Image: Passport
Thanassis Stavrakis  /  AP file
Do you or don't you need a passport when you're traveling this winter? The rules just changed and made things a lot murkier, MSNBC.com's Rob Lovitt writes.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/5/2007 5:46:28 PM ET 2007-01-05T22:46:28

If you’re planning a Caribbean cruise or Mexican vacation this winter, you may be able to take one thing off your to-do list. Thanks to a last-minute change in impending federal regulations, you may not need to get a passport after all.

Then again, you might. According to the new regs, some travelers will, indeed, need a passport come January, while others won’t for up to another two years. Stranger yet, whether you will or won’t has less to do with where you’re going than how you intend to get there.

Confused? Trust me, as a guy who just helped his 15-year-old daughter apply for her first passport, I know the feeling.

The story so far
Historically, U.S. citizens have only needed a birth certificate and driver’s license to travel to Mexico and most Caribbean countries. But in April 2005, the federal government announced new, stricter requirements as part of its efforts to strengthen border security.

In a nutshell, the new rules stated that all travelers — including home-bound U.S. citizens — would need a passport to enter the U.S. from the aforementioned destinations, starting in January 2007. (Going away, it seems, isn’t the issue; it’s getting back in.)

Not surprisingly, the travel industry was none too pleased. There would be chaos, they claimed, as people scrambled to comply in time, or worse, canceled their trips due to the added expense. On October 4, their prayers were answered (well, some, anyway) when the president signed off on a partial deadline extension.

Barring additional changes, it breaks down like this: If you’re planning on visiting Mexico or the Caribbean and traveling by air, you will need a passport to get back into the U.S. beginning January 23. If you’re traveling by land or sea, however, you can go without until at least 2008. In other words, if you’re cruising to Cozumel, bon voyage; if you’re flying to Barbados without a passport, you may experience a few bumps on the flight back home.

Just do it
Personally, I think everybody who travels outside the country should have a passport. (Approximately 27 percent of Americans currently have one.) And, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the arguments about the cost or inconvenience.

Currently, a new U.S. passport costs $97 for adults, $82 for children 15 and younger (photos not included). Let’s call it $100 even, which applied to, say, a three- or four-night cruise — the scenario the cruise industry likes to cite — is like tacking on a premium of 25 percent or more.

Clearly, that can be a hefty hunk of change, but it conveniently ignores one fact: Your passport is valid long after your sail-and-sign card no longer works at the bar. (For travelers 16 or over, they’re good for 10 years; for those 15 and younger, five years.) Keep traveling and that “premium” eventually works out to about the price of a couple of piña coladas.

The inconvenience argument is even shakier since there are approximately 8,000 places in the country that accept passport applications, including many post offices, libraries, and city halls. Many are open after 5 p.m., some have Saturday hours, and if you fill out the forms beforehand, the whole process can take 10 minutes or less. (For forms and more information, go here.

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Finally, there are those who argue that the pending deadline will force people to pay even more ($60) for expedited service. Maybe so, but as a guy who has had his daughter’s completed forms on his desk for three months, but only turned them in two weeks ago, blaming anybody else for my procrastination seems a bit like bellyaching.

Trouble in transit
Honestly, I have only one issue with the whole situation. The regulations that were set to go into effect in January applied across the board — everybody was expected to have a passport, whether they were traveling by airplane, cruise ship, or VW minivan.

The latest version takes a more piecemeal approach that’s inconsistent, potentially inequitable, and likely to cause more, not less, confusion at the border this winter. We certainly don’t need any more of that.

So, that’s why I took my daughter down to city hall to get her passport a few weeks ago. She smiled for the camera, I wrote the checks (one for the passport, another for the photos), and the nice lady behind the counter took care of the rest. As it turned out, the regs changed a week later, so she may not need one after all.

Even so, I’m glad we did it. I’m glad to have one less thing to worry about if the regulations change again. And I’m glad my daughter will have a passport, whether she needs it now or not, because I know that someday she will.

A passport is more than just proper ID; it’s a step toward becoming a true traveler.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. If you have feedback for Rob, send him an e-mail.

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