By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 7/23/2007 2:32:37 PM ET 2007-07-23T18:32:37

Stephanie Hemphill was psyched about her upcoming family cruise to the Caribbean. Her sister was graduating from Arizona State University, and the sisters hadn't seen each other in two years. Plus, it would be a nice getaway for Stephanie and her husband, Kevin.

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The Hemphills knew that passport rules had changed at the beginning of the year and that they would need passports for the trip, so they applied for their passports on March 3 — two months and 17 days before their cruise. They had to stand in line for more than five hours at the passport office in Charlotte, N.C., where they live, and the wait made Stephanie a little nervous.

"We asked the clerk if we should expedite the transaction," Stephanie says. "The clerk said no, because we would have our passports back on May 4th. Our Royal Caribbean ship was leaving Galveston on May 20th, so we thought we were fine."

They weren't fine at all. When May 4 came and went with no sign of the passports, the Hemphills started to worry. Stephanie called the passport bureau's toll-free number and was told that the passports were being processed and that the bureau would expedite them.

"We kept calling every day," Stephanie says. "Many of the days you could not get through."

Welcome to passport hell
The U.S. Department of State, which handles all U.S. passport applications, set records in March and April when it issued more than 3 million passports, up about 33 percent from last year. The surge in applications came after new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative regulations went into effect requiring passports for air travel to Canada and Mexico and for all air and sea travel to Bermuda and to all non-U.S. jurisdictions in the Caribbean. (Under the new regulations, U.S citizens can still travel to St. Thomas, St John and Puerto Rico without passports.)

The State Department tried to manage the overflow by hiring hundreds of new employees and allowing overtime hours for current employees at regional passport offices; unfortunately, the changes were not nearly enough to accommodate the demand. At the end of June, more than 500,000 of the 2.9 million passport applications then in process had been in the system more than 10 weeks, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The Hemphills continued to call the hotline, asking to speak to supervisors, in an effort to track down their applications. They also asked Royal Caribbean to let them sail with copies of their birth certificates for identification (the originals were with the State Department), but the cruise line said its hands were tied. Two days before their cruise, when they were scheduled to drive to Galveston, Texas, the Hemphills tried one last time to find their passports; again, nobody could help.

The couple gave up, and on May 20, Rhapsody of the Seas sailed off with the rest of Stephanie's family. Three days later, the Hemphills' passports arrived.

The processing delay cost the Hemphills their cruise and the chance to celebrate with Stephanie's family. But there was one bright spot in all the aggravation: The Hemphills had purchased Royal Caribbean's trip insurance, which includes a cancellation penalty waiver. Under the terms of the waiver, if a passenger needs to cancel or interrupt his cruise for any one of several specified reasons, Royal Caribbean will waive the nonrefundable cancellation provision of its cruise ticket contract and pay back, in cash, the value of the unused portion of the prepaid cruise vacation. "Passport fiasco" is not one of the specified reasons, so the Hemphills were classified as "no shows"; this meant they could not get their money back in cash, but they were entitled to receive cruise credits amounting of 75 percent of their cruise vacation costs.

How to avoid passport hell
Chaos at U.S. passport offices has left thousands of travelers like the Hemphills stuck at home, many of them holding useless airline and cruise tickets. To ease the logjam, the State Department relaxed passport restrictions on June 8 . Through Sept. 30, 2007, citizens need only a government-issued ID and proof of having filed a passport application in order to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. Sadly, the accommodation came too late for the Hemphills.

So how do you avoid passport hell? Here are some tips:

Plan ahead. Apply for your passport at least four months in advance if possible. Renewals can take as long as a first issue, so check your passport's expiration date. If the passport is due to expire soon and you are planning a trip abroad, check the passport rules for the countries you're visiting. Many countries require your passport to be valid for three to six months beyond the date you enter the country. Also, according to new guidelines from the U.S. State Department, county clerk offices cannot process a passport application if the applicant's birth certificate was issued within that county. This modification was enacted in response to a problem when officials discovered illegally produced birth records. This new rule will be a major inconvenience for many rural citizens since first-time applicants and all children must apply for a passport in person — that may mean a long drive to the clerk's office in the next county.

Applications and instructions are available at passport offices and select U.S. post offices and online at the U.S. State Department's travel Web site. Be sure to write your trip's departure date on the application. Passport officials say they are doing their best to get passports out in time for travelers' departures.

Allow plenty of processing time. The new rule of thumb is to allow at least 14 weeks for a regular application and five weeks for an expedited application. Holidays will slow down the process, sometimes considerably, so if you are planning a trip for early next year, you really need to apply for that passport now.

Expedite the process. If you are leaving within the next three months, pay the additional $60 to expedite your application. The State Department says it will get an expedited passport to you in two or three weeks; in reality, it's taking four and five weeks. If you are truly desperate, hire a "passport expediter," who can get you a faster turnaround for a fee of $100 or more (that's in addition to the $60 State Department expediting fee, which is in addition to the regular $97 fee for an adult's passport). These companies aren't a sure thing, but they do have standing appointments at passport offices around the country; that appointment status effectively allows them to jump the line. To find an expediter, check the National Association of Passport and Visa Services Web site.

Keep good records. Keep all receipts, a copy of your application and records of communication with the passport office. Make sure to note your "Passport Locator Number" when you complete your application at the post office.

Check on the status. Applicants can check their passport's status online on the State Department's Passport Application Status Web site. If you are traveling within the next two weeks, contact the National Passport Information Center at (877) 487-2778. If you haven't already done so, you can request that your application be expedited.

Call your congressional representatives. As a last resort, some travelers have been helped by their representatives in Congress. Every House and Senate member has a staffer who deals with passport problems and usually has a direct line to passport problem solvers. Call the office and speak directly to that staffer.

Get extra copies of your birth certificate. With the delay in implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, additional passport requirements for travelers crossing U.S. land borders and seaports from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean will not go into effect until January 31, 2008 (there is talk that these new rules could be delayed until summer 2008). Until that time, you'll be able to use a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver's license) and a birth certificate. Since one certified birth certificate must be sent with your passport application, it is wise to obtain extra copies of the birth certificate to use for identification until the original one is returned with your passport.

Buy trip insurance. Lastly, protect your hard-earned vacation with trip insurance. It can literally save you thousands of dollars and your sanity.

The Hemphills say the government really let them down, but they are thankful for their trip insurance. They are hoping to use their cruise credits for a Royal Caribbean cruise next year.

And their passports are all set to go.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.

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