with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Paper Trails and Indian Love Calls

Northern Spain rented motor home comes out of tunnel in mountains, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenIn the movies, it seems that all you have to do to find your true love is yodel across the valley. In today’s world, you have to have a mailbox. Yodels just don’t get you very far anymore.

When taking your life on the road, you have to create "paper trails" for people to track you down. You need to be available by telephone and mail. You also need to establish residency, even though your place of residence may change from week to week. Where your telephone is based, where you get your mail, and where you establish residency may or may not be in the same state, which can make answering the question of where you are from really interesting.

Credit Cards: It Doesn’t Matter Where You
Are As Long As You Can Be Found

Creating a paper trail to justify your existence to the world, government, and those who want to be paid, can get complicated. There is little information out there to help you understand all the minutia involved in taking your home on the road. It isn’t a matter of having a phone or cell phone combined with a mailing address. If you shop on the Internet or buy mail order, their security check system is designed to send a “red flag” warning if the phone number doesn’t match the physical address listed with your credit card company. We’ve explained over and over again how we live on the road and have our phone number with Brent’s parents and our address with an office a few miles away. We’ve even checked to make sure that the phone number and address are correct at the credit card company so they can verify our “residence” there. Unfortunately, until recently, many large mail order companies used a backwards trace on the phone number, which would return the physical address of the phone registered with the phone company, and not bother to verify the information with the credit card company. We’d simply not get our mail order and they would send us a letter (to the address listed by the credit card company, by the way) saying that the order could not go through because they could not verify our address. We pointed out the flaws in their system, but few people are willing to change the system or make allowances for one person.

Rented motor home at night in Spain, photograph by Brent VanFossenAs cell phones improve and proliferate, it will become acceptable to have your “resident” phone be a wireless number and the need to connect a telephone to a physical address will be gone. Until then, do what you can to explain your situation and ask them to modernize their system.

The battle between life on the road traveling and the credit card company doesn’t end with mail order companies. Credit card companies have sophisticated systems for tracking purchases. It is programmed into their database where your “home” address or business address is and then a virtual circle is drawn on a map as to where you can justifiably shop. You are assigned a geographic area. If you shop outside of that area, it will trigger a warning. You will go to use your card again outside of your jurisdiction and the merchant will tell you that the card is refused and there is a warning or block on your account. This is fine for the normal stay-at-home person, but we once covered eight states in two weeks. ALL of our purchases were out of our assigned geographical area because we never entered out geographical area during those two weeks. We hadn’t been “home”, as the credit card knew it, for six months. After three days of purchases in Florida, we were suddenly making purchases in Arizona. And our card was blocked.

Getting your card unblocked means calling the credit card company, often while your purchases wait on the check-out counter and a line forms behind you, to confirm that you are who you say you are, you are indeed using your own card, your card has been with you the whole time, and list and verify for them the last three or four purchases you have made – where, what and for how much. Usually within a few minutes the block is removed and you can continue your purchase, but it can take twenty minutes, depending upon where you are and how advanced their computer systems are. Always carry a book.

Here are some tips for prevention and handling a credit card block, loss or theft:

