2011 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   DREAMING ABOUT THE RV LIFESTYLE?
Part 6: Staying "Connected:" Internet, Mail, TV, etc.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 4

 
"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."
~ Andre Gide
 
 

Not to trivialize the meaning of the quote above but . . . if you get too far from civilization on your RV treks, you might just lose your cell phone and internet connections, too!

We're usually having too much fun to be annoyed by that. We've learned to adapt. As much as we like to use the internet we can live without it or a phone connection for a few days.

Here are some common questions people have about communication issues if they're considering being on the road for long periods of time:

HOW DO I STAY CONNECTED WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD WHEN I'M TRAVELING IN AN RV?

In this digital age it's easier than ever to "stay connected" in every sense while traveling around the country and living in an RV for extended periods of time.

All kinds of electronic gadgets from simple cell phones to sophisticated hand-held devices to full-sized computers allow full-timers to keep in touch with family and friends, pay bills, share photos and blogs, research what's up the road, even continue to earn a living.


Sue and Cody on Mt. Elbert's summit (elev. 14,440') last August. Oddly enough, we sometimes
have cell phone reception on mountains but not in the valleys below where we are camped!

Seven years ago when Jim retired and we planned to be on the road in our camper for several months at a time we finally got our first cell phones. They were basic Verizon units. We've upgraded them several times over the years after they became obsolete, got damaged, or "went missing" in a creek or down a toilet(!). We still use pretty basic cell phones. We aren't even tempted (yet) by the new generation of Blackberries, Droids, i-phones, i-pads, and other gee-whiz electronic gadgets.

KISS is our motto. Our computers and internet connections are a little more sophisticated, however.

DO YOU HAVE A COMPUTER IN THE CAMPER?

Jim and I both have computers we take with us in our 5th-wheel coach. They are even more of a life-line to us than our cell phones. We use them constantly for a wide variety of functions including e-mail, bill paying and other financial business, spreadsheets, research, reservations, photo editing and storage, internet discussion groups, our website, and other tasks.

How did we ever live without computers years ago??

Jim has an HP Pavilion laptop, which is practical for traveling.

I have an HP Pavilion Slimline PC with a wide-screen monitor. The tower is about one-third the size of a regular one so it doesn't take up much space on my desk:

It has plenty of power and storage, however. It's nestled between the monitor and printer when we're stationary. It's not as practical for traveling as a laptop but it's practical financially since we already had it. I mean, why leave it at the house and use it only two months of the year? When I need/want to upgrade to a new computer I'll probably get a laptop with a large screen.

Taking one laptop computer on the road with you is simple: just set it up on the dining table, your lap, or an RV table specifically designed to flip up to hold a laptop.

It's also pretty easy to accommodate two computers or set up an office in an RV if it has some flexibility. Take that into consideration if you're purchasing a new or pre-owned RV before you hit the road. Some floor plans include a built-in desk but we didn't find one that had the other features we wanted when we bought our Cameo last year. If that's your experience, take a good look at the RV you want or currently own and use some ingenuity to figure out possible modifications/rearrangements.

      
One computer arrangement in our old camper involved using the dining table (L); later we removed
the sofa and set up my desk along its wall (R). The last arrangement was keeping the sofa in its place
but removing the recliners at the rear of the HitchHiker and putting the desk in the window bay.

We tried several different furniture arrangements in the living area of our old HitchHiker 5th-wheel camper, shown above, to accommodate the oak desk I use for my computer (Jim just uses the dining table for his laptop and moves it when we eat there). Sometimes we took the sofa out, sometimes the two recliners. There were three different walls in the living area of that camper that I could use for the desk.

When we traded in the HitchHiker in Texas last year we kept our desk (it didn't come with the camper) to use in the new Cameo. The two old recliners (and two of the four upholstered dining chairs) were sitting in our basement in Virginia . . . oops! The dealer or new owners had to buy new ones for the HitchHiker if they wanted chairs.

Having an extra piece of furniture -- a large one at that -- in the new camper created a bit of a problem for the next two months until we went back to the house. We didn't want to abandon any new leather furniture in Texas to accommodate the desk!


