Managing things at home during an extended trip

This item appears on page 36 of the March 2019 issue.

When you're away from home for more than 30 days on travel outside of the US, how do you handle your mail, and what arrangements do you make to pay bills, watch the house, etc.? Bill Hutchinson wanted his fellow ITN subscribers to write in on that subject. We printed a number of travelers' responses in the last issue and are presenting the remainder now (including some of Bill's own tips!).


My travel companion and housemate, Margo, and I manage to leave home for six months each winter. What we do to prepare for our six months of travel may be of interest to — and easily applied by — someone who is leaving home for 30 days or more.

We started out by leaving home for two, three or four months in the winter each season, but as time went on, we realized we didn't want to be in Michigan during the winter at all!

In fact, once everything in the house was closed up and/or turned off, it almost became more affordable to be away than to stay in our home in the winter, thus we extended our time away, leaving home in the fall sometime in late September or early October and returning home in April.

Please keep in mind that how we prepare to leave has taken some practice, and we continue to tweak our "to do" list annually. This past year, it seemed our predeparture technique was just about perfect, as we were able to "move" back into our home within an hour or so after returning.

It has taken us several years to perfect how we handle the mail, and it has also taken constant diligence to stay on top of it. Everything that can go "paperless" is now paperless. The only magazine that arrives by mail is ITN! (I still like to hold and read an actual magazine in my hands.)

We don't fill out any forms for free or giveaway stuff that advertisers can use later to send us junk mail. We used to put our name and address on the "Do Not Mail" list but haven't been able to locate that service lately. However, that still does not deter some of the persistent advertisements from arriving at our doorstep.

If it's addressed to "occupant or current resident," there is nothing we can do, BUT if the advertisement comes addressed in my name, I immediately call their office and ask to be removed from their mailing list. You have to be persistent, as some vendors may give you a hard time. If the same company sends another mailing, call again until they get the message.

We now have very little mail piled up when we return home after six months. When living in a condo, we paid our neighbor to take in our mail and store it in a box; there was no need for her to go through it. Now that we're living in an apartment, our landlady takes in our mail. She throws it in a box, and we sort it out when we get home. After our last trip, it took only about a half hour to sort out our mail, since the pile was so small.

Utility bills and charge-account bills, etc., are all paid online. We usually don't use our charge account while traveling, so, really, the only bills we get are utility bills — gas and electricity. We are notified online when the bill comes through, and we have it set up for an automatic draft to be made through our Charles Schwab bank account.

Incidentally, Charles Schwab has saved our life. We love this company and have utilized their services for years for bill pay. We have called them from all over the world when necessary and have always spoken with someone in the States who was patient and considerate.

When my credit card got chewed up in Thailand, Schwab sent another one overnight. When my mother died while I was in Vietnam, they helped me with our joint accounts. It seems no problem is too big for them.

As for filing income taxes, we have our tax accountant file an extension on ours every year so we don't have to deal with that as soon as we get home.

We moved to an apartment two years ago, since we wanted to travel more and not be pinned down to a condo. (Other travelers could try the same, if traveling is most important to them in their senior years.)

Most people leave cars behind when they travel. While we had the condo, for six months we rented a storage unit that was big enough to hold our vehicle. We purchased a trickle-charger for the battery, and the owner of the storage unit would attach it and start our car once a month while we were away.

Now that we're living in an apartment, our landlord does the same thing, and we don't have to rent a storage unit anymore because our apartment comes with a garage.

To prepare our home…

• We disconnect and drain the hot-water tank. Tanks are notorious for getting small leaks, as ours once did, and then they can flood your place. It needs to happen only one time for you to learn to drain the water heater before leaving. Note: You must disconnect the electricity or natural gas first before draining it.

• During the winter season in colder climates, if the power goes off during a severe storm, it may result in pipes freezing and bursting, so we shut off water to the toilets, sinks and tubs/showers, etc., before leaving on our trip. Of course, this won't happen in warmer climates.