Call the credit card company before you go
row of parked motor homes, photograph by Brent VanFossenBefore we go anywhere, especially if we have been somewhere for a while, we call the credit card company and ask them to make a note on our account that we will be traveling outside of our geographical area and to not put a block on our account. We tell them where we are going, how long we are going to be there, and when we are expected back “home”. When we fled to Spain to avoid Bush’s war on Iraq, we advised the bank that we would be in Spain for three weeks. We extended our trip because the war wasn’t over. The day we were expected back in Israel according to our original schedule, our credit card was blocked while trying to purchase food in Spain. We had forgotten to call the bank to tell them that we were still in Spain. We extended our trip a few more times and then decided to fly to the states. In the fuss, we forgot to call the bank and one day after arrival in the “residence” of our credit card, there was another block on our card. We called the company to tell them we were home, really home – according to them – for the first time in two years. Keep your credit card company and bank advised on your travel plans, just as much as your travel agent, to keep your credit card open and functioning.
Where is your card?
Be aware of where your credit card is at all times. Check before entering a store, before paying, after paying, and upon leaving the store. Check before you leave the RV and upon your return. When you are traveling, it is very difficult to “go back” to retrieve a forgotten credit card, and a lot of trouble to report a stolen one and get it replaced when you are in the midst of traveling from place to place. Stay aware of where it is and the recovery time is shortened.
Keep at least one week’s worth of receipts with you
As you make your purchases, keep an envelope or place in your wallet, purse, or backpack where you put all purchase receipts. Keep at least one week’s worth – and if space is limited, keep at least three days’ worth. When calling the credit card company to verify your transactions and purchases, you will not need to rely upon your memory and have all the information right in front of you. We’ve often been traveling so hard and fast, we can’t remember what we did that morning let alone three days ago, so this helps us to prove to the credit card company that we were there when these purchases were made.
Frequently remind yourself of your passwords
We have so many passwords in our lives now. For instance, we have our security password name for each bank account. We have a PIN (Personal Information Number) for the two cash cards we carry plus two more to remember for our two different credit cards. Our email requires a password, our Internet Provider needs another password, everyone wants a password from us and there are a lot of numbers and letters and combinations thereof to remember. Keep written proof of these passwords separate from the cards themselves and put backup copies in safe deposit boxes, a lawyer, or with friends or family who help you take care of your life off the road. Make sure there is someone who can tell you the password or code word if you forget and don’t have access to the papers. Avoid using common numbers and words if you are choosing a password for yourself. The most common password numbers are “1234”, “1100”, and “4321” and other simple and easy to remember combinations. Whatever you choose, remind yourself of the passwords and numbers frequently so you will remember then when under pressure, like reporting a stolen card or needing money in a busy and noisy location.
Know where you are and where you have been
We often travel great distances in one day, stopping to get gas and food along the way. It’s hard to keep track of where we are, let alone where we’ve been. Do keep track of where you are. When you enter a town, pay attention to the name. We keep a running record of every stop for gas, recording the location and mileage from our odometer. This helps us to track where we are along our way. When you are calling a credit card company to fix a block or report a loss or theft, you have to know where you are and where you have been recently to help them track and stop any illegal purchases, or to help you trace your route to where your last purchase was and where your lost card might be. Be aware of where you are as much as possible so you can think faster on your feet when the stressful moment comes.
Tell the merchant your story
Merchants and sales clerks get nervous when a credit card won’t go through. They can often think there is a problem with your account, you are a criminal, or other negative thoughts. Your first job is to not get angry at them or at the bank. Ask that they try again, and if they do get another block report, reassure them that this is normal. You don’t have to cry on the merchant’s shoulder, but explain calmly that blocks on your card are common and they are for security reasons, their security and yours. Explain how the bank monitors your purchases and blocks transactions when you leave your geographical area. Tell them you are on vacation, traveling, or whatever and that the bank is just doing their job. Ask them to hold your purchases and ask permission to use their phone, or tell them that you are just going to step outside to use your cell phone (or pay phone) to call the bank and find out what is going on, and reassure them that you will be back for your purchases. The process usually takes only a few minutes, and do return if you do get verification and the problem fixed.
Be prepared to pay cash
There have been a few times when we have been on hold with the bank for thirty minutes or more. Or we can’t find a telephone, or the situation just isn’t conducive to the process. Be prepared to pay cash if it looks like the process is just going to be too complicated and then call the credit card company when it is safer or more convenient. There are just times when it isn’t worth the fuss.

Mail Services

graphic of a postmark on a letterWhen you live on the road full-time, you may stay in a single location for a month or two, or you may stay for a day or so before resuming your travels, making it difficult for mail to catch up with you. The United States government requires people to have a "home address", a base from which to call "home" for tax purposes, but also for registering vehicles, paying insurance, and many other forms of paperwork a US citizen is required to supply. Once you decide on which state is your home "residence", you will need to find a mail service company which will receive and forward your mail to you.

There are many business which specialize in serving as a post office box and will forward mail to wherever you are. Some have restrictions in what they will accept and forward, usually not forwarding third class mail such as magazines and junk mail, and some will not accept boxes past a certain size. They all have different rates for their services, with some working on a flat rate and others charging by the piece.

