Just when you thought you finally understood which travel documents you need for which vacation destinations, the U.S. State Department is implementing the third and final phase of its Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). On June 1, 2009, passport rules for travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and Caribbean nations will change one last time.
Will the new rules impact your cruise plans? Here's the low-down on the new rules:
Beginning June 1, 2009, all U.S. citizens will need to carry a U.S. passport -- or equivalent -- for any travel by land, sea or air, anywhere outside of the United States. A driver's license or birth certificate will no longer be valid. If you don't have a passport, valid "equivalents" are U.S. Passport Cards and Trusted Traveler Cards (NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST). Passport Cards are Department of Homeland Security-approved limited use passports reduced down to wallet card size, valid for land and sea travel only between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean.
But wait -- some cruise travelers still have a loophole! Passengers on any "closed-loop sailing" -- an itinerary that begins and ends at the same U.S. port -- are not required to carry a passport or other WHTI-compliant document in order to re-enter the U.S. They will, however, still need to present a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver's license) and proof of citizenship (a birth certificate, certificate of naturalization or similar documentation). So if you're sailing to the Caribbean, roundtrip from Miami, a driver's license and birth certificate will suffice, but if your Panama Canal cruise departs from Miami and returns to Los Angeles, you'll need a passport.
To recap: Travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and Caribbean nations now requires the same documentation as travel to other foreign countries, and you'll need a passport for one-way cruise itineraries or roundtrip travel from non-U.S. ports. And don't forget -- if you're cruising to the U.S. state of Alaska, but the ship departs from or arrives in Vancouver, you'll need a passport. However, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are U.S. territories, so you don't need a passport for your roundtrip San Juan sailing.
Even though many cruisers may be exempt from carrying a passport, we strongly encourage everyone to register for one. Why? You'll need this kind of documentation should your travel plans go awry, such as you miss the ship and have to fly to your first port of call, or there's a problem that requires you to debark the cruise and fly home mid-trip. You don't want to be stranded in Mexico, Barbados, Jamaica or any other foreign port without the appropriate documentation. Nor do you want to give up your entire vacation because a flight delay caused you to miss the ship, and you can't legally fly to the next port.
And if you don't have travel plans yet, it's still not a bad idea to apply for your passport now. The process can take up to six weeks, so a passport in hand will let you take advantage of all the fabulous last minute cruise deals out there -- to Europe, for example, or Alaska from Vancouver -- without having to pay more for expedited passport delivery.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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Will New Passport Rules Affect Your Cruise?
May 22, 2009