Enterprising New Yorker Builds Igloo During Blizzard, Lists It on Airbnb
Via Metro.co.uk comes our favorite story of the week, about a resourceful Brooklynite who tried to use Winter Storm Jonas to make a buck. He built an igloo in his yard that he then listed on Airbnb for a whopping $200 a night, describing it as a “chic dome-style bungalow for you and bae.” (As appealing as it sounds, don’t waste time trying to book it — Airbnb has since removed the listing.)
Passport Expiring Soon? Renew It Now, State Dept. Says
The U.S. State Department is urging Americans whose passports will expire in the coming year to renew as soon as possible, reports the New York Times. A perfect storm of various factors could overwhelm the State Department later this year, so you’ll want to allow plenty of time if you’re up for renewal.
WWII Concentration Camp to Be Turned into a Luxury Resort in Montenegro
Okay, who thought this was a good idea? CNN reports that the uninhabited Adriatic island of Mamula, where a 19th-century fortress served as a concentration camp during WWII, will soon be turned into a luxury resort. While the developer overseeing the project promises that the history and architecture of the island will be respected, we can’t imagine many tourists are hankering to stay in a former concentration camp on vacation.
Don’t Mind the Wet Nose: TSA Enlists More Dogs to Screen Passengers
This entertaining story from the Washington Post takes a look behind the scenes at the lives of the TSA’s canine members, who use their sensitive noses to sniff out explosive materials at airports around the country. As one of their handlers describes it, the dogs are playing “the most fun game of hide-and-seek in the world.”
When you rack up parking tickets, you can have your vehicle taken away from you. Now, the same could happen to your passport if you owe the U.S. Internal Revenue Service loads of money.
Thanks to a new law that went into effect on January 1, the State Department now has the right to revoke the passports of anyone the IRS says has a serious delinquent debt $50,000 or more.
“This is going to have an extraordinary impact [in terms of getting people to pay up],” Los Angeles tax lawyer Dennis Brager told CNN. Because penalties and interest accrue quickly, it’s not uncommon to see a much smaller debt skyrocket.
How the new law will be implemented remains unclear. It’s possible that the delinquents could have their new passport or renewal applications denied, or even have their active passports revoked. In the least, the IRS will be compiling a list of the delinquencies and will likely share it with the State Department sometime this year.
And there’s an additional, unexpected hitch: This could also affect some people trying to travel within the United States, starting in April.
The federal government passed a law a decade ago requiring that tougher standards for state-issued IDs. But fewer than half the states have complied. Some asked for waivers or extensions until October, and others haven’t moved on the issue at all.
The Department of Homeland Security is expected to announce any day now how it will deal with this ID conundrum. If it decides to start enforcing the new ID law sometime this year, that would mean that residents of the states in violation of the Real ID Act won’t be able to present their driver’s licenses to board a domestic flight. You’d have to show a passport.
So, if you have an excessive tax debt and you live in one of those states, your passport could be revoked, meaning you couldn’t even fly from Minneapolis to Milwaukee if you wanted to.
It’s all complicated and bureaucratic, but the lessons to be learned are simple: Make sure you have a valid passport, and pay your taxes.
You’ve seen them in the security line in front of you: globetrotters with passports so thick that they have to use thick rubber bands to keep them closed.
Soon, this will be a thing of the past.
Frequent travelers who run out of visa pages in their U.S. passports will no longer be able to order extra pages beginning January 1, the U.S. State Department announced last week. In 2016, if you run out of pages, you will need to order a new passport.
Previously, if you filled your passport with visas and entry and exit stamps, you could order an insert of 24 additional pages. The State Department is eliminating this option “for security reasons and to conform better with international passport standards,” according to a statement.
The standard U.S. passport contains 28 pages, 17 of which are reserved for visa entry and exit stamps. In 2014, the State Department began issuing 52-page passports (with 43 visa stamp pages) for no additional fee. (Renewing a passport through the State Department is currently $110.) Choosing a 52-page passport at the time of application or renewal is now the smartest option for frequent travelers.
The State Department will still issue the 24-page inserts through the end of the year and will still honor them at airports — so now is the time to order one if you need one. The cost is $82.
