What do you do about mail when you're off cruising for months at a time . . . or full-time? Here's our plan.

What Do You Do About Mail?

If you’re planning to cruise more than a month or so at a time — say winters or full-time — a big question is how to handle mail.

Our strategy has several parts:

  • Go Paperless. Everywhere that offers a paperless option, sign up for it. Banks, stock brokerages, clubs, utilities, insurance. While this requires that you periodically have an internet connection, that’s usually easier to arrange than a mail delivery.
  • Electronic Payments. We put all our routine bills on automatic billing, most to our checking account. A few companies only offer automatically charging our credit card, so we do that where we have to. We also have our credit card linked to our checking account and once a month it gets paid off in full, automatically. We just have to make sure there’s enough money in the checking account to cover it!
  • Online Banking. Really strong online banking and investment services is critical. Being able to deposit checks with a smart phone app simplifies things. Several years ago, we switched from a local bank that had poor online banking tools to Capital One, which is fantastic (their 360 account is designed to be online-only). While it costs more, we use a full-service brokerage for our IRA/investment accounts — on several occasions when we’ve been cruising outside the US the ability to contact a real, live person who knows us (rather than calling a “customer service” line) has helped immensely.
  • Electronic Subscriptions. Both Dave and I prefer reading hard copies of magazines and newspapers, but we’ve switched to electronic versions in the interest of getting them promptly. If you want your home town newspaper, you can often get an online subscription or an app — sometimes for free and sometimes with a fee (we’ve always found the fee to be considerably less than the paper version). A side benefit is saving trees and not generating trash!
  • Encourage Email. We encourage friends and family to send us email or call for all the usual card-sending occasions such as birthdays, holidays and the like. Snail mail usually reaches us after the occasion!
  • Packages. When we order anything, we give the shipping address of where we are. We impress upon family and friends to ask us for a current address before sending us anything.

Okay, so all that has greatly decreased the mail we receive, but we still do get some. There are three basic ways to get it:

  • Friend or Family. You can have your mail forwarded to (or held and picked up by) a friend or family member who sorts out the junk and periodically sends a package of the good stuff to wherever you are. How well this works depends on how conscientious they are . . . and if you’re outside your  home country, the job gets much harder as they have to navigate the world of international shipments. For the seven months that we cruised last winter, this is how we handled our mail: it was held at the post office and a friend picked it up and periodically forwarded it. If you are going to be cruising full time, you can file a “permanent” change of address to send all your mail to them or you can get a PO box and forward your mail there to keep it separate.
  • Forward to a Marina. If you are basing yourself out of one marina, you can have your mail forwarded there. Of course, first check with the marina about any restrictions they have! Another option is to get a local PO box.
  • Mail Forwarding Service. Mail forwarding services are companies that are set up to deal with the needs of cruisers, full-time RVers, people working overseas, traveling performers and the like. You get a “street address” from them and file a change of address from your old address. They hold your mail and send it when requested or on a set schedule if you’re in one place for a while. Most offer to pitch the obvious junk mail, some will scan mail (envelopes or contents) or watch for a particular piece (generally at an additonal cost). Good companies are familiar with helping you establish residency in a state, registering vehicles, getting a driver’s license, and the like, as well as sending packages by the most cost effective method. They know how to send international shipments and deal with customs.

We’ve opted to go with a mail forwarding service — St. Brendan’s Isle (we also used a mail forwarding service 2002 to 2009 when we previously cruised full time). With them (as with most), they charge a monthly fee plus the cost of shipments and any special services. You deposit money on account with them via credit card and then whenever it gets low, they add more via the credit card.

While this costs more than having a friend or family member handle our mail, we prefer it for the long term. SBI has been in business over 25 years and has a great reputation. We will be establishing residency in Florida and changing our car registration and driver’s licenses to there — we’re told that they know all the forms and information we’ll need to do this with a “funny” address.

Last night was our last night sleeping in our house (we’re spending a couple nights in a motel before the closing to make it easier to get everything moved out). The night before, we stayed up late talking around the fire pit, remembering the years we’d spent in the house. Our old address sign went on the fire . . . as of Monday, we have a new address!

What do you do about mail when you're off cruising for months at a time . . . or full-time? Here's our plan.

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  • Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious)
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    Very good overview.

    You’ll be very happy with SBI. Great team with a real understanding of the needs of cruisers.

    I agree with Carolyn’s points on financial institutions. Capitol One is a good choice. For those who are eligible US military related firms like NFCU and USAA are used to mobile customers in far flung places and have tremendous infrastructure to support us. Highly recommended.

  • Lupari Sue
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    We have gone Electronic for most things, but everything else we can think of, esp if we want to keep our state reg…boat, etc. We have family member, I bought home state, as home address. When we are somewhere for a while, or know when we are going to be somewhere we get them to send it on.

  • Jan Bogart
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    We live aboard full time in PR, have a post office box, but still keep our Brendans’s Isle account. They are great.

  • Bill Dixon
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    We have used St. Brendan’s Isle for years. They are great.

  • Mike s/v FatDash
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    We have been using St Brendan’s Isle for a couple of years. They helped us change residency to Florida. My research showed that there are only 2 states that you can use a mail forwarding service and renew your drivers license, Florida and N Dakota. All other states require you to have a brick & mortar address. When we got our Florida licenses we stopped in at SBI. Very professional people, I highly recommend.