• We completely drain the toilet tank and bowl. The reason for completely draining the toilet bowl is that, when the water sits in the bowl for six months, it will leave a "ring" around the bowl which may be impossible to remove.

• I unplug everything electric, including clocks, lamps and small appliances. I just don't want a power surge to blow up electronics while I'm away. (I once had a toaster oven that remained warm even when it was in the off position. I have since replaced the unit, but now I don't trust the switches on them.)

• I set the furnace at 55°F.

• We cover most of the furniture with old sheets.

“Remember to take — and keep safe — a list of user names/passwords for your bank and credit card accounts so you can access them online.”

• We notify our banks and credit card companies, etc., of our travel plans, including the dates we'll be away and the countries we'll be visiting.

We travel with an unlocked smartphone so that, when we arrive in each country, we can purchase a SIM card with data only. This really works for us. If we need to call the States, we use an app, such as Whats App, LINE or Skype.

Carole Shereda
Plymouth, MI



For many years, my husband and I escaped the New York City winter by spending six to eight weeks in a tropical location, such as South America or Southeast Asia. Our longest stay was four months in Central America. Now we spend six months in NYC and six months in Naples, Florida, and our international trips are shorter.

We are lucky to be in a doormanned building in NYC, with our best friend, Laurie, just across the hall from us. If there are issues, Laurie or the building super can take care of them.

Being away for long periods has become easier with electronic payments and email.

When we're in Florida or out of the country, Laurie picks up our NYC mail and sorts through it, then scans and emails to us anything that looks urgent. (As I said, I am lucky to have her as a friend.)

During the six months we live in NYC, we have our Florida mail forwarded to NYC. Also, we hire a professional home-watch company to check our Florida condo once a week. (The company is local to the Naples/Ft. Myers area and was recommended to us by my brother-in-law.)

I have automated all bill payments. Most of the payments do not require any initiation on my part.

While on long international trips, just to make sure that no one has tapped into my credit cards or bank accounts, I give my brother my log-on information for the main bank account and credit card. Every 10 days or so, he logs into the accounts, takes screen shots of the activity and emails those to me. When overseas, it is too dangerous to use a public computer (such as one in a hotel lobby or library) to logon to bank websites.*

It is important to have a trusted individual named as your emergency contact. Set it up so that he or she has permission to authorize repairs or make decisions about your property when you are off the grid.

Nili Olay
New York City, NY

*Because emails are encrypted, they are generally secure. However, if you're on a public computer or network (such as free Wi-Fi), your email password is vulnerable to being stolen. Steps you can take to avoid information theft on a public network include plugging your laptop directly into the ethernet (assuming the hotel has not been compromised) or using a VPN, or virtual private network. Using a cell phone connected to a cell network to access accounts is also secure.



About a year ago, I made an extended trip to the Far East and, a few weeks prior to that, a 2-week trip to Poland. I left my house (and pets) in the hands of my caregivers, who also live there. Handy solution!

The point is, the best solution for anyone taking long trips is to hire, beg or cajole someone to live in your house while you're gone.

In addition to having someone there to take care of the mail and other necessities, a lived-in house is less likely to be broken into.

Nancy England
Oak Ridge, TN



Where would we be today without the Internet and those small computers — smartphones — we carry in our purses/pockets? While these make it easier to be away from home for weeks on end, there are still a few things to do prior to departure.

In addition to our packing list, my husband, Leo, and I have a 3-page checklist of everything that needs to be done before we leave. It includes the following:

• Be sure to contact the various credit card companies and your ATM bank to advise them of your travel plans as well as to set up alerts on all credit card/bank accounts. (Even if only $1 is charged, I immediately receive email notification.) You don't want to wait until your monthly statement is issued or received to find out about a fraudulent purchase!

Set up "bill pay" on your checking-account bank's website in order to pay any credit card bill when you receive notification that it is due. (Also do this with your money market account, if you have one and if this option is available.) I always make sure these bills are paid one week before the due date.

