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Kirk's Travel Tips #4

This is the fourth in a series on how to make travel and trips more enjoyable. This week, we look at passports to fun!

 This is my own personal blog, and not the opinion of the station nor anyone else!

If you're within a month of your trip, this advice is going to come too late to assist you now, but it's still good advice to any others who are considering maybe, someday, taking a trip outside the continental USA.

First of all, you can't wait until the last minute to apply for a U.S. passport.  This is a credential that proves who you are, so that you may be readmitted back into the country.  

It wasn't always this way.  When I was growing up in Michigan, it was nothing to drive to Ontario and cross over into Canada for a day for any reason.  Just a few included: the Windsor rose garden, the Stratford on Avon theater, the Belle Island Zoo, or a trip to Jason's club (don't ask, just remember bachelor parties frequently went there!)

But these days, everyone needs to be aware they will be challenged.  Their passport allows ease of passage both going and coming across the border...any border.

Second, there are at least four different types of passports that I am aware of, and probably more.  Most of us will have the traditional blue pocket-book style passport with your photo and identification. There are additional pages for stamps that will approve and prove your travel across national lines. These days, the passport has a magnetic strip so that it can be swiped and scanned quickly and easily. 

The next type of passport is basically a credit card for those motorists who live on one side of the border, but commute to cross into the other, and back again each day.  This is basically a picture ID that can be kept in your wallet and is used daily.

A third type is an identification for governmental officials and law enforcement types, and I know very little about it, except that it exists and can expedite any crossing.

There's at least a fourth type, and I know NOTHING about it or how it works.

Why do you need your passport if you are going to Canada, Alaska or Hawaii?  Many will tell you it's not needed when you fly within the possessions of the U.S.A.  However, the passport can still be swiped at the airport to confirm who you are and that you're there to board whatever flight.  In the case of Alaska, you could cross over into and back through Canada along the international inland waterway or via the trans-Alaskan highway, and you'll need it for each of the border check points.

Let me also remind you that border patrol agents have NO sense of humor.  They have heard all the cracks and jokes before, and they don't take any guff.  If you're on your own and want to crack wise at the border, good luck. Maybe we'll see you again in a couple of years.  But don't dare try anything if you're on a motor-coach with 40-to-50 others of us.  Just one joker can cause the entire coach to be searched and held up. And then the rest of your trip/vacation will be hell for you as everyone shuns you or gives you the stink-eye from there out.  Just don't do it.

Let me also tell you two short tales from my youth.  Once, when our senior trip went from the Lansing, Michigan area across into Ontario to attend a Shakespeare play in Stratford, our exchange student  "Henry" from Germany came with us.   No one thought much about his presence, but fortunately, he did, and he carried his student VISA with him.  Sure enough, even in the early 1970s, they asked if anyone was NOT a U.S. Citizen, and Henry was spotted.  After a half an hour conversation with the teacher/chaperon inside the border guard office, they confirmed everything about him was legit, and he and we were permitted to continue.  Coming back after midnight, the crossing was much smoother, as they had made a notation that he would be coming back through.

Second, when my maternal grandmother decided in 1966 to make the journey back to the old country (The Netherlands) before she died, she was ready for the flight and came to stay with us for the week prior to her departure. It was noticed that her passport was expired just 3 days before she was to fly out of Detroit.  A rushed phone call to the Federal Building in Detroit, and a 90 minute drive into the big city to see an official resulted in the unprecedented review and approval of her Passport renewal that day, and allowed her to make her flight and the month long trip to Holland.

Unfortunately, the strain and panic of that last minute delay may have set the stage for her stroke later that year that ultimately claimed her life.  But, my point is that she had never considered that her passport might have gone out of date until it was too late.  It was only through the intervention of a senior official to make an old woman's dream come true that she was granted a new passport. That can't happen nowadays. Any such request would invoke a lot of investigation and a denial.

Don't get caught this way.  Most passport applications, even those completed correctly, in black ink and with the correct size and style photo, will take at least 45 days to be processed.  And the process will take even longer, if you are hitting a crunch period when many people are applying.  Give yourself more than two months ahead of your trip to assure no delays.

Also, be prepared to spend more than three hundred dollars for two passport applications for a couple. The federal government has farmed out the application process to post office, government and federal agencies, who can and do tack on their own surcharge to process your application.

When I got my passport, the process was new, and photos taken by the local drug store photo clerk were slightly distorted, and not quite in focus. Though mine were approved, these days they would not be accepted.  The bar has been raised, and the specifications are exact about the quality, size, sharpness, and clarity of such photos.  No longer can you "shoot your own".  And many a post office  will now shoot their own photos on-site.  They'll also review your application, and make sure you filled it out in black ink.  DON'T SIGN IT until you are in front of them. They need to witness it.

All this was being hammered out when I applied several years ago.  And don't let your passport expire.  Start the renewal process about nine months before it expires.  These deadlines may change, but you will certainly complete the process in time if you don't leave it to the last minute.

Also, I have heard that customs agents are concerned about passports that are within a few days or weeks of expiring.  I THINK the reason is concern if you should get sick and not complete your journey round trip before it expires, but I don't know.

Finally, let me remind you that this summary is only my opinion of what you should do. For the exact letter of the law, go to your post office and ask them. They will make an appointment for you to come in when they have personnel scheduled to process applications.

Oh, and don't forget the kids.  These days, school trips and exchange students are an enriching experience.  You may want to get passports for your kids as well.  If they are minors, their expiration dates are/will be shorter than adults.  Why?   Remember how much they grew last year? Do their kiddie photos look like them post puberty?  It should be obvious why their photos will need to be retaken and why new passports will be issued.

Enjoy your trip, and if you have any other tips to pass along, feel free to share them under the comments section below.  I'll try to answer or comment on the best of them.  Aloha!

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