Routine passport processing via mail currently takes four to five weeks, according to the State Department. Expedited processing through the State Department takes two to three weeks.
“Um. Do Romanians need a visa to go to Canada?” I asked my husband on a Friday afternoon, a sudden pit forming in my stomach. We were scheduled to go to Montreal for the Women’s World Cup the following Thursday, and somehow I’d forgotten to check on what paperwork might be required.
I immediately turned to my phone to Google the answer. Uh-oh. Yes, Romanians (like my husband) do need a visa to enter or even pass through Canada. We had less than a week! Could we get one in time? I clicked on the visa application button and quickly scrolled through to see how hard it would be. And then I spotted an almost-side note at the very bottom of the page: Permanent residents of the United States of America with green cards do not need a visa to visit Canada. Relief washed over me.
The crazy thing was, this wasn’t the first time I’d forgotten about such a small, insignificant little detail like without a visa they won’t let you in!
On our two-week British Isles and Norwegian fjords honeymoon cruise (!) I’d forgotten to check to see if my husband would need a visa to get off in ports along the way. At the time, I’d also been blissfully ignorant of the very existence of transit visas.
Luckily, the immigration officer at London’s Heathrow Airport didn’t give it a second thought, simply stamped in a 24-hour visa for my husband to get from the airport to the cruise ship.
It wasn’t until we were on our ship that we discovered the consequences of not having a tourist visa for Ireland and the United Kingdom. For the Irish ports of Dublin and Cork, my husband was prohibited from leaving the ship.
That was a disappointment, but even worse was the U.K., which threatened to repatriate my husband off the ship before it even left the dock in Southampton. They continued to threaten repatriation through the first few ports (non-U.K. ports, I might add.) By the time we got to Belfast, they had changed tacks, threatening a hefty fine and forcing him off at the last non-U.K. port of the cruise. In the end their threats were empty; they let us stay on the ship through the end and gave him 24 hours to get back to Heathrow. But the stress lasted for most of the cruise.
I swore I’d never make the same mistake again. Ha! Nine years later only a short blurb at the end of the Canadian visa application saved me.
So, travelers, let my story be a lesson. Always, always, always check what kind of paperwork is needed at the same time you check on flight and hotel prices. That way you’re in the know and have plenty of time to get started on whatever you may need.
Can you guess which country’s passport is the most powerful?
We bet you can’t!
GoEuro, a travel technology company, analyzed the passports of 50 countries and ranked them by a combination of visa-free access to other countries, length of validity and the cost of obtaining one — both in terms of price and how many hours at minimum wage a person must work to obtain the passport — to determine which passports are the best to have.
If you thought the United Kingdom or the United States topped the list, you’d be wrong. Sweden comes out on top when you factor in all the pieces.
Sweden, along with the U.K. and the United States, will get you into 174 countries without a visa, but it’ll only cost you $43 versus $110 in the U.K. and $135 in the U.S. In terms of minimum hours worked, that translates into 1 hour for a Swedish citizen, 11 hours for a Brit and 19 hours for someone in the U.S.
If you’re curious, a U.K. passport is the fourth most powerful passport in the world, while a U.S. passport is fifth.
Rounding out the top five passports are Finland at number two and Germany at number three. Both will get their citizens into 174 countries without a visa. Finland’s passport costs $56 and would require a minimum-wage worker to work five hours. German’s passport costs $69, which translates to seven minimum-wage hours worked.
On the other end of the spectrum, Afghani, Iraqi, Liberian, Indian and Chinese passports are some of most powerless passports out there. All get their citizens into less than 55 countries, with Afghanistan only getting citizens into 28 countries without a visa and costing $104, which requires an astonishing 183 hours of minimum-wage work to pay for it. Iraq’s passport only gets its citizens into 31 countries visa-free but is the most affordable, costing just $20 and requiring only three hours of minimum-wage work to pay for one.
Other passports popular among those asked which nationality they’d like to have (in addition to their own) were Canada, which ranked number seven on the list, and Australia, which ranked number 22. Canada’s passport gets Canadians into 173 countries and costs $133, which would require a minimum-wage worker to labor for 15 hours. Australia’s passport gets Aussies into 168 countries and costs $206, which also translates to 15 hours of minimum-wage work.
