The best mail services for cruisers

royal mail ship st helena

pinterest mail servicesWhat do you do about mail while cruising? A fixed postal address is kind of handy, even when your lifestyle is footloose. (photo above: one of the few remaining Royal Mail Ships, the St Helena, anchored of Jamestown).  Even though most correspondence is digital, a few necessities make a real address important:

  • Voter registration
  • Bank / credit card accounts (electronic statements, of course, but try opening an account without an address!)
  • Vessel documentation
  • Insurance
  • Taxes and tax forms (can’t fill out a W9 without one…might not get paid without a W9)
  • Publishers/customers who insist on mailing checks
  • Driver’s license
  • International clearance (you almost always need to fill an address in somewhere on the forms. OK, you could make up a Mickey Mouse address, but it’s best to play by the rules when we’re guests in another country)

That’s not a big list, and it represents only a handful of pieces of mail per month, but it’s still unavoidable. Also, thanks to Jay Campbell (cruiser/photographer/lawyer) for pointing out that financial institutions are now getting tighter about enforcing the Patriot Act requirement for a residential address…better to get it now, than have a problem later. At least there are a lot of easy virtual mailbox services to choose from! Chatting with a woman last week who circumnavigated in the 80s/90s, when it was a complicated process involving a friend/family member, international forwarding hassle/cost/delays, and the nearest American Express office. Thank goodness THAT has changed!

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Town mailbox, Koh Phayam, Thailand

So, how do you pick a mail service? On the surface, they all work about the same way: you get a physical address where your mail lands. Envelopes are scanned and available to review online. You decide if an envelope should be opened for scanning contents. If a piece of mail is physically neede (like a replacement credit card, vessel documentation), forward whenever you want; otherwise, click to trash.

I went through the due diligence to research different services recently when I considered changing ours, and share the results to help others. Factors I looked for:

  • Address location
  • Monthly fee
  • Included pieces of mail per month
  • Any bonus mail / concierge services
Gen-u-ine post box at the top of Diana's Peak, St Helena

Gen-u-ine post box at the top of Diana’s Peak, St Helena…South Atlantic ocean

Other factors being mostly equal (a scan is a scan), the physical address is key: is there a personal tie to a particular state you want to maintain for voting or licensing? Or are you looking for income preservation by “moving” to an income-tax-free state? Unsurprisingly, several services are based in the tax-free states of Washington, Florida, Nevada or Texas (one service, Traveling Mailbox, has addresses in all four!).  (Families: FYI, your home state bears no relevance to homeschooling regulations you are obligated to follow…only the regulations of the state in which you are physically present).

Looking at cruiser-friendliness and good value, three services stand out. The “annual” figure is my way to make sense of variable monthly fees by pricing the 12-month rate for a fictional account with two addresses, based on 20 pieces of mail (20 scanned envelopes) per month, from which five pieces (total of 20 pages) needed to be scanned. It showed some surprising differences from the at-a-glance monthly fees that seemed useful.

best mail services

Dockside Solutions: Dockside Solutions bubbles up as an excellent service that ticks all boxes at a good value, and really understands the cruiser market. Among other cruisers using Dockside, Pacific Sailors Mike and Verena Kellner have have been customers for years. “Dockside Solutions has all the usual services you would expect, like scanning, forwarding, etc, but they also host cruiser get-togethers at their shop! It’s more like a community.” I think it’s especially cool that owner, Angela, keeps a map showing the locations of her clients all around the world…it’s clear that she loves what she does.

Saint Brendan’s Isle:  Most cruisers know Saint Brendan’s Isle because they’ve focused on the cruiser and RV market for years. The Boat Galley’s Carolyn Shearlock is a fan and has great post all about it. They’ll assist with establishing residency, too, so you can keep your driver’s license and more. Florida is another income-tax-free state, which makes it a good candidate. You do have to be there in person to change residency, however.

Traveling Mailbox: Traveling Mailbox stands out as by far the best value among all the services. They’re under the radar for cruisers (well, everything except SBI seems to be), but shouldn’t be, considering the relatively low fee for the same services. I learned about them from Colin, a road warrior with an international bent, who has used them for a couple of years now and has been very pleased with the rapid turnaround (as little as three hours) on scan requests. Helpful if you’d like to move on from that anchorage with good wifi, but need to see your mail first! This is also the only service I’m aware of that offer a mobile app to help manage your inbox.