Also, set it up so your bank pays recurring bills automatically, such as car payments, homeowner-association dues, mortgage, etc. (My Bank of America account has this option.) Additionally, arrange with all utility companies (such as water, electric, phones, etc.) to have the amounts deducted from your checking account.

Before you leave home, check to see if any insurance premiums or IRS quarterly payments will be due during your absence. If so, either mail the payment before you depart or leave a stamped/addressed envelope that includes the payment stub/check with a friend and attach a note as to when that envelope should be mailed.

It is essential that you're able to access your credit card companies' websites in order to check credit card bills online when you receive the alert that payment is due. You can elect to receive your bill electronically, but you can also receive it via "snail" mail if that's your preference.

Remember to take — and keep safe — a list of user names/passwords for your bank and credit card accounts so you can access them online.

For security, when you're ready to access your credit card or bank info from overseas, you should use a VPN (virtual private network) on your smartphone or tablet. I use Avast (844/340-9251,, which costs $19.99 a year if purchased through Apple's App Store. (Be sure to write your user name/password on the list that you'll have with you.)

• We live in a gated community, so our mail may be handled differently than that of anyone living in a regular neighborhood or in an apartment complex.

Our post office will not hold mail longer than 30 days without additional authorization.* To receive this authorization, I mail the first completed yellow Form 8076 to our post office authorizing them to hold our mail for 30 days. I then fill out a second form authorizing mail to be held for the balance of our trip and give this second form to a trusted friend/neighbor to mail for me on an appointed day. If we'll be gone longer than 60 days, I prepare an additional form.

In our case, after the first 30-day hold expires, the post office delivers a bin containing the held mail to our front door (which happens to be in an enclosed, screened-in entry). Our neighbor friend knows to look for it and then stores it in our garage. (Obviously, you'll need to check with your post office to see what procedures they recommend.)

In addition, during the time we are on our trip, our neighbor checks our curbside mailbox for stray mail.

• You might also want to consider installing a security system, such as Arlo or Ring wireless cameras, so that, with the app on your smartphone or tablet, you can see people approaching your front door (and catch any "porch bandits" in the process). We have cameras in strategic places inside and outside our home.

• As a precaution, I always list our itinerary on the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) website ( On this website, you set up an account and put in the details of an upcoming trip, with dates and the names of your hotels (if known). If you're doing a cruise, you would input the cruise dates and the name of the ship and, in the description area, mention the ports.

You will then receive pertinent travel advisories prior to and during your trip. For example, before our May 2018 Rome-Barcelona cruise with Azamara, we received travel advisories about demonstrations in Rome, so we knew to avoid those areas.

If you'd like more guidance on what we do, or for a copy of our predeparture checklist, please feel free to contact me at

Ann Cyr
Delray Beach, FL

*ITN was told by a USPS employee that some post offices will hold mail for longer than 30 days, but the traveler first needs to talk to the carrier supervisor at his local post office to see if the supervisor will agree to authorize it. A new 30-day Vacation Hold Authorization card may need to be turned in just prior to each successive 30 days' hold.



My husband and I live in a 2-square-mile city totally surrounded by the City of Long Beach. The Signal Hill police do a fantastic job of protecting the residents.

Before we leave on a trip of a week or more, I go to the police station and fill out a form with the specifics, letting them know which neighbor is watching the house and providing them with our phone number and email address (which we also give to the neighbor). If there are any anomalies, such as our expecting to be out of cell-phone range for extended periods, I talk to the duty officer.

(When we're going on a cruise, I make sure the police and our neighbor have our cabin number and the cruise ship's international telephone number, which can be found on the cruise line's website.)

While we're away, the police drive by the house at least once a day. If we're gone for an extended period, they'll do an occasional physical inspection, which includes the backyard.

