Trying to rendezvous with your Poste Restante mail (and other travelers) in distant cities gives you deadlines that limit your ability to stay in places that you like, since you are trying to keep to a schedule, and it tends not to work half of the time if you are travelling overland in a relaxed manner. It took me a year to figure out that email was better than trying to make my itinerary fit pre-determined postal pickups; besides never knowing if any mail had been sent, or if the postal workers bothered to move it from the big pile in the back of the building to the bins up front, much less sorted it into the right ones. For those important items that I need, I have them shipped in by airmail or Fedex when I know I will be somewhere for a while.
Poste Restante in most countries (General Delivery in the US, Lista de Correos in South America) will hold mail for a few months before returning it to sender (or throwing it away); China sends it back in one month. These addresses are available in many travel books. Some places, especially in Europe have stopped accepting Post Restante for security reasons.
Have the sender indicate Poste Restante on the address, capitalize and underline your last or family name in large block letters (to prevent mail from being misfiled under your first name). "Most post offices will ignore (or not understand) a 'Hold until' note on mail. Besides, travel plans change and you may arrive months later than planned. If there is a travel 'season' for that country, most packages unclaimed are returned after that season." <Alan Nelson>LASTNAME, Firstname
"In some English-based countries following the above advice will get your mail filed under your first name. In too many countries do not expect anything in a letter to arrive. Any enclosure in a letter may lead to delay or loss of the letter and or the item enclosed. This is especially true for money, checks, and credit cards. Even letters with only photos enclosed have been opened. If you are mailing a number of first class letters or postcards from a poor country hand them directly to a clerk and watch the clerk cancel the stamps. This is because in many countries the price of a first-class stamp is equal to a day's wage, so stealing them and reselling stamps is a lucrative sideline for postal workers." <Davy Davis>
Airmail can take anywhere from 7 to 30 days to get to you. Surface mail can take three months or more. Before going to the central or main post office, call to see if your package has arrived, what the hours are, how to get there, and if there is a pick-up fee.
"Calling will not work in 90% of places. It may be impossible to establish the phone number, they may not have a clue what you are talking about, and they probably do not care. When you go to the post office, use whatever system is there (DIY computer-checking in Sydney, efficient queues in La Paz, possible lengthy waits in the US). Some places have lists you check to see if there is anything for you. It all works in the end -- patience is the key. It is a great feeling when you get that bundle in your hand!" <Chris Finlayson>
Sometimes identification, such as a passport, is required. If you have to leave the area and are still expecting mail, they can forward it or hold it for you, if you will be returning.
American Express offers mail drop service (letters and cards only, no packages in general) at many of their offices. It is free for AmEx customers (just show them an AmEx card or unused AmEx Travelers Cheque), otherwise there is a charge (e.g. $2 per pickup). They have offices world-wide. Call their 800 number for exact addresses, or see their free pamphlet "American Express Traveler's Companion" which includes a worldwide listing. The pamphlet has some other useful information and is worth taking with you on an extended trip. American Express offices sometimes charge to forward mail.
Note: US embassies and consulates do not handle private mail.
"I suggest those who write to you regularly number their letters and reference back to them as well as reference to your letter (e.g. I received your letter from Hong Kong dated April 22, Number #4 on May 10). That way you can see any gaps in the numbers. Another tip is to bring some first class postage stamps. Then you give simple letters to missionary groups who use a courier to bring mail to the US with local stamps already on them. You can also do this with people you meet in the airport going to the US. As long as it is a simple letter with no other contents most people will not object. I have also gone to big hotel lobbies and found little old ladies in tour groups, and by picking out someone with a California accent, I ask them if they are going home soon, and would like call my parents to tell them they saw me. This way your family has an independent observer relaying that you are alive and well." <Alan Wald>
"A few airmail postage stamps may also prove handy, if you need to write to a US firm and prepay their reply (International Reply Coupons are more expensive)." <Larry Cotter>
"Take some US postage stamps with you, as Alan Wald suggested. If you can gain access to a US military base, or the off-base housing district for the military personnel, you will find quite ordinary US Post Office mailboxes sitting there for your use. Mail boxes are also sometimes found at US embassies and consulates. The advantage of this, as opposed to giving mail to fellow travellers on their way to the USA, is that they get post-marked where you mail them. In the event you run out of stamps, you might be able to buy them at a US embassy, US consulate, on a US military base, or from US military personnel. This is another reason to always have a supply of US$1, US$5, US$10, and US$20 bills at hand. Ones and twenties are readily accepted by citizens of other countries. Fives and tens are rarely seen and, therefore, unfamiliar." <Icono Clast>
"Since you have chosen the life of a traveller, you might consider a PO Box if you will return to that town, just have a friend check it occasionally. The PO will hold your mail as long as you pay for the box. If you want to forward mail from the POB, to your friend, you can only do this for one year, so you may have to stop it after 11 months, then re-start it a month later. This can be done on the Internet; else fill the cards out and leave them behind, or take them with you and mail them directly. Also, if you are vacating your residence, send another mail forward notice after six months." <Marc>
Also, getting people back home to write can be frustrating. They aren't used to sending mail overseas, and fear that it won't arrive, or won't get to you. You are out-of-sight out-of-mind so you have to prompt them -- postcards seem to get a good response!