on moving to the UK.

To recap, I am attempting to document substantially all of what we learned in moving our family to Cambridge, with the hope that it might one day benefit someone who does the same thing. Given our situation, the particular focus is moving as a student with a family, but a lot of these issues are fairly universal. In this post I will tackle moving and travel.

  1. Visas and Immigration
  2. Academic Planning
  3. Healthcare
  4. Financials
  5. Moving (this post)
  6. Travel (this post)
  7. Finding a place to live
  8. Setting up your new life

(5) Moving: Minimizing the Terror

I will take on the issue of finding a place to live in the next post, so this section will cover three other area: (a) what to take and what to leave behind, (b) how to get it there, and (c) unplugging your old life.

Moving is stretching for everyone, but hopefully some of these pointers will make it a bit less stressful.

(a) The burning question: what to take and what to leave behind?

This was one of the hardest questions for us. We were putting 90%+ of our belongings in storage, and we were also living temporarily with family for 3 weeks before our departure. Hence, amid the process of selling our house, we had to categorize our belongings into 4 groups: storage unit, crate to ship to UK, needed for temporary housing (but leave behind), and take with us on the plane. It was uniquely stressful. Here are a few things we learned.

The biggest question to answer is a philosophical one. Which category do you want to fit into: (i) take basically everything with you, (ii) take basically nothing with you, and (iii) somewhere in between. For many folks moving for a lengthy period of time and / or who have significant financial resources (or a company who is paying for it), it is possible to move basically everything you own, even vehicles in some cases. It saves a ton of money on re-buying things in the UK, but obviously it costs two arms and a leg to do it. For most students, this won’t be a possibility.

You see that? Long-sleeves at the beach. Yep.
You see that? Long-sleeves at the beach. Yep.

The other extreme is to take basically nothing with you but clothes, a few books, and your laptop. You put what you can in your suitcase, sell or store everything else, and buy everything you need to live when you arrive. This strategy can work if you find yourself in fully furnished rental accommodations.

The middle ground is to take a good amount of stuff, but limit it mainly to things like clothing, special toys for your children, cookware (if you like what you have), decorations (they matter more than you realize), really important books you want to have with you, and electronics.

None of these three options is “wrong” or “right,” per se, as it depends on your situation. But here are a few pointers that are somewhat universal (in no particular order).