Original furniture arrangement in our new Cameo; note reclining loveseat next to the dining table.

Our solution was to move the dining table to the center of the living area temporarily and put my desk and filing cabinet where it had been:


Temporary arrangement with my desk where dining table had been

Jim was happy with that because he was smack dab in front of the TV:

I was happy being farther away from the TV and having a window to look out. We didn't have much room to maneuver in the living area but it was fine for two months. When we moved the camper we flipped the table over (it stands on a pedestal, not four legs) and made sure it was padded and secure so it didn't bump into anything when the slides were in.


Temporary desk arrangement last year; note the small computer tower on far left.

When we got back to Virginia at the end of that trip we came up with a more permanent arrangement that has worked well for us the last ten months.

Once again we have several options in the Cameo but our decision of what furniture to remove was easier than in the HitchHiker. We don't like the awkward, uncomfortable "theatre-seating," a loveseat-sized double recliner, that came with the new coach so we removed it and put my desk in its place under the side window. (Someone on a Carriage, Inc. internet forum recently dubbed them "monster chairs" because they are so difficult to extend and retract.)


This computer and furniture arrangement works very well for us.

The monster chairs are now in the basement of the house -- with the two old recliners from the HitchHiker! We also left two of the Cameo's upholstered dining chairs at the house to give us more room. (They're near two of the old HitchHiker dining chairs that we also stored there . . .)

The much comfier sofa that came with the Cameo remains in its original spot across the rear, windowed bay of the living room:

We love to relax in that sunny nook and have no intentions of putting the desk there.

Before we left the house in May for our summer trip Jim came up with the bright idea to attach the monitor and printer to my desk with industrial-strength Velcro so we don't have to do anything with them when we move the camper from place to place.

Don't laugh. It's worked great for thousands of miles! I unplug all the cords from the tower when we are in transit, however, and put it in a box padded with towels so it can't move around much. I bundle the five or six cords with a twist-tie so they don't get scattered. It takes me only a couple minutes to get the system set up each time we move.

HOW DO YOU ACCESS THE INTERNET?

Internet connections are sometimes a challenge for us since we don't often stay in private campgrounds or in towns where WiFi and/or good cell phone reception are common. It would be nice if we could get free WiFi all the time but our preferred lifestyle (camping in the boonies a lot) doesn't allow for that.

For the last few years we used Verizon's broadband service fairly successfully. We used a cord to tether one of our phones to one of our computers at a time. We could not both be online at the same time unless Jim had a WiFi signal in the campground that he could use. My computer used to have that capability but doesn't any more. We're working on that . . .

Right after we left Roanoke for our current trip Verizon notified us that they were going to cannibalize our broadband plan by reducing it from 5 gigabytes a month to 3 gigabytes -- but keeping the price the same at $59/month minus the 20% discount Jim gets from his former employer = $47.20/month. They could do that since we were beyond our original two-year contract.


World-wide web??   Interesting cloud pattern as I descended from Mt. Elbert's summit last August.

Well, that didn't go over well with us or other RVers on the plan who griped about it on the Carriage, Inc. internet forums! Time to regroup (adapt).

While we were in Phoenix we researched our options and discovered we could get faster connections at a lower cost with a Verizon MiFi card -- and we can network up to five computers or other electronic devices at the same time, not just one. That sounded like a no-brainer.

We chose the basic MiFi plan with a max usage of 3 gigabytes/month. The standard cost is $35 per month. If we see that we will go over our max we can upgrade it to 5 gigabytes/month for $10 more. Supposedly we can then change it back to 3 gigabytes the next month without being assessed a special fee. We haven't had to increase or decrease it yet so we don't know if/how that will work. We can still use Jim's 20% discount for the MiFi plan so our monthly cost for this service is only $28/month at the max 3-gigabyte level plus $8 if we need the extra 2 gigabytes.

That's a savings of $11.20 to $19.20 per month, in addition to more speed and networking capability.


Our little MiFi card is only 2 x 3 inches
but it opens up the whole world of the internet to us.