Because we don't want to give our house key to anyone, we have a keyless-entry system on our front door. Before each trip, we key in a temporary code number that we can give someone for entry should an emergency occur while we're away. This number is deleted upon our return.

Starting in 1999, we used to go on extended trips and cruises at least twice a year, and only once has this planning paid off. On that occasion, the neighbor who was watering our exterior plants noticed water coming out from under our garage door. He left us voicemail messages, but, due to the time difference and our being in a dead zone, we did not immediately receive his messages.

When we got within cell range and received the messages, I called him back and gave him the temporary keyless-entry code. (We also have an ADT home-alarm system, which I had programmed with the same temporary code.) He entered the house, discovered water everywhere, which was due to a slab leak, and turned off the water main.

We caught the next flight and were home the following day to handle the situation. The plumber we hired told us that, in addition to turning off the water heater, we should have turned off the water to the house. A valuable lesson learned!

(As a side bar, we always buy travel insurance, so all changes to our travel plans — and it was quite a significant charge — were covered by travel insurance, thank God! Homeowner's insurance, of course, covered the slab leak.)

Actually, we have two keyless entries. Depending on the conditions, I program one temporary code for entry to the garage (where no valuables are kept) and another for garage and house entry. This way, we can have our neighbor start our car and run the engine for a few minutes every couple of weeks.

Regarding the mail, I used to make arrangements with a neighbor to collect our mail. He would set aside advertisements, junk mail, the standard monthly bills and the like.

After some research, I found Traveling Mailbox (855/749-1737,, a mail-scanning and -forwarding service with which someone can view his postal mail anywhere he has an Internet connection. The service has physical street addresses, not a P.O. box, and offers each user an online mailbox.

It comes in handy for anyone who is on an extended vacation or on a temporary assignment or who does a lot of traveling. Since I am on the road for extended periods, my selected Traveling Mailbox address is my primary mailing address, so all my bills and credit card statements, etc., along with personal mail are sent there. This way, I can view and handle all my mail via the Internet while on the road.

Traveling Mailbox is based out of North Carolina and has multiple offices in many states. When signing up for the service, I had to select the city and state I wanted my mail sent to, then fill out USPS Form 1583, which allows Traveling Mailbox to receive any mail sent to their address. After signing up, within minutes I was assigned a customer number, which is appended (as a unit or suite number) to the address I selected.

When mail arrives at their facility, the envelope or package label is scanned in and put into my online mailbox. I receive an email alerting me that new mail has arrived, and the email includes a scan of the envelope or package.

I log on to Traveling Mailbox's website and can view my inbox, which also has the scan of the envelope or package and, to the right, a Request Action pull-down menu, where I can select to open and scan mail or return, forward, shred or hold it.

"Open and scan" is the service I utilize the most. The feature I use second-most is mail forwarding.

I let the mail accumulate for about a week or until something important needs to be physically received, and then I have it forwarded to me. I can change the forwarding address anytime.

I found out that some major US retailers refuse to ship packages internationally, so when we're in, say, Europe (which is where I'm writing this from, in January 2019), I have any packages sent to Traveling Mailbox, and they forward them to me in Europe.

As soon as I select the European address to which the mail is to be forwarded, I can select what method I want used (First Class, International Priority Mail or UPS Worldwide Save), and I am notified how much each method costs. I do have to pay international shipping rates.

Traveling Mailbox also has a simplified Customs form. Some countries have import restrictions on over-the-counter drugs and other items. It's up to you to know the import laws of the country you are in. (I had a package of 4-Way® nasal spray, and that package did not make it to me overseas because it was a violation of import law.)

Depending on the amount of mail, number of scans, etc., the per-month cost of the service is $15 (40 incoming envelopes, 35 page scans), $25 (100 envelopes, 80 scans) or $55 (200, 180).

Traveling Mailbox does have other services, but I didn't want this to sound like a sales pitch.

Most important of all, make your house look like someone is home.

Bill Hutchinson
Signal Hill, CA