Though the digital revolution has provided us with Wikivoyage and other on-line material, many travellers want to send or receive postcards, letters or packages through postal service.
In a time when we drown in e-mail, a physical postcard from far away is usually more welcome than ever.
These used to be available in nearly every bookstore, every news stand, every five-and-dime and every corner drugstore; hotel and motel operators routinely distributed free, blank postcards which contained an advertisement for their inns. They are becoming a bit harder to find now that e-mail is cheap and postal mail is expensive. An independent bookstore may still be worth a try; souvenir shops at individual attractions and tourist information bureaux may either have blank cards for sale or know who does have a few left.
In some countries, the post office may have blank postcards, but these tend to be generic; the images are of the country as a whole and not the specific town you're visiting. A few countries (such as the United States, for USPS First Class Mail) may allow postcards to be mailed at a slightly cheaper rate than other first-class correspondence. In some cases lower rates apply for postcards in domestic mail only and international postcards are sent at the same (higher) rates as international letters. The cards need to be within a specific size range (at least 3.5 x 5" and typically 4x6", printed on stock thick enough to not jam during automated sorting) to qualify. Turning one of your own 4x6" travel photographs into a postcard is possible, but the printed image will either need to be glued to cardstock or printed on heavier-than-standard cardstock so that it will go through the sorting machine undamaged.
Availability of postage stamps varies between countries. One cannot usually count on finding them at every grocery store, so stocking up on stamps on arrival in a new country might be a good idea. In the worst case, post offices are the only place to buy stamps — and they're often closed on weekends. Some countries also have stamp machines. While they have the benefit of (usually) being available year round at any hour, the machine produced stamps are almost always of a rather bland, standardized design. A few countries operate "postal substation" or retail post office counters at the back of chemist's shops or other retail businesses; hours of operation vary but are usually better than those at the main station.
Many stamps are beautiful, and they make nice souvenirs at a low cost. In particular if you are visiting a small or remote country, consider buying a few extra stamps! Small territories like Montserrat, if they issue their own local postage, will often operate a philatelic bureau just to feed the appetite of foreign collectors for rare and colourful stamps. Most countries will issue a series of stamps (or sets of stamps) during limited periods of time to commemorate individual events or famous people. These are usually available from any post office.
Postmarks and seasonal greetings
A few post offices display unusual or seasonally-themed names such as "North Pole", "Bethlehem" or "Santa Claus" which are a popular novelty when sending greeting cards.
There are various schemes which generate "North Pole" or Christmas-themed mail. Not all involve travel:
- An obvious possibility is to travel somewhere like "North Pole" and send holiday greetings directly from there. In some cases, there will be a Santa-themed amusement park (one in North Pole NY pre-dates the Disney parks by six years, with a postal substation in the theme park); in others, the holiday-themed town name is little more than coincidence.
- A few souvenir vendors in North Pole (Alaska) have been known to sell a personalised "Santa letter", sent by regular mail with the seasonal North Pole 99705 postmark. Streets in this population 2200 town often have names like "Santa Claus Lane".
- Less cynically, in some countries volunteers ensure a postal reply for Santa-related mail. For instance, a letter to "Santa Claus, North Pole H0H 0H0 Canada" will be answered, no travel required.
- Can't make it to the North Pole or even Bethlehem (Pennsylvania)? Post offices in many of these places offer a Christmas or holiday re-mailing service, where one can bundle a stack of stamped, addressed greeting cards into a package addressed to the local postmaster, who sends them onward.
A similar holiday remailing scheme, operated by volunteers, stamps a Loveland (Colorado) postmark and a verse on Valentine's Day mail "From The Sweetheart City."
Due to its historic role as a primary means of intercity communication, the postal service has a rich history. Among the points where it has left its imprint are:
- Post roads, such as the 1800 mile Pony Express National Historic Trail. In the horse and stagecoach eras before rail travel, the first usable all-season road into a community was often the "post road" used to bring the mail into town.
- Royal mail ships and vessels, a designation proudly displayed by ocean liners in the steamship era. A fast passenger ship in the RMS Titanic era could earn valued boasting rights for reliably getting mail to its destination on time.
- Historic transport of valuables and currency by registered mail. This led to events such as the Great Train Robbery (United Kingdom, 1963) in which substantial sums of money were stolen by intercepting a Royal Mail train. Robbery of valuables travelling as registered mail was also a common theme in the Old West.
There are entire museums devoted to postal history or philately:
- An Post Museum in a corner of Dublin's GPO in Ireland
- The British Postal Museum & Archive in London, England
- National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC, USA
- The Post Museum, above the Central Post Office at Al-Ataba Square, Cairo, Egypt
- Cuban Postal Museum, ground floor of the Ministry of Informatics and Communication, near Revolution Square Havana, Cuba.
- Bath Postal Museum in Bath, UK
- International Postal Museum, Heathfield, East Sussex UK
- Postal History Foundation, Tucson, Arizona, USA
- A postal museum is included in Charleston's Museum Mile in South Carolina, USA
- Delphos Museum of Postal History (open to groups by appointment) in Delphos, Ohio, USA
- Spellman Museum of Stamps & Postal History in Weston (Massachusetts), USA
In many cities, a current or former main post office building is an architectural landmark or appears on a national historic register. One example would be the main New York City post office (8th Ave at 34th Street, postcode 10001) with the famous inscription "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." As a seasonal custom, holiday mail sent as in the closing scenes of "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947 film) is answered with the aid of volunteers.
Because postal mail readily migrated to each new form of transportation, from pony express to airmail, in search of faster time to destination, its history extensively overlaps that preserved in other museums and archives such as heritage railway museums, marine museums and transportation museums. In more modern times even high speed rail was used to deliver mail with the French TGV la Poste. While they are no longer in use, they are not found in a museum (yet).
A few options exist:
- The hotel (or, for those cruising on small craft, the marina) might be willing to accept mail - but is not required to do so. Unlikely to be an option unless you're in one place for a long time. They might delay the delivery.
- Mail may be held at a main post office as poste restante or general delivery for pickup at the counter; costs vary. In some countries this is free or almost-free, in others it's no cheaper than renting a post office box.
- Mail and parcels may be sent to a commercial mail receiving agency or private mailbox such as PakMail or UPS Store/Mail Boxes Etc. Many of these will blindly sign for anything that arrives, then either hold it for pickup or forward it at your expense. In the US, kinek.com maintains a list of local merchants who will sign for an individual parcel and hold it for pickup. Cost is typically more than a standard post office box ($20-25/month or $5/parcel is typical), but these are useful when dealing with mail-order merchants who insist on sending purchases by private couriers instead of as postal express mail.
- A very small number of commercial mail receiving agencies offer a mail scanning service, in which incoming paper mail is scanned to e-mail for delivery on-line. Uptake of services like "Earth Class Mail" has been slow, due both to cost and the inherent lack of privacy.
For short trips, it may make more sense to have your home post office hold your mail until you return instead of forwarding it to reach you during your travels.
If you are staying longer than a couple of weeks, it might make sense to get an address you may have post sent to and give it to those you wish (or have to) receive letters from.
A commercial mail receiving agent may be of assistance if you're sending baggage ahead in mail or courier parcels to avoid carrying it on airline flights. This approach has advantages and disadvantages; it avoids punitive extra charges which airlines now demand for excess checked baggage, but the parcels don't necessarily arrive at the same time you do. Business travellers sometimes prefer to send samples, tools and spare parts ahead instead of carrying them as this encounters fewer customs issues - the company has access to customs brokers to handle the paperwork and the voyager is spared the "you're here to work illegally?" responses that these items attract when carried across the border.