Trust me on this, traveler: Sending picture postcards to friends and family spreads joy back home and in the process reveals aspects of your destination you’d otherwise miss. I know this because I am an obsessive picture postcard sender, as you’ll see.
You’ve already guessed, from your own mailbox perhaps, that sending picture postcards is a dying art (and it really can be an art if done right). Years ago tens of millions of them were sent worldwide annually. These days fewer than 5 million are sold, and many of these are for souvenirs, not mailing. Blame Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
I eschew social media, mostly on sociopolitical grounds, so instead of impersonal brag posts of my travels, I reveal my whereabouts, and show my peeps I’m thinking of them, by sending postcards.
And not just any postcards. I shop for them with a connoisseur’s eyes. Whatever the subject, they have to be of highest quality, not the 10 for $1 variety.
Why send them, when a blast on Instagram to everyone you’ve ever met is so easy?
Because that’s impersonal. Because your pals haven’t received one in years. Send to delight them! To surprise them! To be different from the social media scrum.
And to surprise yourself, perhaps. You’ll encounter people you’d otherwise never meet and learn unexpected and amusing things about the country and city you’re visiting.
More than once in France (it’s always France for some reason — perhaps a national obsession with thrift) I’ve argued with a postal clerk that it’s OK to buy two beautiful or interesting stamps and pay a bit more in postage than a single tedious stamp for the exact required amount. “But Monsieur is paying too much!” she will scold, even if it’s 5 cents more.
“Let me see if there’s a cheaper way” (futilely searches through vast book of stamps, page after page, and produces a plain and dowdy item depicting a female bust — Marianne, the mythical symbol of France).
“No! I don’t want cheaper. I want the pretty ones!”
Exasperated Gallic shrug to dismiss totally fou tourist with nothing better to do than waste money.
Don’t get me wrong. Send 20 or even 10 postcards, and you can be talking serious cash, depending on where you are. It’s puzzling how different countries charge vastly different amounts to send a postcard overseas. It can cost more than $4 in Switzerland, but pennies in a country like Fiji, where a postmistress greeted me with “Tell me all about your day!” (Fiji isn’t known as the world’s happiest country for nothing) and then actually wanted to hear all about my day.
In the U.K. the post office also issues “figurehead” stamps in many denominations, all looking alike except for the color, depicting the bust of the ruling monarch, including one for the exact amount required for international postcards. These are unlovely in a particularly British way. But His Majesty’s P.O. issues a huge range of gorgeous commemorative first-class stamps meant for domestic use (much like our “anytime” stamps in the U.S., they have no denomination). Let’s say one of these cute stamps sells for 45 pence and the going rate for an international postcard is 90 pence. So you’d put two of these beauts on a card, right? But a postmistress in Scotland insisted that my gifts (for that’s what they are) would not arrive thus stamped.
Unsure, I sent a test to myself. It arrived just fine, and on all subsequent visits to the country I would use only the pretty stamps.
This same buzzkill insisted that an irregularly shaped postcard of a red double-decker bus would require extra postage. Wrong again. These triumphs over postmistresses can be thrilling.
Some postal clerks are more agreeable than others. Years ago I brought my cards to a post office near my favorite hotel, the oasis-like Park Hyatt Tokyo, in the Shinjuku district.
“Welcome to the post office!” the lone clerk (I was the lone customer) boomed, in Japanese of course, so I’m just guessing really. Maybe he really said don’t slam the door. No translation was required to determine why I was there, and he leafed through my unstamped postcards to gauge the appropriate postage. Luckily, he had only interesting stamps.
But here’s the reveal: Rather than handing the cards and stamps back to me after paying, he carefully de-perforated them, moistened them, and with total precision (this is Japan, after all) affixed them. I was quite shocked, expecting everything to be tossed back to me like they do, say, everywhere else.
Postcarders also learn a lot about hotel culture. Some hotels, like the glorious Alcron in Prague, will stamp (admittedly, machine stamp) your postcards for free, as many as you like, which can be quite a perk if you’re sending a lot. Some hotels won’t even accept postcards for mailing, stamped or not. “Guests blame us if the post doesn’t arrive” the lugubrious clerk at London’s St. Pancras Renaissance told me without apology.
Go on a trip with think-of-everything Micato Safaris and they provide lovely postcards with lovely stamps for free and mail them for you. No hunting for a mailbox in the Serengeti!
Not that hunting for the post office can’t be fun; it can be enlightening. Some post offices are quite beautiful, even majestic, like the central one in Prague for example (I declined the free postage at the Alcron, as you can imagine). Some can be impossible to find, like the ones in Denmark, where they’ve done away with them altogether (an ominous development you’d have missed had you not been postcarding).
What to write once you’ve acquired the cards and the stamps? Here’s the thing: postcards are small. After you affix the stamps and write the address, and maybe add a bright blue “Par Avion/Air Mail” sticker for good measure, there’s not much room to pontificate. It’s the thought that counts, truly. Your recipients will be surprised and pleased no matter what you write. They’ll get it that you went out of your way, even on your fab vacay, to delight them old-school. Your card will be the only piece of mail they’ll receive all week that isn’t a solicitation to join AARP or open a new credit card or try the menu at the new taqueria. You bought the cutest cards, you chose the most colorful stamps, addressed them (I bring labels already addressed, printed on my computer), and then found a mailbox, which is sometimes the hardest part of the project.
Try to be a bit less mundane than “Wish you were here!” but no need to go overboard; you’ve done enough already. Describe something funny that happened. “The postmistress gave me a hard time for spending more than I needed! But aren’t these stamps dope?” Or “This stamp cost $5 and the card $3. This is all you’re getting” are favorites of mine.
Also, please do not use those apps that for a fee will arrange your snapshots on the front of a card and on the back print your greeting and mail them from the recipient’s country. They’re tacky and ugly. My friend Lew does this all the time. No, it’s actually not better than nothing.
OK, you won’t be traveling for a while, but so what? Send a postcard from wherever you are. It doesn’t have to be Paris or Bangkok. Tulsa will do. Chicago will do. Buffalo has nice postcards. So does Appleton, Wisconsin. The “like” you’ll get, your recipient’s smile, will be just as warm.