The MiFi works pretty well so far but is still dependent on our having a decent cell phone connection. It's a little faster than broadband but as fast as DSL or a strong WiFi signal. The MiFi card sits on my desk, charging. All Jim has to do to get online is to flip a switch on his computer and  log on. My computer used to have this capability but now it doesn't and we haven't (yet) been able to make it work like it's supposed to work with the MiFi card.

At some locations where we've camped with a weak signal we haven't both been able to be online at the same time -- and I have had to tether the card to my computer with a separate cord instead of just flipping a switch, then click to connect to the internet when the computer recognizes the device.

Happily, we discovered that in a campsite with a strong enough signal we can both get online at the same time. We leave the MiFi card charging on my desk, Jim gets online by flipping the switch on his laptop, and I can get online with a little 3-inch long Cisco LinkSys wireless network USB adapter plugged into my computer:

Hooray! We've had that gizmo for over a year and Jim's used it on his computer to capture free WiFi in various places, but we didn't know it worked on my computer any more until just recently; it still doesn't when we have a weak signal. When we go back to our house in the spring and have access to all of the software disks that go on my computer Jim may completely reload all of it to see if that takes care of the WiFi access problem. When it was new, it worked OK. The problem may not be resolved until I get a new laptop someday.

It's great when we can save our MiFi gigabytes by using an unsecured WiFi connection in a campground. Jim's laptop does this better than mine. We rarely stay in a place that has free WiFi at the campsites but Jim's gotten pretty good at finding free connections elsewhere that don't require a password. Sometimes he drives to the campground office, visitor center, or into the nearest town to use his laptop when he wants to download a video or watch a TV show that takes too many megabytes on our slower connection. He can usually just set up the computer on the console between the front seats and stay inside the truck. He does this at Laundromats with WiFi, too.

Always be careful when you're using an unsecured WiFi connection. We never do any financial business on the computers unless we are using our own secure MiFi card -- paying bills, checking any of our accounts, ordering something online with a credit card, even entering a race.

There are other options including air cards, satellite, external antennas, and sophisticated phones like the Droid for getting on the internet/boosting your power but we're not familiar enough with those to provide any information about them here. You need to research what's best for you.

WHAT ABOUT TV RECEPTION?

TV connections are a whole 'nother issue . . .

We are too frugal (so far) to pay for satellite service but many full-time RVers have it. We don't even have a dish or cable at our house. So far we have relied solely on the antennas that came with our campers.


When Jim was installing the solar panels on the roof of the Cameo last spring
he discovered a hornet's or wasp's nest had been built on it!

Because we rarely stay at private campgrounds with cable hookups or proximity to cities, we often have spotty reception. When we first arrive at a campground Jim often has to spend several minutes fiddling with the antenna to get any stations. It's easier than positioning a satellite dish exactly right every time we move, however.

Sometimes we are able to clearly receive all the major networks and numerous others like PBS or the History Channel. Jim's a real happy camper when that occurs. More often we get only a few stations. Sometimes about all we can get are Spanish-speaking channels -- or nothing at all. That doesn't bother me as much as Jim; he watches TV a lot more than I do.

HOW DO I GET MAIL WHEN I'M TRAVELING?

The best way we've found is to use a reputable professional mailing service that caters to full-time RVers, military personnel, traveling workers, and others who are on the road all or most of the time. There are dozens of these companies across the country. Some offer more services than others.

We first used a mailing service in Montana when we sold our house there in 2004 and traveled in our camper for five months. It worked well for us, as I recall. Since we had sold our house we had to come up with an address for all of our mail. We used the mailing service's address. Everything went there and we'd call every few weeks to tell them where to send our mail (usually a general delivery address at a nearby Post Office). If we hadn't been moving around we could have set up a schedule for them to send it at regular intervals to one address.

Unfortunately, at that time we were clueless about our ability to change our mailing address and legal residency to a state that doesn't have an income tax.


Tater and Cody play in the back yard in Billings, MT a few months before we
sold the house and began full-timing in the HitchHiker.  (October, 2003)

We terminated that service -- and address -- after we bought our house in Virginia and began going out on extended RV trips from there. Our mail continued going to our house address for several years but when we were gone we had it held at our local rural Post Office. We relied on a kindly neighbor to go get our mail at the Post Office every three or four weeks, toss out the ads and other junk mail, and send us the rest in large pre-addressed and stamped envelopes we left with him before each journey began.