    Also if you are military, ex-military or are a relative of someone that has USAA then move your banking to them. They are great at their customer service and know how to deal with mobile people. They pay interest on savings and checking and if there is a problem they are very responsive (I had a check go out that shouldn’t and they put a stop payment on it and didn’t charge me). Had a co-worker that worked for them and she was very sad that she had to leave to take care of her family. She still has all her accounts with USAA.

  • Claire Ford
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    I shed a tear for the burning. Good Luck, and wishes for clear skies. We used SBI while cruising in 04-06, and never missed an important document. Great service!!

  • Alexandria Sandra Davis
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    Great informational post.

  • Roberta Nunemaker
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    SBI…they are great!! They will scan your mail when u need more detailed info…. Otherwise they will hold it till u want it mailed. They will also renew your coast guard documentation for a reasonable fee.

  • Jennifer Stix
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    Does anyone happen to know a, mailing service that will handle just 6-8 weeks? SBI won’t, but that’s all we cruise now. Our PO want’s Mail forwarded if it’s more than 2 weeks. We’d only need forwarding once or maybe twice.

    • Gwendolyn Webster
      Posted at 10 June 2016 Reply

      Jennifer: We have been using SBI for 5 years now and sometimes we’re gone for 2 weeks and sometimes a month or two. Call them again! They are happy to work with a small amount of time for travelers.

  • Michael Mangione
    Posted at 13 June 2015 Reply

    We’ve been cruising for over year. We use a PO box for an address and good friend forwards our mail. That said, in so many cases, a PO box is an unacceptable address. Retirement accounts, insurance companies, banking accounts, and many states driver license require that you have a physical address. Strangely, while the PO box in not acceptable, an address for a mailbox at a UPS store is valid.

  • Darley Ware
    Posted at 14 June 2015 Reply

    Another suggestion…

    I have gone paperless, now I have 20 sites to check every month for my statements, a big pain. The solution? A service like FileThis (https://filethis.com). They download your paperless statements for you, and then put them in one location. I have FileThis upload my statements to Evernote, but there are several different options. Whenever I pull out my smartphone, tablet, or laptop, I have access to all my paperless statments from all of my various accounts!

  • ChrisW
    Posted at 14 June 2015 Reply

    One thing about SBI (and other forwarding services). Be careful when telling your corespondents it is a mail forwarding service. We had a few that flat out refused to send our mail there once they heard that. Since it was or Florida residence address for four years, it wasn’t a tiny problem while we were full time cruising (sailing in Florida we don’t use the “L” word.). When we dropped back to seasonal cruising, some correspondents started to become difficult.

  • Marcia Kress
    Posted at 14 June 2015 Reply

    We started using Traveling Mailbox (travelingmailbox.com). They first scan your envelopes, then you can request for them to open & scan the contents, shred, or forward the originals to you. There is an annual fee, and you do pay a nominal fee and postage for forwarded items.

  • Diane Dashevsky
    Posted at 18 June 2015 Reply

    Congrats on the “sign burning”!!! While I know it is bittersweet, you and Dave know in your hearts that it’s right for you and you will be happy on Barefoot Gal…as long as the motor keeps working – LOL!!! If you are anywhere near Marathon this winter, PLEASE give me a call…we’d love to get together again and will drive since we will have the car. I can even drive you to the grocery to reprovision 🙂 BTW…I just purchased a lightly used Wonderbag…do you have a good recipes (slow cooker type)??? Will be trying it soon….need a review??

  • Diane Dashevsky
    Posted at 18 June 2015 Reply

    PS – You will be VERY happy with SBI…voice of experience 🙂

  • Marie Raney
    Posted at 09 July 2015 Reply

    We always assumed we’d use SBI when we left for good, but now that spring ’16 is approaching I’m thinking of using Traveller’s Mailbox https://travelingmailbox.com/ . It allows us to keep our PNW address – in fact there are 12 addresses you can choose from in 10 states. I don’t want my residence in Florida where they rejected Obamacare and insurance may be $$. Plus this way I can continue to vote in WA, etc.

    Also I’ve found out that the “patriot act” is what forces banks to ask for a physical address, but as Charles Schwab folks told me, they don’t have to get one, they just have to ask. You can still get a bank account if you don’t have a physical address. I just filled out a different form.

  • Andy
    Posted at 10 June 2016 Reply

    As full-time cruisers we use Dockside Solutions (http://www.dockside-solutions.com/) and couldn’t be happier. They have clients cruising all over the world, and Angie and her crew are very helpful and responsive.

  • Lavinia Maggs
    Posted at 10 June 2016 Reply

    Congratulations! Good-bye to the old and in wit a new adventure!

  • Cptn. of S/V Nomad
    Posted at 10 June 2016 Reply

    Been living aboard for 6 years. Only mail I get is from Medical, Insurance, Boat registration, or other government sources. Most go to a family member, they forward it to me where ever I happen to be.

  • Tommy
    Posted at 14 April 2017 Reply

    We have been using Traveling Mailbox now for 2 years and its been a really good and consistent service for us. The prices are very affordable and I get all of my mail scanned in online. I actually decided to keep it after we were done cruising. I definitely recommend them to anyone.

  • Linda Stelmaszyk
    Posted at 30 September 2017 Reply

    I have a mail slot that dumps mail inside. BIG sign saying NO JUNK MAIL.

    But, very cool, You can get email every day from USPS with scanned pictures of what will be delivered that day. Just sign up online.
    If it looks important, I have my neighbor open and send me a picture. With everything either autopay or paperless, amounts to maybe 3 pieces of mail per month. Not too much to ask of a friend and FREE!

    Of course this is in exchange for the occasional invite to some exotic island!
    Linda aboard SV ALORA

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