  • What to leave behind
    • Your summer clothes wardrobe. We did not believe people when they told us this, but it is really true: England just does not get warm enough to justify bringing 17 pairs of shorts/capris, 23 tank tops/camisoles, 27 t-shirts, 14 polo shirts, all your sandals, 7 swimsuits, 14 sun dresses, anything seersucker, and so on. Even last year, when the temperature was the highest on record, it was still high 80s / low 90s (and not humid), so a very small number of these items will suffice. If all else fails, buy it here. Bring more wet gear and cold weather clothes, and bring a select number of warm weather items.
    • Appliances. This may be obvious, but the voltage is completely different in the UK, and your standard adapters will only work for low voltage electronics (and even then you need to be careful). Anything requiring higher voltage—hair dryers, curling irons, your favorite George Foreman grill or crock pot, fans, DVD players, etc.—will fry within 3 seconds unless you buy one of the heavy duty voltage converters. Those work, by the way, but they get very hot and typically aren’t really designed to be used 100% of the time. You will need to buy all this stuff in the UK, unfortunately.
    • Your library. Or at least most of it. There are different opinions on this, of course. But if you are a student working in a good library, you will have access to nearly everything you need. It is expensive to ship them all, and you’re better off spending the money elsewhere. I’ll address what books to bring below.
    • Toys: Most of your big ones, at least. See below.
  • What to bring
    • Cold weather clothes. More than you think. Outside London, the British culture is pretty low-key on fashion (pretty much anything goes, which is a welcome relief). However, with the dampness and ever-changing weather conditions, having flexibility on layers is helpful. Plus, we get the sense that our clothes are wearing out faster here, for whatever reason, so you’ll need more than two pairs of trousers!
    • Wet gear. However, you’ll invariably find that you’ll need to buy a lot of this here, such as Wellington boots, cycling gear, etc.
    • Decorations. It may seem silly, but bringing along a good (but not overboard) selection of your favorite picture frames, seasonal decorations, Christmas stockings, placemats, and so forth can really make a difference in your psyche and homesickness level. You will unlikely be able to bring enough to fill up an entire house (unless it’s a 1-bedroom), because most rentals are completely unfurnished, but it’s nice to have some touches from home, to which you can add stuff from Ikea. On that note, yes, there are plentiful Ikeas in the UK.
    • Books: If you are studying theology, I’d recommend the following (if you have them): Greek/Hebrew Bible, English Bible, lexicons, reference works (grammars, theological dictionaries, etc.), “important” books that you tend to use a lot, and primary sources (LXX, pseudepigrapha, apocrypha, DSS, whatever is relevant for you). Maybe a few devotional-type books that you find helpful. And that’s it. Think 10-20, not 50-100. It sounds crazy, but if you are working on a PhD, you will be using 500-1,000 books, most of which are highly technical (and, thus, very expensive), so you will be using the library profusely anyhow. Thus, as a general principle (theology or otherwise), the books you want to bring with you are the ones you will use a lot and which you don’t want to borrow all the time, since everyone else will be using them, too. A fellow student near my desk made the opposite mistake—he brought a bunch of technical monographs and left behind his reference works, figuring the library would have them—and he’s hated that decision, because he’s finished with the monographs and constantly has to wait his turn for the reference works because they are always checked out.
    • Special food: I’m of the opinion that you have to embrace the food wherever you go rather than continue pining over everything you miss. That said, there is some wisdom in making it easier on yourself and your kids by bringing a few special items that will ease the transition. They will eventually run out, but at least you have a few comforts of home for a while.
    • Toys: There are plentiful toys in the UK, and many cities will have toy exchanges and second-hand shops. You do not need to ship your child’s entire collection of everything (because, let’s face it, they will get bored with them soon anyhow). We tried to focus on high-use toys that the kids use a lot and / or would miss, and we purged the rest. It’s hard, trust me, but your kids will survive. And British toys are pretty cool.
    • Cooking items: All British food-related things are metric. Unless you are strange or unusually enlightened, all your recipes and your comfort zone in the kitchen will not be metric. So bring your measuring cups, measuring spoons, etc. We also have enjoyed having a few of our favorite pots/pans/knives here; we didn’t bring our cutlery because we thought our rental had some, but it did not, so in retrospect we would have brought that too. These items are obviously heavy, so it may not work if you are not shipping a crate. But if you are, I’d recommend it. We had not planned on bringing any of those items, but we had a little extra room in our crate and stuffed them in there, and we were very glad we did.
    • Electronics: This may be obvious, but you’ll want to bring your laptops, phones, cameras, chargers, etc. Most of them will be fine using the standard adapters. Electronics are very expensive here. I’ll discuss phones in the next post, but if you have an unlocked SIM phone already, you’ll be in good shape here.
    • Hand tools: It’s been very nice having some of my familiar tools to use around the house.

Obviously I am leaving out a lot of things on both lists, but hopefully this gives a little bit of a head start to the packing process.

(b) How to get it there

For the two extremes above (take everything vs. take nothing), I cannot offer much insight. For the first extreme, there are companies that will turnkey the entire operation, including packing your stuff. For the second extreme, basically you need a suitcase.

The middle ground, which is what we opted to do, requires a bit more planning.

The first step is to have a general game plan for what you will take with you when you fly. The basic idea is to have what you’d need to live for a few weeks if your crate is lost at sea (unlikely) or severely delayed (likely). You will obviously be hemorrhaging cash to buy stuff as soon as you set foot in the UK, but you at least want to have the basics with you in your luggage. And by basics, I am mainly talking about the essentials for your kids to sleep and function, plus a few things for the adults! Lovies, noisemakers, special pillows, special toys, etc.: do not let those out of your sight.