That worked fairly well but it was a hassle for the poor guy and we decided that having a professional mailing service would be better for all concerned.

Fortuitously, that's when we "ran into" a new RVing friend a couple years ago who educated us about mailing services that cater more to full-timers than the company we'd used in Montana. We did our homework and soon signed up with one in South Dakota. We've been very happy with their service.

GOING, GOING, GONE

The second recommendation I give folks about getting mail on the road is to eliminate as much paper mail as possible before they go. We began this process seven years ago and now receive very little mail through the USPS.

Some we just can't stop but it's not for lack of trying. We've used that national registry similar to the "Do Not Call" list to eliminate credit card offers and related junk. We've also gone "paperless" when allowed for almost all of our financial statements, utility bills, medical EOBs, and such. Most companies also prefer that because it saves them postage. We just look at the information online and print it out if we need a copy.

We've even eliminated all but one or two magazines to which we previously subscribed and read several of them online now. That saves on our postage costs from the mailing service -- magazines are heavy! Why pay twice for them to reach you? (Postage fees are already included in your subscription price, then you have to pay again for your mailing service to send them to you.)


If you're a Good Sam member you can receive "Highways" magazine
in the mail or you can tell them that you want to access it only online.

Almost all of what little paper mail we still receive via the USPS now goes directly to our South Dakota address at the mailing service. Any first-class mail that still sneaks into our Post Office in Virginia gets forwarded to SD when we're gone. They won't send third-class mail or magazines.

It's kind of ironic when we're at the house. We suspend the forwarding at the local Post Office for the few things that still go there (doctor bills, mostly), have that mail delivered to our mail box . . . and find that 99% of it is local advertising! That's because 99% of what we want (the first-class stuff) goes directly to our SD address. So we pay the mailing service in SD to send our "real" mail to us in VA. Since we're at the house for only a few weeks each time, we just pay to do that once each trip back.

This is so much less complicated if you are full-timing and don't have a house!

When we're on the road we also receive our mail only every three or four weeks. It's a simple process with the mailing service: we go online to schedule a shipment to whatever address we want it sent -- usually a General Delivery address at a post office that accepts general delivery (not all of them do), sometimes to a park or campground address if USPS delivers there, or to our house the few weeks we are in Virginia.

The hardest parts for us are 1) deciding where we want it sent and 2) making sure the address is absolutely correct.

Timing is critical because we don't want our mail arriving after we've left an area. It's OK if it gets there before we arrive. The Post Office is supposed to hold general delivery mail for 30 days. If we have it sent to a park or campground, we call and ask them to hang on to it before we get there. Over time we've learned how long it usually takes for our mail to reach us unless a Post Office goofs  somewhere along the route. We get tracking information online and it's interesting to watch -- unless we see there's a screw-up. That happens more often with packages we've ordered than our mail.


This is the Good Sam members' online version of "Highways" magazine.
Members can also access back issues.

Our mailing service has three levels of service for individual customers (and a more complicated one for businesses). They will toss out the junk mail before sending it in the highest level, which costs $159/year. We chose the middle level of service since we get less mail and virtually no junk; it costs us $119/year plus about $4.95 each time we request that our mail be sent to us. The company sees how much the package weighs, then sends it the cheapest way unless we request faster delivery or a particular carrier. Regular USPS delivery usually gets to us several states away in only two or three days.

I mentioned this company caters to full-timers and other people who are on the road all the time. In addition to collecting and distributing their mail, they also dispense detailed information to their members about using South Dakota as a home base if they are interested in making it their legal domicile -- how to get a driver's license, how to register to vote, etc. They also (for a reasonable fee) will do all the leg work at the county and state level to obtain your vehicle registration and/or make sure the dealer does all the paperwork correctly when you purchase a new vehicle, especially from another state -- or you can do all that on your own with the proper local and state agencies.

Our mailing company is professional yet very friendly in person and on the phone. The owner and staff welcome members to drop in when they're in town. They've grown so much they are building a new mail processing facility complete with RV sites and simple repairs for visiting members. The bad news for us is that we have to change our mailing address with everyone again. If you have questions about the company we use, send us an e-mail.

