The Vagabond Tax

"Actual" stoplight camera footage.

“Actual” stoplight camera footage.

Nobody ever said that bucking convention would be easy or necessarily cost free. We always knew that travelers typically pay more for all kinds of things. But when you travel full-time like we do, those extra charges become something akin to a lifestyle tax.

Some of the penalties travelers pay are in-your-face obvious, like the two-tiered pricing systems used in many places around the world. There’s one price for local residents and a different, higher price for visitors. Other penalties are less obvious, like the way it is more expensive to rent a car at an airport than in town or the way hotel rooms are taxed more highly than just about anything else you buy.

Travelers are even sometimes targeted by law enforcement for special treatment like we were in Fort Collins, CO.

Plenty of other penalties aren’t even deliberate. They arise from the fact that our square-peg lifestyle doesn’t always fit neatly into the round hole designed for everyone else. And that’s certainly the case with one particularly annoying trap that caught us most recently. Ironically it’s something that is designed to make life easier. And for everyone else it almost certainly does. But to us it is the most hateful innovation of all time: the automated traffic toll.

Admission to Tikal National Park in Guatemala is 6 times more expensive for extranjeros (foreigners) than for nationals.

Admission to Tikal National Park in Guatemala is 6 times more expensive for extranjeros (foreigners) than for nationals.

Don’t get me wrong. When I lived in New York I absolutely loved the Northeast’s Easy-Pass automatic toll system. The little box I stuck to my windshield let me bypass toll booths at highway speed. Before that you had to stop every five miles or so on the Garden State Parkway to throw 50 cents in a collection basket (yeah, the GSP really was that annoying).

Building on a good thing, many places extended the automated toll service to every driver on the road regardless of whether they had a pass for the car or not. In many places you no longer have the option of stopping and paying at a booth. An “Eye in the Sky” reads your license plate and sends you a bill by mail. With this in place there is no need for anyone to stop and pay a toll ever again, and it’s bloody awful.

Our problem is that we’re rarely in any one place long enough for our snail mail to catch up with us. When we were traveling in the U.S. we’d typically get mail forwarded to us about once per month. Now that we’re traveling internationally, it’s harder to find places to receive our mail and we’ve been going more like three months between deliveries. By the time we get our mail, these unexpected bills are already overdue and accruing usurious late fees.


Because just letting me pay the increased amount now would be too easy.

We first encountered this dreaded bill by mail scheme in Florida about three years ago. That case eventually devolved into calls from bill collectors trying to retrieve our $1.15 toll (and $75 in fees). Of course nobody cared that the original bill hadn’t even been sent to us until a year after we left Florida. They just knew it was 15 months past due.

More recently we received a €90 citation for presumably running a red light somewhere in France. I don’t recall doing it, but shit does sometimes happen. Whether I rolled through the light or not I figure I’ll just suck it up and pay. Only I can’t. The original bill is now more than 90 days past due, and I’m told I can no longer pay it with the invoice number I have. I need to wait for a new one to arrive . . . in the mail.

But here’s the thing; that new bill was presumably sent on August 12, 2014. It’s now a month later, and my mail forwarding company says they still haven’t received it. We know that our first bill also took more than a month to arrive.

If that sounds unusually slow, even for snail mail, that’s because it is. It typically takes about a week for us to have mail sent between Europe and the U.S. In this case it sounds like the French are slow-walking our invoices; essentially guaranteeing we’ll pay late.

We even tried calling to see if we could pay over the phone or at least get the new invoice number so that we could pay what we owe online. We explained our mail situation and that we may never get the letter in time for us to pay. “Sorry,” we were told “it is impossible for you to pay now. It is our procedure that you wait for your new bill. You could try sending a letter to L’officer du ministere public and explain your situation.”

And how, we asked, would we get a response from them? “By mail, of course.”

Why are they making it so difficult for us to pay? Maybe because our €90 citation has already skyrocketed to €375, including the late fees we know about. I can’t imagine how much we’ll eventually have to pay when our next bill arrives, assuming it does. The one thing we know for sure, though, is that bucking the status quo rarely comes cheap.


12 Comments on “The Vagabond Tax”

  1. klcompren September 12, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    You might want to check out a web based mail service called, They will receive your mail, scan the envelope and send you an email. You can then view it online and ask for it to be forwarded or opened and scanned. Once they scan it you can view the scan, print it, trash it or save it to your device. Rarely do you need to receive the actual paper. We’ve been using it for about 4 years. Works from anywhere in the world.


    • Brian September 12, 2014 at 11:01 am #

      We’ve looked at services like that and probably will again soon. One complication we have is that our mail forwarding address is our legal address. That impacts everything from where, and how, and whether we can get driver’s licenses to where we vote, where we have to serve jury duty, how much we pay in taxes, or whether we can get health insurance with convenient doctors in their network. From prior research I also know that not all mail forwarding addresses are created equally. With some you can’t open bank accounts or get health insurance (not sure if Obamacare changed that.) The service you recommend looks like they offer a “real physical address” so it might work on at least some (and maybe even all) of these fronts but I’ll have to do a bunch more research to know for sure.

      Thanks for the recommendation.


  2. Dana September 12, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    France is just awfully slow with that kind of thing compared to the USA, unfortunately. Sometimes you are running in circles


  3. pinsannie September 12, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    This is excellent information. Thank you !


  4. Jason September 12, 2014 at 7:23 pm #

    Hi Guys,
    Have you thought of running two or three addresses?:
    Combined – current address to satisfy legal, health care requirements as you have stated.
    Brian – for mail scanning service
    Shannon – for mail scanning service
    You may be able to use the alternate addresses by notifying relevant authorities. You may also be able to arrange with the car hire company in some countries to add the tolls to the bill?
    Check Tim Ferris’s blog, he may have a hack there. Or reach out to him and he may leverage his followers to provide an answer. There must be a way around it, it is BS.


    • Jason September 12, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

      Perhaps use a registered business entity as validation for second address, with your current being the home address. You may be able to use a business credit card linked to the business address to pay for the hire car and that way fines & tolls go to that address?


    • Brian September 13, 2014 at 3:26 am #

      We could certainly try doing something like what you suggest. The cost in hassle of reorganizing our lives around these kinds of things may not be worth the benefits though. They may only happen once every year or 15 months. The other thing is that we never know where they’ll come from. This time it’s a traffic camera that snagged our rental car. On another occasion we got a letter from the IRS demanding a bunch of money in back taxes because one of the companies we do business with sent the government some bad info.

      For the most part we’ve been able to get everyone to send us stuff electronically. There are still a few Luddites, though, who insist on snail mail. Hopefully those folks will come around and this particular problem will take care of itself.


  5. allisonmohr September 13, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    I’m surprised you received actual tickets. We were photographed 5 times in Germany, and had to pay the credit card company for them to identify us to the traffic department. We were photographed twice in Italy in two days, again had to pay the credit card company. But we have never received a ticket from either government. The odd thing about Germany was that 3 of the tickets were from places we didn’t go. So, we lucked out and paid no fines or fees.


  6. africanagirl September 15, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    That the scary thing about being a constant traveler..if only they could attach bills via email attachment but alas!
    I’ve nominated you for the ‘ very inspiring blogger award’


  7. Sarah September 21, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    Earth Class mail provides an actual address as well if you choose. What a nightmare for you, though! I was recently irritated by Florida’s system as well, when I unknowingly began driving on a toll road, had no change (and no credit card was accepted at the booth), and then was told I’d have another toll before I could get off that highway. Then on my way back through that area, I must have come through an open toll, as I received a bill in the mail for that one! Arrggggh.



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