The second step is to ship a crate with everything else. By “crate” I do not mean the small milk-carton crate of the good old days, but a plywood crate of various sizes that can be shipped on a pallet, moved with a forklift, etc. The basic process is as follows:

Destination: England
Destination: England
  1. Determine what you want to ship and get a ballpark feel for how big you need your crate to be. They can be as small as 2’x2′ and range to much larger. We used a 4’x4’x3′ crate, which seems small. However, we were able to get TON in that crate—it weighed in at 700lbs! The great thing about shipping over the sea is that they charge you based on volume, not based on weight. So load that bad boy up.
  2. Select a shipping agent in the U.S. You’ll need to find a “less than container-load” shipper who can handle a small crate and use it to fill excess capacity. We used RSS LLC, which worked great. These kinds of shippers can be tough to find on the internet, since most of them only work with commercial entities and not families. 
  3. Purchase a shipping crate. You can build one yourself, but the specifications from the shippers are quite stringent, and we found that the headache of trying to build something (while we were moving, packing, etc.) just to save a few dollars was not worth it. We bought a ready-made crate from Quick-Crates and drove to their warehouse to pick it up, which save nearly $150 in shipping (since it’s so heavy). There are a lot of these guys around, so hopefully you can find one local to you. Or you can purchase a used crate in the aftermarket by googling around.
  4. Purchase shipping boxes. Technically British customs has the right to examine every single item you put in your crate. They do not have the obligation to reload your crate. Hence, it’s imperative to have a good organization system and use smaller boxes to store everything in before you load them in the crate. You don’t want to just dump everything loosely in your crate!
  5. Inventory each box as you pack it. This is a crucial step. For your customs forms (that your shipping agent will give you to fill out), you will be required to list the number of each box (which you have to affix to the outside of the box) and list in broad terms what the contents are (“men’s trousers and shirts,” “children’s clothing,” “kitchen items and decorations”). You don’t have to provide full line-item detail, but it has to be thorough enough to meet their requirements.
  6. Waterproof your boxes. Shipping containers are theoretically watertight, but water damage happens. We stored each of our cardboard boxes in a heavy duty garbage bag and used duct tape to seal it. Inside the crate we also put a few desiccant bags (purchased at a sporting goods store; the ones used for gun safes are perfect).
  7. Work with your shipping agent on all the paperwork, of which there will be a fair amount, especially for the customs documentation.
  8. Transport your crate to the shipping depot they specify, where it will be offloaded and taken to a port. At that point, it is out of your hands.
  9. Depending on your shipper, you will either (a) have to pick up your crate yourself when it arrives in the UK, or (b) have them deliver it to your house. We thought we were going to do (a). Then we got a surprise bill for several hundred dollars when we landed. We kept calling to sort out what they were charging us for … and then the crate showed up in perfect condition at our doorstep the day we moved in. So it worked out.

A few important pointers:

  • Shipping a crate was a very good experience, and we are glad we did it.
  • However, it was more expensive than we expected. The crate is not cheap, and the Stateside fees are high. But the real kicker was paying for the people in the UK to “get the crate through customs on your behalf.” Perhaps our shipper was not clear on this, but we got a huge bill at the end from whomever this customs expediter was.
  • That said, we heard from others who did not have an expediter that their crate got stuck in customs for 3 weeks. So you get what you pay for. Either way, at that point we couldn’t do anything about it anyhow. Get used to it!
  • Work with your shipping agent to determine the right schedule for when you want to drop it off and when you hope it will arrive. They cannot predict the arrival at port precisely given the vicissitudes of sea travel. However, they can work with you on a range.
  • Finally, this is really important but sounds silly: DO NOT label any of your boxes, or list anything on your inventory, as a “stuffed animal.” I am not kidding. To a British customs agent, a “stuffed animal” is what a taxidermist does, and you cannot easily import them. So stick with “children’s toys” and avoid any issues.

(3) Unplugging your old life

With the sheer magnitude of your move, it can be easy to forget the laundry list of things you’ll need to do to close down shop in your old life in the States. Some changes you’ll need to make are of the more permanent sort (until you return, that is), and others are temporary changes that will persist while you’re overseas. Here is a list of items that may be applicable, in no particular order.

