By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/5/2007 1:11:54 PM ET 2007-03-05T18:11:54

Since January 27th, passports have been required for Americans flying back to the U.S. from the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada. In the past, showing a driver’s license or birth certificate was good enough. Not anymore. 

Getting passports for everybody can add a lot to the cost of a family vacation. At $95 for adults and $82 for children under the age of 16, a family of four will spend an extra $354.

“I think it is very cost prohibitive for a lot of Americans,” says Anne Banas, Executive Editor of SmarterTravel.com.

Because of that, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are now marketing themselves as “no passport destinations.” And hotels in the Caribbean are fighting back with a number of money saving offers.

Steve Danishek, a travel expert in Seattle, told me the Caribbean Hotel Association estimates a 10% drop in American tourist traffic this year. That would be a loss of about $2.3 billion. “So yes, they have an incentive to do whatever they can do to draw people in,” Danishek says.

We’ll pay for your new passport, sort of
Hotels and resorts in the Caribbean have responded with a variety of promotions aimed at American tourists traveling for the first time with their new passports. In most cases, the amount of the discount or upgrade is equal to the cost of a passport.

Some of these incentive offers are country-wide. For instance, it doesn’t matter where you stay on the island of St. Maarten, as long as the island is the first stamp on your passport. When you arrive you’ll get $100 in “St. Maarten Bucks” that can be used like cash at restaurants, retail stores, rental car companies, and spas. This promotion, which runs through December 17th, also applies to renewed passports – something I have not seen anyplace else.

Jamaica’s “Passport to Rewards Programme” is similar. If Jamaica is the first place you use your newpassport and you stay at a participating hotel, you’ll get credits of up to $200. They can be redeemed for benefits such as room upgrades, extended stays, late checkout, gift shop purchases, spa services, and golf course green fees.

Many of these programs expire at the end of March, but I found a few that last longer. For all of them, this must be the first time you use your new passport and a minimum stay is required.

Some hotels have their own reward offers

  • From now through June, guests at the Sheraton and Westin Grand Bahamas Island can get a $100 per room resort credit if they bought their passport between August 2006 and January 2007.
  • The Westin Aruba Resorts, Spa & Casino is giving out $50 food and beverage credits for each guest. The Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino gives a $100 resort credit per room.  
  • Show your new passport at a Marriott or Renaissance resort in the Caribbean or Mexico and you’ll get a $100 per room resort credit. This offer is good until April 30.

Passport promotions are also being offered by some hotels in Mexico and Montreal. Fly into Montreal International or Mexico City International airport and stay at a W hotel in those cities and your new passport will get you a free taxi ride to the hotel and a free drink when you arrive. To qualify, you need to stay for 3 nights or more and use specific cab companies.

How do you find out about these offers?
It isn’t easy. There isn’t one central clearinghouse. Travel expert Steve Daniskek says in many cases these special deals will only be offered through tour operators.

And as I discovered when I went looking for these passport promotions, they aren’t prominently displayed on many hotel Web sites.  I have no idea why.

If you’re booking your own vacation to Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean and you need to get a new passport for that trip, ask the hotel what they’ll do for you. Also, be sure you know the specifics of the discount. Some are per person, others are per room. That’s a big difference.

Here are links to some of the big passport promotions:

Rules will change again in 2008
In January of 2008, anyone entering the country via land or sea will also have to show a passport at the border checkpoint. Last week, Homeland Security announced it was relaxing those rules for children 15 or young. They will be allowed to enter using a certified copy of their birth certificate.

Homeland Security also announced that children 16 to 18 years old who are with a religious, cultural, school, or athletic group and under adult supervision, will also be allowed to use their birth certificates.

Warning: Passports can be useless even before they expire
Many countries require passports to be valid for at least 6 months past the time you plan to leave the country. If not, they won't let you in. So if you already have a passport, be sure you check the expiration date well in advance of your trip.

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