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Getting Mail While Traveling: How and why

It’s inevitable you’ll get important mail while on the road, but what’s the truth about getting mail while traveling? Here’s how we get mail as well as more information about why you need a permanent address while traveling.

If you’re like me, the only time you send snail mail is when you’re thinking of a friend in another state and you want the charm of a real letter vs. e-mail. Past that, almost everything is virtual nowadays making getting mail on the road seem a bit unnecessary but it’s actually completely necessary. Today we’re talking about the how and why of getting mail while traveling.

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“Do I need a permanent address?”

Yes! While it’s not an ideal situation for van lifers, you need a permanent address for a few different reasons:

  1. Car registration
  2. Taxing purposes
  3. Voting

I’m sure there are other reasons why you need a permanent address, but each of those three reasons alone is enough of a reason to have a permanent homebase. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy a home though. A permanent address could be an apartment you rent, a family member’s house (but make sure you’re filing your taxes and all appropriately if you end up using someone else’s house), or in some states you can even buy a lot and use the purchased land as a permanent address. 

Our number one piece of advice here is this: keep it legal! It seems like a lot of van lifers try to find loopholes to be as free and cheap as possible, but we don’t recommend or encourage illegal practices. If you’re an American citizen, you have rights and responsibilities as a citizen to pay your taxes and vote. While nobody loves paying taxes, if you’re going to be driving your van down public roads (largely funded by taxes dollars) get a permanent address and do your part as a citizen.

For us (and a lot of van lifers) having a permanent address seems more like a headache than anything. When we set out on the road we weren’t in a position where we could financially afford both a van and an apartment or house. Because of this, we were able to use our parents’ address as our home base. We recognize that not everyone is afforded that option, so get creative and talk with friends and family. You might have someone close who will let you rent out a single bedroom in their home for a much smaller fee than what it would cost to get your own apartment.

“Can a P.O. Box be a permanent address?”

Yes, a P.O. Box can be used as a permanent address except when you are needing to identify yourself to the government. When would you need to identify yourself to the government you might ask? Drivers licenses, car registration, passport applications, and more require a physical, legal address.

Bills and other important files can be mailed to a P.O. Box, but you have to have a residential address for official, legal reasons (as mentioned above). It’s confusing, but yes, you can use a P.O. Box as a permanent address but you’ll still need a residential address.

“How can I get mail on the road?”

Go Digital

While we were digital for most things before we hit the road, ensuring we’d get as little paper mail as possible is essential to keeping your ducks in a row. The last thing you want is to miss an important piece of mail from the DMV or your insurance company. 

Although most mail can be digital these days, you’ll still need to be able to access your mail in some form or another about once a month. For us one of the things that is inevitably paper mail is toll bills. They always slip up on us and every state is different. While every state (at least all the ones we’ve visited so far) allows online payment, it’s super easy to forget when you drove through a toll and what you owe. (Take it from us, tolls get super expensive super fast!) Having the ability to check your mail either virtually or have a trustworthy family member keep an eye on your stack of mail is important so you don’t rack up unnecessary fees. 

Virtual Mailbox

This is something we didn’t even know existed before we started van life! Did you know you can actually pay for a virtual mailbox? You can have your mail sent to a certain address and company will 1) scan a photo of the envelope to choose if you wanted it opened, and then 2) open and scan the contents inside for you to read virtually.

Truthfully, it sort of freaked me out because it doesn’t seem secure, but there are some very reputable companies out there who use these virtual mail services and they have very high reviews. While we can’t vouch for any of these virtual mailbox services personally yet, they look really promising and we’ll likely give them a try pretty soon! 

The company that looks most appealing to us is Virtual Scan Mail who on top of opening mail they also offer other services including mail forwarding, document shredding, mail storage, and more.

Other virtual mailbox service companies include Anytime Mailbox, Virtual Post Mail, and Traveling Mailbox.

Have you tried a virtual mailbox? We’d love to hear your experience of what services and companies you’ve tried. Let us know in the comments below!

USPS General Delivery

Did you know you can send mail directly to a post office? You can, and it’s called general delivery. “General delivery is normally available at only one facility under the administration of a Post Office with Multiple facilities” according to the official USPS site. This service is meant to be a temporary and occasional fix for those who only need mail on the road occasionally. They are very clear that this should not be used as an alternative to a permanent address or a P.O. Box.

What we know about general delivery: while this is an official service, we’ve heard of people losing mail by sending it this way. Because the reviews we’ve read and heard have been mostly negative we haven’t tried general delivery for ourselves. It could be a good option in a pinch when there are no other options for receiving a parcel via USPS. 

How to address a package to mail for general delivery:

John Smith
Seattle, WA 98102

Package Holding (Fedex and UPS)

We use package holding at Fedex and UPS all the time when we’re on the road and it’s always worked like a charm for us! We’ve never lost a package or had anything delayed. Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning on sending packages for holding at one of these stores.

When mailing to a store location, it has to be Fedex to Fedex or UPS to UPS. You can’t send a package coming UPS to a Fedex location, or USPS to UPS. Generally if you’re ordering something online the store will tell you which carrier they use for shipping. If it’s not clearly listed on their site, call and ask a customer service representative if they can tell you which carrier your package will be sent through.

How to address a package for Fedex/UPS:
℅ Fedex/UPS
Fedex/UPS store street
City, State, Zip.

John Smith
℅ Fedex
700 Broad Street E
Seattle, WA 98102

**Packages for Fedex and UPS are addressed the same, just put whichever store name on it that you are shipping to.**

Fedex and UPS are almost identical and we’ve had great experience at both. The only differences are that Fedex will hold Fedex packages for free, but UPS will charge a small fee to hold UPS packages (usually $5-10 USD). UPS also requests that you call and verify that the specific location you are trying to send something to is able to hold a package. This has been a problem for us one time when a specific location we were trying to mail to was actually moving locations soon and was not accepting packages at that time. 

Amazon Lockers

In an ideal world we’d ditch Amazon and shop local all the time. However, life on the road can make finding certain items locally pretty difficult, especially when traveling to more remote areas of the country. Amazon Lockers have been a game changer on the road! If you’re a Prime member you can choose to send packages to any Amazon Locker location around the country for free. 

While Amazon Lockers are definitely more abundant in certain areas of the country, most major and mid size cities have multiple lockers. All Whole Foods locations in the USA have Amazon Lockers (or so we’ve been told, we haven’t seen a Whole Foods without an Amazon Locker), many 711’s and transit stations are just a few other places we’ve had Amazon packages sent to.

In Store Pick-Up

If you’re ordering online from a store that has a brick and mortar store in your area, 9 times out of 10 you can choose to have your package picked up at the store. Pro tip: sometimes this can save you days waiting on the shipment to arrive, too! Businesses like Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and most clothing stores offer in store pick up.

Final Thoughts

Getting mail does take a little extra time to figure out but it’s not impossible! Oftentimes you’ll wait a little longer to receive mail so just keep that in mind. 

Our suggestion is this: go paperless for as much as possible and then figure out a way to get mail at least once a month. Whether that’s using a virtual mailbox service or having a family member at your permanent address send you a box of mail once a month (which is what we do), getting mail isn’t possible. Figure out what works best for your travel style and make sure you t’s are crossed and i’s dotted before you hit the open road.

To save time during your weekly routine on the road, we recommend combining mail day with chore day since it’ll be one more stop to make in town that could easily eat up valuable time that would be better spent adventuring.

Happy travelin’!

We Want to Hear from You!

Do you have comments or suggestions about receiving mail while on the road? Drop your thoughts in the comments below! :)

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