  • Mail forwarding (to your parents or whomever)
  • Change of address on your credit cards and bank accounts. You’ll need to pick a correspondence address in the U.S. I’d recommend making no changes until you have arrived in the UK, however. Since you’ll be moving around a lot of money, setting up new accounts, sending wire transfers, etc., the last thing you want to do is blow up something in your existing banking setup by changing the address. Those changes often require several days to take effect and may even involve a verification step, so unless you can make that change several weeks before your move, I think it’s wise to wait.
  • Contact any employers you’ve had in the calendar year and notify them of your new address, for you’ll need the W2 or 1099 from them at tax time. Same holds true for any other entities (mortgage, charities, investments, etc.) from whom you’ll need tax documentation.
  • Contact your car and health insurance providers to discuss the change and determine when to cease coverage.
  • If you are selling vehicles, contact the state or local administrator in charge of license plates, registration, and property taxes. You may still owe for the year, or you may get a credit. Either way, you will need to inform them of the sale (the bill of sale is not enough) or they will keep billing you.
  • For some cell phone providers, it is possible to put a 9-12 month hold on your plan (that is, if you are not pay-as-you-go). That keeps your account and number under your name, but you do not have to pay. If you take a trip back to the US, you can reactivate it and then put it back on hold. It’s a nice feature that, if you do it right, will allow you to keep your plan while you’re overseas but not pay for it until you are using it again.
  • Contact your life insurance provider if you have one and work out how you will be billed while you’re overseas; it is easy to forget that annual payment, and it’s a bad thing if you miss.

(6) Traveling: Minimizing the Damage

Ready to go!

The most exciting part of the transition is getting on the plane: months of effort is finally paying off. It is also terrifying! Plenty of other web resources can help with the whole issue of “traveling trans-Atlantic with kids” for newbies, so I will not have too much to say there. However, I will share a few things we learned with respect to the process before and after the flight.


Much attention is given to the flight booking process, and rightly so. But folks often underestimate the need to do a good job planning the other things related to travel. Here are a few important questions to ask:

  1. What is our day-of-travel plan? Nearly all US-UK flights are red-eyes now, so you will most likely be flying in the evening. That leaves an entire day to not panic. You’ll want to think through last-minute good-byes, nap logistics if your kids still nap, what to eat, how to get that all-important last shower before your get on the plane, etc.
  2. How will we get to the airport? Or, more specifically, how will we get our umpteen suitcases—and our bodies—to the airport?
  3. What are the flight regulations for small kids? For instance, if you have a <2 year old, you can fly on most airlines with him/her on your lap and avoid paying for a ticket for them. But do you really want to? How will they handle that situation? If you choose to purchase a seat, you will need to bring an air-travel approved carseat onboard. Not all seats are approved for air travel, so you will need to figure out whether your brand is, and if so, where to find it on the seat. The gate agent may ask, and you have to be able to show it to them.
  4. What is our gameplan for the airport? Will you take a stroller? How will you transport your car seat in the airport? What is your checked bags vs. carry-on strategy? What food do we need to keep the kids rolling? How will we keep them entertained? What is our flight delay strategy? You don’t want to drive yourself crazy, but it’s responsible to think through these things.


Other questions to ask include the following:

  1. What are we doing immediately after landing? Will we stay at a hotel near the airport to recuperate? Will we immediately go to our new home? Will we go to an intermediate place to live or a friend’s house in the UK?
  2. How will we travel from the airport to our initial destination? Will we take the bus ( Will we take the train ( Will we rent a car (Heathrow)? Will someone pick us up? With respect to driving yourself from the airport, unless you have driven in the UK before and/or sleep well on the plane, you may want to avoid this option. The route out of Heathrow is one of the worst stretches of traffic in the nation.
  3. What are reasonable goals for the first few days? We all have ambitious goals for what we want to do to get set up and settled in when we arrive—and indeed there is a lot to do—but it is wise to be realistic. It takes at least a day to recuperate for every hour of time-zone change, perhaps even more for children. You’ll be out of your comfort zone, overwhelmed, and tired. Your new life will not be built over-night.

Next up: finding a house, settling in, and getting up to speed in your new life situation.

8 thoughts on “Moving to the UK (Pt 3): Moving and Traveling”

  1. Another great post. You may want to add how long it took our crate to get from NC to our door in Cambridge. I would also add that we did ship a lot of children toys and books. Those items in addition to our clothes were things that were important when we first moved in and that we did not have to rush to the store to purchase. There was so much to buy for the house itself the first few weeks. Also my post ‘Ready, Set, Go’ has our pre-traveling notes.

    1. Thanks! I wanted to avoid making a statement about how long it took our crate, since I think it will vary for each individual case (e.g., based on who the shipper is, size of crate, where you are in the U.S., time of year, etc.). Though it took about 3 weeks for us, that may not be accurate for everyone.

      Here’s the link to your “Ready, Set, Go” post:

      Or should we say, “Ready, Steady, Go”?

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