Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Relaxed" passport requirements may still spell trouble

While the U.S. government has postponed till the end of September the requirement that air passengers all have passports to re-enter the U.S. after flying to another country in the Western Hemisphere, and cruise passengers theoretically now have until at least summer 2008 to obtain passports if embarking from a U.S. port, cruise passengers without passports continue to face uncertainty this summer.

Many travelers still find themselves caught in a bind even with the later deadlines. Here's why: untold thousands of U.S. citizens have already mailed off their birth certificates to the passport office in order to get new passports. Others must still send them off with their applications, since under the new regulations the U.S. government is demanding that you show proof you have at least applied for a passport in order to travel out of the country.

The problem: the Canadians, for instance, want to see your birth certificate or some other iron-clad proof of citizenship before letting you enter their country. And if you've had to send yours off with your passport application, you now risk rejection by Canada. (Somehow, the U.S. State Department has overlooked the fact that other countries have entry requirements, too.)

For cruise passengers heading off on Alaska cruises via the port of Vancouver, Canada, this could pose a serious -- yet unexpected -- problem.

Carnival Cruise Lines, for one, now recommends that all Americans carry passports on their cruises if possible, even if embarking from a domestic port. That's because if you have to fly home from another Western Hemisphere country early, say, because of illness, you'll be out of luck if you don't have a passport once the requirements go back into effect. The same is true if you miss your cruise at its embarkation point and have to fly to another country to board at the next port.

With a huge backlog of passport applications piling up, the U.S. State Department has already ruined the vacation plans of thousands of citizens who haven't been able to get new or renewed passports soon enough to make the trips they had planned to places like the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, and Bermuda.

Possible relief is on the way: legislation is now working its way through Congress to delay all the passport requirements until the summer of 2009. Members of Congress have been inundated with complaints from constituents who are missing vacations, weddings, even business trips due to the black hole of State Department bureaucracy.

The only thing that's certain is that confusion and incompetence reign in the departments of State and Homeland Security. As always, stay tuned for further developments in one of the great travel fiascos of our time.

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