Image: Passport applicants
Eric Risberg  /  AP
Mexican citizens with freshly taken passport photos walk toward a line to enter the Consul General of Mexico in San Francisco. Mexican citizens formed long lines at their consulates in the U.S. a day before a new federal law takes effect requiring passports for air travel between the United States and its neighbors.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/26/2007 1:00:33 PM ET 2007-01-26T18:00:33

Today’s the day.

January 23, that is — the day that new passport regulations go into effect. From now on, air travelers entering the United States will be asked to show a passport. This includes American citizens returning from popular destinations — e.g., Canada, Mexico and many Caribbean countries — where a driver’s license or birth certificate was previously considered acceptable ID.

Truth is, you can still travel to and from all of the above without a passport. The new rule doesn’t apply to border crossings by land or sea (for now, at least), which means you can still drive to Mexico, ride the train to Canada or cruise around the Caribbean. Add in U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and there are plenty of places where no passport is no problem.

So, go ahead and pack your bags. From warm welcomes to hot deals, here’s a look at some places you can go without a passport — and how to avoid unwanted surprises along the way.

Island escapes by air
Looking to escape winter’s wild weather? As U.S. territories, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are exempt from the new regulations, which means that American citizens arriving directly from the U.S. never need a passport regardless of how they arrive.

And tourism boosters are rolling out the welcome mat. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, several hotels are offering No Passport Required discounts. Save 15 percent off the nightly rate at the Divi Carina Bay Resort on St. Croix or 25 percent off a five-night stay at The Westin St. John. (Dates vary and bookings must be made by January 31.)

Or, consider Puerto Rico Now!, a new promotion from Liberty Travel. Book a package at one of more than 30 hotels and you’ll receive a $300 credit toward your airfare. (Some hotels will also throw in a fourth night free.) Book between February 8­­­–19 for travel through September 15.

Canada by car
Driving to Canada is another option, since you won’t need a passport for land crossings until at least January 1, 2008. For those lucky enough to live nearby, that means Vancouver, Niagara Falls and other cross-border getaways are as accessible as ever. Better yet, winter is typically the off-season, meaning fewer crowds and better deals.

In Niagara Falls, the Winter Magic Pass provides admission to four local attractions, including the Skylon Tower and Journey Behind the Falls. During the winter, adult passes are just $27.69 Canadian, plus tax. At nearby Great Wolf Lodge, Winter Magic packages (starting at $259 per night Canadian, plus tax) combine accommodations, two Winter Magic Passes, and entrance to the resort’s massive (103,000 square feet!) indoor waterpark.

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics are just getting under way, but you can already experience at least one venue first-hand. Head to Cypress Mountain, 30 minutes from downtown, and you can hit the same slopes that will attract the world’s best snowboarders three years from now. For lodging options, visit Tourism Vancouver.

Hassle-free on the high seas
You can also cruise to Mexico and the Caribbean without a passport — again, until at least January 2008. Just remember: If your plans include flying home from outside the U.S., then the new air-travel rules apply. The same is true if you need to fly home on short notice due to an accident or emergency.

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Fortunately, if you’re sailing out of the U.S., there are near-endless options, with new ships and new itineraries adding more choices all the time. The sparkling-new Norwegian Pearl, for example, is now sailing out of Miami, offering five- and nine-night cruises to the Western and Southern Caribbean. A 14-night option, combining both itineraries, is also available.

Meanwhile, several cruise lines, including Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, have returned to New Orleans — good news for both the city and cruisers across the Midwest. And westerners will have another option for visiting Cabo San Lucas when Carnival begins offering regular cruises from San Diego, starting in June.

What if?
Of course, everything will change yet again once passports are required for border crossings by land and sea, probably some time in 2008. And even that may change if the government moves forward on the proposed “passport card,” a less-expensive, wallet-sized ID card, although no implementation date has been announced yet.

All of which leaves one last question: What happens if you’re supposed to have a passport but show up at U.S. Customs without one? The good news is that you won’t end up like Viktor Navorski, the man-without-a-country character Tom Hanks played in The Terminal. The bad news is that you’ll probably have to go through secondary screening, which will likely entail extra questioning and added delays as the personal information you provide is verified against multiple databases.

Personally, I’d consider that one more incentive to go ahead and get a passport.

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