Other services met basic needs, but fell short in one way or another – commented in the notes here:

next best mail services

A mention for the service we use, Earth Class Mail. Great interface, gobs of options, nice humans responding when we have a question, addresses all over the place. They were the only virtual mailbox offering a Washington state address when we took off, and their service has been awesome. Yet I’d be unlikely to choose them again, because their prices have shot up as they target businesses instead of individuals. We are grandfathered into old pricing which keeps our rate competitive, but at some point I suspect that a low-value-customers like us will get squeezed out. If you want more services and aren’t price sensitive, they’re an excellent option, but others are a lot more affordable and offer all the services cruisers or full time travelers need. Along similar lines, US Global Mail is a premium rate relative to other services, but offers a relatively speedy turnaround of scanned documents: as soon as 15 minutes to within a few hours or the request. For some, that feature may be worth paying for (most services have a 24-hour turnaround, but what if you’re trying to leave port?).

Credit where it’s due: Thoughtful information that helped me came from this post from Colin’s Work Smart and Travel blog, and the source he started from Josh at Travel China Cheaper – check them out for more details and other experiences.

Apartment mailboxes: Penang, Malaysia

Apartment mailboxes: Penang, Malaysia

Disclaimer: Traveling Mailbox provides affiliate links. I used one here, which means if you click through and sign up with them, I’ll eventually get a little kickback. Affiliate links have exactly nothing to do with my opinions on the blog.

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22 Responses to The best mail services for cruisers

  1. Julie July 25, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    As a former traveling mail customer, it may be helpful to understand this company has addresses all over, but the mail all gets forwarded to their central location on the east coast which then scans it or sends it to you. The time added for this travel can be a surprise when you think you have a Seattle address. We switched to Dockside and resolved the issue. Angela & crewg provide great service.

    • Behan July 25, 2016 at 8:57 pm #

      I hear nothing but raves about Angela’s services at Dockside!! Forwarding for scanning can definitely cause delays and is a really good point. Most of the services are subject to this (unless it’s a single location address like SBI or Dockside Solutions). Colin’s Work Smart and Travel article, linked in the post, goes into his issues with this – he switched from Earth Class Mail TO Traveling Mailbox and dramatically shortened the lead time on scanning. But he’s in the US Southeast.

    • Scott July 31, 2016 at 11:30 am #

      I’ll second Julie’s point about Traveling Mailbox’s hub-and-spoke model and what it means to their customers. They use Mailbox Etc. around the US for most of their addresses then forward the mail weekly to their Sanford, NC headquarters to be scanned, etc. This adds considerable lag to your mail. It also means you have to have any packages sent directly to their HQ or you could wait *months* for it to show up and they’ll add lots of package handling fees on top.

      We used them for about 6 months before switching to St Brendans and couldn’t be happier there.

      • Travis Poole August 9, 2016 at 11:31 am #

        Hi Scott,

        Travis here from Traveling Mailbox. I want to take a moment to point out that all customers can use our Sanford, NC facility to get mail and packages processed the same day. In addition, customers who use our premium addresses get our NC location for sending packages to to avoid any delays. I also have to dispute the “months” delay comment. There is simply no such thing happening here with that.

        We simply offer addresses in other cities because customers want that!

        Thanks!

  2. Deb Perfitt July 25, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    Great reporting. A few more resources are always great. How about world wide SIM Cards next! If only, sigh!!

    • Behan July 25, 2016 at 9:00 pm #

      Ah, Deb, we can dream…. 😉

  3. Brian July 25, 2016 at 1:34 pm #

    They now also offer a Columbus Ohio address – as of July 22.

  4. Brian July 25, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    Traveling Mailbox now offersa Columbus Ohio Address as of 7/22.

  5. Bill Wakefield July 25, 2016 at 2:13 pm #

    Thank you, Behan, for another objective and useful post.

    We are currently SBI customers [maintaining our Alaska residency but using a Florida address…] I have to admit having another US&$123/year to spend on something else is not to be ignored.

    One service that helped us with our decision a few years ago is SBIs Discount Marine Supplies Service:

    https://www.sbimailservice.com/discount_marine_supplies.htm

    As you know, getting the right parts shipped outside the country of origin, and then receiving them in a timely manner is challenging to say the least. This service helps ameliorate those concerns, but unless we use it regularly, is it worth the extra cost…? [Not that it has an extra charge…]

    This is what your post will cause us to ponder… Thanks for giving us cause to re-evaluate our service selection, and for the dose of pragmatism…

    Cheers! Bill

    • Behan July 25, 2016 at 9:09 pm #

      Hi Bill, glad you found it useful. That’s definitely a nice service from SBI and another way they show they are really dialed into their customer base. That, and the hassle “cost” of switching, would be a lot to overcome. There are times we’d happily have paid all $123 to know we were getting boat parts shipped into some far corner of the world!

  6. Fred Roswold July 25, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

    We’ve been using Ballard Mailbox in, where else, Ballard, Seattle, for 30 years. We’ve never asked them to scan mail for us, presumably they would. Instead we’ve always asked them, about once a quarter, to send us a mail package. We’ve gotten mail packages all over the world. In 30 years we have not lost one (yet), although one sent to Vanuatu went across the Pacific three times before it caught up with us. (Boy that envelope had a lot of postmarks and stamps when we got it). Most of our important communications come electronically these days so the mail packages rarely contain anything exciting or important, but we still like getting them. The basic cost is about 1/3 what you show for Dockside but we pay postage for each mail package they send. I guess we should get with the times and have our mail scanned and sent electronically.

