Guest = Lizann Lightfoot, the “Seasoned Spouse,” PCSgrades Content Editor, military spouse and mom of 5, who recently completed her 5th PCS move, which was their 3rd time moving themselves in a DitY or PPM move.

DoD Updates: TRANSCOM will start doing random COVID testing out of Seattle or Baltimore with rapid results.

How many PCS moves have you done, and how did this one differ?

We had the military move us to and from Spain. Our other 3 moves were domestic, and we moved ourselves each time. Previously we moved within California from Camp Pendleton to San Diego. And in 2008 we moved from Quantico to North Carolina. So this one was the longest, going across several states from California to Mississippi.

Why did you decide to do a PPM or DitY move before, and what is your method?

We haven’t started out as being a huge fan of DitY moves, in fact we felt pushed into it the past several times, just because of the timing. We had just done a DitY move to San Diego two years ago very quickly, and said “we’ll never do that again!” Ha, instead, this year my husband got promoted, so the orders were a little unexpected and out of his regular PCS cycle. He got orders during COVID, and as the numbers increased and things were delayed and we started to see all the confusion in the moving industry, we realized we needed to move at a very specific date, and using military movers would not necessarily guarantee the dates we needed. So things fell into place for us to move ourselves. Money was also an incentive, since the reimbursement rates increased this year from 95% to 100%, so the extra funds helped convince us that it would be worth our while.

As for our moving method, we have previously rented a UHaul, loaded it ourselves, and then driven to the next duty station. Since this move was longer and it would take 4-5 days to drive, we didn’t want to do that with a rented moving truck. We discovered the company UPack would deliver a trailer to our house, give us 2 days to load it, and then pick it up and drive it across the country for us. And when we compared their rates to renting a moving truck and driving it ourselves, it wasn’t that much more, so it was definitely worth it for us to drive together with the kids and let another company drive our trailer for us this time.

What was the biggest issue with packing and loading? Do you have any tips?

One thing we did differently this time that worked well was actually buying boxes from UHaul or Amazon so they were all consistent sizes that fit very well together. In the past, we used free boxes from the Commissary, yard sale pages, etc. They were cheaper, but all different sizes which made them harder to pack and stack in the truck. This time, everything was very consistent, so it went smoother when we needed to pack. Plus, buying our own boxes meant that there would be fewer people handling our things and it gave us more control of the process.

How was the road trip, journeying between different states?

It was definitely more challenging. In previous moves, we tried to make it more of a vacation and visit people. This year we definitely went from Point A to Point B without seeing sites or visiting much. We had extra time and researched places to visit, but many of them were closed or had such COVID restrictions that it wasn’t worth it for our large family. So keep that in mind if you are someone who usually likes to see the sites.

Hotels were a little difficult, and our biggest problem traveling during the pandemic was food. A lot of hotel restaurants were closed, or you couldn’t sit down together to eat.  Even fast food places didn’t allow indoor seating, so in some places we were driving through Arizona and New Mexico, where it was literally 100 degrees outside, and when we stopped to let everyone get out of the car and stretch their legs, there was nowhere for them to go. So we would take lunch with us and eat in the car. This meant the kids were mostly stuck in the car all day.

To compensate, we tried to book hotels where the pool was open– look for outdoor pools and call ahead of time. And we would do shorter driving days, only 6 hours per day, so we could get to the hotel mid-afternoon and let the kids burn off energy in the pool.

A lot of hotels aren’t serving breakfast, so they are providing grab and go breakfast bags, which can definitely vary depending on the brand of hotel and where you choose to stay.

Once you arrived, talk to us about the unpacking scenario and tips for that stage.

We like to know what furniture we are bringing and where it will go in the house ahead of time. We even asked the housing office to provide a floor plan for us with measurements so we knew what to bring. We were ordering furniture for this house, so we ordered it a month ahead of time and packed it onto the trailer in its original packing material. (That way you benefit from the extra weight in the moving truck). When we arrived, we spent a few days in the empty house, so we walked around with a tape measurer and discussed where all the furniture would go, so we knew exactly where to position things.

The best piece of gear we used was the Shoulder Dolly, which is a strap system designed for 2 people to help them lift heavy appliances or furniture going up the stairs. We also bought our own dolly as well, so most items I was pushing and pulling instead of lifting, which was very helpful. You can also use furniture sliders on the floor.

We live on base, and we didn’t have any issues doing the unloading. At our new base, we are in a gated community on base. We had to drive to the gate and escort the driver onto base, so it’s important to check cell phone numbers ahead of time. And communicate with your neighbors ahead of time to let them know you may be blocking their driveways for a day or so. Give them a chance to move their cars before your trailer arrives. Remember your ramp will be several feet long, so include that in your measurements!

PCSing is difficult for kids, especially during this crazy year. How are your kids adjusting?