Each mailing service offers different services at different costs. Some have been around longer than others and have their act down pat. It's pretty easy to research these companies on the internet and make comparisons -- easier than some of the other research you'll need to do before hitting the road in your RV!

HOW DO I MANAGE MONEY ON THE ROAD?

As long as you have a computer, cell phone, and decent internet connections, managing your finances in an RV while you're traveling around the country is about the same as it is in a stationary dwelling. They key is doing everything possible online.

I strongly recommend setting everything up before you leave town, whether you'll be traveling for an extended period or full time. It's easier that way if you have to sign something, and it allows you to just go and have fun instead of dealing with so many details on the road. You can tweak whatever needs tweaking later as you see how everything is working for you.


If you get your ducks in a row before leaving, you'll enjoy the journey more.
(On the road to Silverton, CO, June, 2010)

Cell phone numbers and bank accounts are portable so you probably won't have to change them even if you change your legal domicile. Just be sure those businesses have your new legal and/or mailing address.

If you change your residency and still write checks, get new ones with the proper address. It's safest to pick them up at the bank or credit union instead of having them mailed to your house or somewhere along your route. Identity thieves love to raid mailboxes for boxes of blank checks!

If you don't already have your accounts set up to view your statements online and for direct deposits, withdrawals, fund transfers between accounts, etc. -- do that ASAP.  Arrange for automatic payments of things like insurance or vehicle payments that are the same every month and set up online payment accounts for other bills that fluctuate, like credit card accounts. We keep a detailed spreadsheet on the laptop to keep up with all this.

We were doing most of these things even before we began our more extensive RV lifestyle in 2004. We soon got to the point that we rarely wrote a check for anything. Even one-time bills like medical bills we can usually either pay online or with a phone call. We take several checks with us on trips in case we need them, however. We sometimes have to use them for forest service campgrounds that don't take reservations or credit cards, for a few races that aren't set up to take entry fees online, and other things.


In some places we go, it's a good little drive into town to get our mail and run other errands.
(View of Logan Canyon, UT from the Crimson Trail, September, 2010)

I can't imagine living on the road and doing all this by mail unless you're hunkered down in one place for months at a time. We get our snail mail so infrequently that we'd never get bills paid on time if we relied solely on paper statements and check-writing.

Some RVers like to use debit cards in lieu of or in addition to credit cards. We've been reading/listening to Clark Howard long enough (20 years?) to know the hazards of debit cards so we never use one. We also rarely have cash on hand except quarters to pay for Laundromats. We use one primary credit card that gives cash back and we pay off the balance every month. That simplifies our lives.

Here are three more money-management tips for RVers:

Because of the burgeoning dangers of having your identity stolen and the increased difficulty of resolving an issue like that on the road, we recommend that you put a credit freeze on your files with all three credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. In fact, do this even if you don't travel around in an RV! This is something else we learned years ago from Clark Howard. It's a bit of a hassle if you need to thaw out one or more of the files to change your phone plan, get a loan, or even get your free annual credit report, but we think it's well worth it in the long run. It's more secure and cheaper than paying for other types of credit protection. It's free in some states to freeze and/or thaw and costs up to $10 per person and occurrence in others.

        
Best way we know to eliminate the IRS . . .

Be sure to take with you in your camper all the paperwork you think you'll need to file your tax return if you'll be on the road when you're struggling with that issue! We've been doing ours with TurboTax software for a long time. Some of our end-of-year tax paperwork still comes in the mail but most of the information we can access online. We take receipts and other paperwork with us for proof of our current and previous deductions for about three years in case we get audited and we're 2,500 miles from the paperwork that's at our house.

You should also probably carry with you important original documents like your birth certificate, Social Security card, and passport in a locked, fire-proof, hidden safe in your RV. We also take copies of our wills, powers of attorney, insurance policies, medical files, contracts, the truck and camper files, warranties, and other important papers we may need while we're traveling.

So many things to consider . . .  but don't get totally bogged down in them or discouraged from embarking on an exciting new chapter in your life.

Next topic in this series cost considerations -- how to make your dream RV lifestyle a reality

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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