    The staff at Ballard Mailbox are like family to us, and when we are back in Seattle we always stop in for a “mini homecoming”

    One thing is worth mentioning however: More governmental agencies are requiring a “physical address” and their address checking software soon figures out that we couldn’t live at our Ballard address (I mean like a few thousand people live in that small building,? Come on!). For things like driver’s licenses, voter’s registration, and other official communications we use (after Wash voter registration department recommended it) our last Seattle marina address, even though we haven’t been there since 1996, and it is always accepted.

    Fred & Judy, SV Wings, La Cruz Huanacaxtle

    • Behan July 25, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

      It’s a REALLY good point about the physical address, and how government agencies are paying more attention to this. It could be a very real problem for some cruisers…we also use the address of our WA property for things like voter reg and DLs. As for Ballard mailbox, they are famous for being a great service for boats in Seattle. But scanning isn’t a service they offer (or, it’s so minor/unimportant, they don’t bother mention it on their website). And given the benefits of relatively immediate digital delivery (vs. forwarding mail physically), I don’t think it’s a realistic choice of cruisers starting out now.

  7. Jay Campbell July 26, 2016 at 6:52 am #

    Hi Behan: Thanks for the Shout-Out to Karen and me! 🙂 Great article! It is getting easier to create a seamless virtual connection while cruising full time, which is better for us because we still work from the boat. With enough cell and Internet wireless amplifiers, SAT phones, VOIP, and purchased talk/data minutes, it’s almost like being in the states sometimes. But leading a complex virtual life in remote places can still be undone when it comes to finances and other high end transactions (buying property, cars, etc). The Patriot Act requirements are just one example (our problem came about while executing a large signature loan – we had to sign a residential lease to solve the issue, easier to do for a lawyer). But there are others. Recently we purchased property overseas, and found we literally had to fly to the US to get a signed and sealed statement from our bank which was required by the foreign country. Of course, working in exotic places IS worth it! Love following you guys, even if you are back stateside. 🙂 Best, Jay and Karen Campbell

    • Behan July 26, 2016 at 7:33 am #

      I appreciate you sharing these concrete examples of the added challenges that can stem from not having a ‘real’ address. That Patriot Act regulation that could easily become a problem if it is more commonly enforced. At least most cruisers have less complex virtual lives than you and Karen do! Thanks Jay.

  8. Andy Cross July 26, 2016 at 2:45 pm #

    Great post. We use Dockside Solutions and love it!

    • Behan July 27, 2016 at 10:06 am #

      thanks Andy. Everybody who uses Dockside raves!

  9. Colin Robinson July 26, 2016 at 11:00 pm #

    Hi Behan,

    Great article! Thank you so much for mentioning me blog Work Smart and Travel, it’s much appreciated.

    I started with an EMC mailbox in Atlanta, GA. The problem was EMC only picked up the mail twice a week and forwarded it Denver for scanning, adding at least an extra week to receive mail from posting. When I called EMC about this, they suggested changing to a premium mailbox in New York City, which I did.

    When I changed to the Traveling Mailbox, I made sure I got a mailbox at their central office where they open and scan mail. The Traveling Mailbox is not as expensive as EMC, but they are quicker.

    Again, great article and thanks for the mention.

    ColinR.

    • Behan July 27, 2016 at 10:07 am #

      Cheaper + more efficient = winning! Thanks Colin, appreciate your insights.

  10. Carney August 6, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

    I am going to stick with using a Mail Buoy. That’s how we got mail on my Submarine back in the day. 😉

  11. Alex October 2, 2016 at 6:44 am #

    Traveling Mailbox customer service is horrible. Stay far away! Mailbox Forwarding is chrap, private, professional, and they genuinely care about their customers.

  12. Tomas October 3, 2016 at 9:49 pm #

    I love Traveling Mailbox! I am not sure what Alex is talking about either. I love their customer service. They are always very responsive when I do need to talk to them. I can even pick up the phone and call them on weekends. It is very nice to hear a real live human being on the other end.

    The service is very affordable. I pay for a year at a time and I get two months free. I didn’t see this option with any of the other services. I looked at Mailbox Forwarding but they didn’t have phone or chat support so I immediately dismissed them.

    I highly recommend Traveling Mailbox!

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  1. St. Brendan's Isle mail service - SailNet Community - August 2, 2016

    […] pull your mail from where it lands now and deal with it for you. Behan on Totem wrote a recent article on this topic that may be worthwhile for you. Best wishes figuring out what is best for you. Cheers! […]

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