I have 5 kids. The oldest is 12 and the youngest is a baby, just 1 year old. The older ones did very well with this move, compared to our others. We had more lead time and more chances to discuss things as a family. We talked about the positive side of making new friends and how they could continue activities at the new state. COVID helped this situation because in California they had been on lockdown since March, so they were doing virtual schooling and all their activities had been cancelled. Coming to Mississippi, everything was more open and active. The MS schools opened in August, before we arrived, with a staggered start. By the time we arrived, the schools were back to a full schedule with kids going every day, wearing masks. I had done a pre-enrollment form online, so the day after our moving trailer arrived, I was able to go to their schools with the proof of address and all the documents in a PCS binder, so they were able to jump back in and get enrolled quickly. And they were so excited to make new friends and be there in person! We discussed things more this move, and now that they are more mature we could have better conversations.

I forgot to prepare for the amount of stress that all the doctor visits would cause. Everything had been closed until August, and we were moving at the end of September, so I had to squeeze all the doctor visits, dentist check-ups, orthodontist, checking out of schools, etc into a busy month. Packing the boxes wasn’t so hard, but running around getting caught up on all the other paperwork was exhausting.

It’s so important to have conversations with the kids. A lot of movers are happy to let kids help pack, and you can mark it with a special colored tape for them. It’s important to discuss things with them ahead of time so they can process. My oldest is 12 and she was able to pack her own room boxes, know where her things were in the truck, and when we arrived she was so excited to set up her own room. She was so proud to have her own space!

Let’s talk about PCS entitlements. Dislocation Allowance (DLA), Temporary Lodging Allowance (TLA), etc. Did you have any issues with those before, during, or after your move?

Money is one of the reasons we go to the effort of doing a PPM. Every family is going to get a different amount, so do your research and know what your family is eligible for. We knew that we were entitled to up to 14,000 pounds, and we knew what weight we had from our previous moves, so we estimated we would have around 12,000 pounds to move, and from there we could calculate what we could earn. But then we had to subtract the moving truck (for us around $5,000 based on the footage on the trailer) and $1,500 to ship his vehicle. Then we spent hundreds on moving supplies like boxes and bubble wrap. My husband asked “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” to help us decide whether the amount we would make would be worth it. We are typically able to make several thousand dollars from a PPM, and we reinvest that into furniture, our house, or our savings.

Everyone qualifies for a travel allowance, which is a set per diem amount based on the service member and the number of dependents. This time we needed 2 standard hotel rooms, and we had plenty of allowance to cover that because it is the cheapest, most basic room layout. In the past, with 3 kids, we tried to reserve suites and bunk bed rooms which were sometimes more expensive. For a week of travel, with a family of seven, we qualified for almost $1,000 per day, which was enough to cover hotels, food, gas, tolls, and other travel fees.

The biggest issue we ran into was that all the moving funds need to be paid up front. You have to make those payments before you get any reimbursements from the government. We requested an Advance Payment but never received it, so when you do a PPM you have to be prepared to pay for moving costs out of pocket and wait several months for any money from the government. We had to pay the bills for the moving truck and all the other fees before the move and before we requested any reimbursement. Be prepared to have enough in savings to cover those expenses.

Megan: The government wants reimbursements to be processed within 30 days, so if you haven’t received funds after 30 days, reach back out to your transportation office and see why there has been a delay.

For us, the travel allowance was adequate. The numbers that you work with are the weight allotments. Remember that when you do a PPM, you are approved to go UP TO a certain weight limit. But your actual funds that are reimbursed are based on your ACTUAL MOVING WEIGHT. So even when you are approved for a certain amount, you may not make all that money when you move. Don’t base your calculations on your neighbor’s profits! That’s why it’s important to use weight estimator tools such as on Move.mil or your moving truck website, so you can calculate your weight for your furniture and also the square footage that your things will occupy on the truck. The more you research and the more questions you ask, the better prepared you will be.

Remember there are multiple ways to do a PPM: we did most of the work ourselves, but paid a company to ship and deliver the trailer for us. Other people hate packing but don’t mind driving, so they rent a truck and hire out part of it to professional movers. Of course, the more you hire out, the more it will eat into your profits. If you aren’t comfortable driving the moving truck yourselves, use a company like UPack, PODS, or ABF where they will handle the driving and shipping for you. Don’t be afraid to ask those questions in the PCSgrades groups!

When you’re doing a PPM and packing yourself, make sure you do the stuff you care about first: the breakable things that you need to pack in bubble wrap. If you do that first when you are fresh, you’ll take the time and do it right. That’s why I did the china cabinet first, a few months before our move, because by the end we ran out of steam and didn’t wrap everything carefully. We did end up denting a piece of furniture because we just threw the moving blanket over it and didn’t use the mover’s wrap at the very end.