The non-profit RV organization, Escapees, handles mail for travelers. Their setup is invaluable to the RVer, whether they stay put or move around a lot. A call to an 800 number allows the member to leave a message with their current location and mail handlers forward the mail to them. If the RVer will be traveling, the Escapees mail service will hold the mail until they get a call. They are very familiar with the life of an RVer, helping them stay in touch on the road.

What Mail is Really Important
Living overseas in Israel, we changed our priorities about mail. It’s really expensive to send mail in boxes overseas, especially with catalogs, magazines, and heavy items. So we went through our "must have" list and found some surprises. We really didn’t need most of what comes to us in the mail.

Personal letters and business correspondence, of course, are important, but we found that personal letters could be forwarded, and most business correspondence could be faxed or emailed to us. Same with some bills. As we pay many automatically with our credit card, these are all accessible through the Internet, including our checking and credit card accounts. So why do we need to get a printed copy? What else must we have?

Make a list of what you must have forwarded to you and give that to the people handling your mail. Really focus on what is critical for you to get and how you can bypass it through the Internet and email. You may find your list shrinking along with the costs, saving postage and trees.

graphic of a message in a bottleWhichever mail service you choose, make sure you have adequate access to them and they are flexible enough to work with your needs. Be clear about your plans and ask questions about their services to make sure they will be able to handle your mail requirements. Will they send it at your request or are they limited to a particular schedule (forwarding mail only on Tuesdays and Thursdays)? Will they accept and forward packages? What are their size restrictions? What about magazines? How do they handle "return to sender" items coming back to you? How often can you change your forwarding address before encountering high fees? How will they bill you? By bill or by automatically charging to your credit card? How will they charge you? By weight, volume, size? If you will have monies being sent to you through the mail, are they bonded and insured for your protection and theirs?

Having family or friends handle your mail is wonderful for you, as you’ve established a trust with them and if there is an emergency piece of mail you are eagerly waiting for, they can open it for you and maybe read the contents to you over the phone or overnight it to you. They can handle your special needs and help you to filter your mail down to what you really need. But it is a burden to put on anyone. Make sure the person understands the responsibilities and is willing to work with your crazy schedule and special needs.

Whatever way you decide to go, question them thoroughly. Once you leave town, it will be much harder to change your mind.

Faxes, Computers, and Bells & Whistles

graphic of a computer printerI feel like a carnival hawker: laptops, desktops, faxes, modems, pagers, voice mail and switches. Get them while they’re hot! For life on the road, a computer of some kind is a must for staying in touch, and for maintaining your business. It can be a complete office in a small package. The reality of using the Internet on the road isn’t as easy as it could be, but it’s improving all the time and we discuss it more thoroughly in our article about the Reality of the Internet on the Road.

Hook up your computer to a phone and all things are possible. Call, fax, email, and chat to others all through your phone line. If only E.T. had such easy access. Set up an address book program to dial the number for you. You can even input your calling card numbers and do away with that hassle. You can sign on with any online service or Internet provider and email to anywhere, saving long distance phone calls. Or even retrieve files, maps, and all the information you need from the Internet about wherever you are going or whatever you are doing.

Graphic of an emoticon used in emailA friend here in Israel has a lot of opinions on how terrible and frustrating email is. He expounds on how he hates reading the screen and how a letter will never be replaced – the list is long. He’s never had email, though he is getting it soon, but he represents a lot of people. Don’t let fear of new technology keep you from trying something that is fun and such a pleasure. For travelers, staying in touch can be really challenging. Getting email is like mail call. Packages arrive in the form of computer bytes from all over the world as people share their lives with us, helping us keep up with what is going on back home and elsewhere.

Technology is available to communicate instantly via the Internet, with "chats" and with voice, like a telephone. Phone calls over the Internet are a part of the future available today. With the right equipment and access to the Internet, you can communicate easily and cheaply with people on the other side of the world. It brings the world closer together, breaking down all kinds of barriers, expanding the horizons for the traveler to stay in touch on the road.

Don’t Forget Those Left Behind

Make a Mailing List
To save yourself time while on the road, create a mailing list on your computer. Print several copies of the email list onto label paper (use a layout template within your word processing program) and you will quickly be able to label postcards and letters to send off to your loved ones. Update it annually to make sure no one is forgotten.

I’ve traveled most of my life, sometimes gone for a year or more. Returning home can sometimes be a shock to the system. While you’ve had all these exciting experiences you want to share, when you ask your friends what they have been up to over the past year, the response is often, "Same old, same old." Life back home, while not geographically inspiring, is still exciting and should be honored. Make the transition back home easier for everyone by not staying a stranger while you are gone. Don’t forget those you have left behind. Remember friends and family through the holidays, birthdays and special events. With the ease of the Internet, it is simple to spend about 10 minutes online to send flowers to someone for any reason, even if it is to remind them you are thinking of them. Many web businesses recognize this and provide a wide range of services for ordering gifts online. Some examples we use are listed under our Connect the Dots links to the left.

Emailed journals of your trip make great ways to keep people informed of what you are doing. Tell them stories of your adventures, don’t just list dates and times of arrival and departures. Or keep them up to date with a personal web page they can visit when they have time, following your adventures. Don’t forget the card or postcard as a good token of remembrance. Brent’s grandmothers would show them to everyone who came to visit, putting them up in visible spots in their homes, proud of their adventurous grandchild. People really feel important when they get a bit of email or a postcard from you. You took time out of your adventures to remember them.

Staying in Touch in 2005

Arriving in Mobile, Alabama, in December of 2004, fresh with the news that cities like San Fransisco, Singapore, Seattle, and others are in a race to become the first totally WIFI (Wireless Internet) city, we were really excited about coming back to the states and getting the chance to experience the wide spread and easy access to the Internet we’d heard about for so long living overseas. After all, we’d been able to connect to the Internet fairly easily in the remote mountain villages of Spain and throughout Europe at Internet cafes and libraries, so here in the US, it must be easier. Unfortunately, again, reality did not meet expectations and rumors.

We drove all over our area of Mobile and found nothing. After five days of looking, I finally got to a library, eager to check email and check in.

Just turning to look at the vast bank of computers, a security guard demanded I sign in on a list.

“Can’t I just look around for a minute?”

“You have to check in first.”

Okay, so no looking around. I did as I was ordered, then paused as the large letters across the page informed me that my time on the computer was limited to EXACTLY 30 minutes. I tried to explain that I just wanted to look around the library first, before I got online, but the guard gave me a fierce look and shoved the clipboard at me.

I signed in and then jumped on the nearest computer, giving up on any “look arounds the library”, thrilled to find that there were no passwords or registration to waste time with. This should be easy!

First things first, and eager to catch up with my email on hold for two weeks, I tried to bring up Hotmail and “Betsy” popped up on my screen informing me that this was a forbidden area and I needed permission.

Wasting precious 30 minutes, I found a librarian and she told me that she had to sign in to get me through some filter set up that would prevent all access to Hotmail. Once signed in, she warned me, I was only allowed 10 minutes on Hotmail. She wouldn’t explain why, but did tell me that as old and slow as these machines, gifts from Bill and Melinda Gates a few years ago (low income area library recipients), ten minutes would allow me to “look” at my email but not time enough to actually read an email or send one. Again, she could only tell me that this was the rule – 10 minutes.

And she was right. I barely had time to look with the slow loading of the over coded Hotmail service and my ten minutes were up. Giving up on my Hotmail account, I went to check my web mail through my website and found that this also wouldn’t work. A quick chat with my server host company online techical support taught me that if there are filters or firewalls on the computer or router, they might not allow me to bring up the web page to access my web mail. Screwed on both accounts.

I finally asked another librarian who told me these filters and protections were in place to protect children from pornography and child molesters. How accessing Hotmail (a Microsoft subsidiary also owned by Bill and Melinda Gates) or my web mail has anything to do with porn and child molesters…I’m not sure. When I interogated her more, she about slapped me in the face with the verbal rebuke about how people using the Internet in public libraries exposed children to porn and that it was their responsiblity to prevent children from such sick and disgusting monsters. Honestly, I still didn’t see the connection between Hotmail and porn. I tried, but it’s beyond me. Sure, there is spam that gets through, but most of it wants to sell me viagra and urge me to play the online casino games, and I can’t remember the last time anyone sent me graphic naked people doing the wildthing that weren’t friends of mine forwarding jokes, something I often think is more criminal than online porn.

The “ease” of the Internet for the traveler is still not easy, at least in the United States.


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