As we enter day two of the limited U.S. government shutdown, so far travelers are mostly unaffected by the congressional deadlock. It’s business as usual at airports and border crossings, and passport applications are still being processed. However, travelers hoping to go leaf-peeping in a national park or visit the Smithsonian museums are out of luck.
All national parks, monuments, historic sites and other properties run by the National Park Service are closed (and you can’t even access their websites) during the shutdown. And this doesn’t just affect sites in the U.S. — the Normandy American Cemetery in France will also be closed for the duration of the shutdown, along with other overseas properties run by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
State parks are a good alternative to consider for those seeking hiking trails, outdoor recreation and scenic landscapes while the national parks are closed. Thrillist has put together a list of state parks near popular national properties such as Yellowstone, Zion and Acadia.
If the shutdown continues, travelers may start to see a slowdown at airports and ports as more employees may be furloughed or those who are covering for furloughed employees begin to burn out. Already, one third of the Federal Aviation Administration’s workforce has been furloughed, the (Newark) Star-Ledger reports. FAA officials said the furloughs have so far not affected daily flight operations or safety.
A spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the Star-Ledger that staffing at airport security checkpoints will not be reduced. At cruise ports and border patrol checkpoints, U.S. Customs and Border Control will most likely be unaffected, as “they have been deemed law enforcement necessary or necessary for the safety of life and protection of property,” the CPB states on its website.
For travelers in the process of getting a passport, the longer the shutdown continues the greater the chance the passport won’t come. At the moment, passport services are functioning as normal with a processing time of up to four weeks for routine applications and two weeks for expedited service. For some people, though, actually picking up their passport could already be a problem as any passport agency located in a government building affected by the shutdown “may become unsupported,” the Department of State wrote on its website.
What do you do with your expired passports? If you’re anything like me, you’ve got them sitting in a box in the back of a closet somewhere, along with other fading mementoes of past trips. But one traveler we know has a more creative idea: “Since an old passport has a punched hole in the upper left hand corner, it sounds like a Christmas ornament for hanging to me!”
Old passports aren’t the only souvenirs that Chicago-based travel writer Kit Bernardi has transformed into holiday decorations. “Our Christmas tree has been travel-themed for years with funky, not-meant-to-be ‘ornaments’ that remind us of great travel memories,” Bernardi told us. Below is a snapshot of her family’s freshly decorated Fraser fir tree, which offers a glimpse of some of their favorite journeys.
Here’s what’s on Bernardi’s tree, in her own words: “Next to one of my retired passports there’s a springbok’s horn ‘love potion’ powder carrier with an ostrich egg shell bead strap from Namibia, a gift from the Bushman tribe we camped with; a geisha doll’s shoe from Kyoto, Japan; hanging off the branch left of the passport is a red, mini-devil’s mask from Carnival in Brazil; a dream catcher from a family snowmobile trip in Jackson Hole, WY, is next to a terra cotta ‘kitchen god’ from Santa Fe, NM; a carved bone horn for a necklace from Botswana is sort of behind it; an acacia seed pod from Zimbabwe is hooked over the branch above the passport; a paper Chinese doll from Beijing is below the passport. And that’s just a sampling.”
If you’ve traveled outside of your own country enough times, you’ve likely encountered all manner of immigration officers – some friendly, some indifferent and some decidedly inhospitable.
I’ve certainly seen my share of all three, including one nasty run-in with power-happy officers at the Manhattan cruise port who treated my husband like a terrorist and accused us of bribery (after we explained that we’d recently paid his Green Card renewal fee). So when my in-laws arrived in the United States from Romania last week for a month-long visit, I nervously awaited word from my husband that they’d gotten through okay. In the end they lucked out, getting a friendly jokester who welcomed them warmly into the United States. What a relief!
Listening to my mother-in-law talk about how the immigration officer gave them a smile and a big thumbs up brought up memories of some of my most memorable immigration experiences — like the time I waited in line for nearly three hours at the JFK airport because it was shift change time, and rather than stagger the closures, they simply shut immigration down for about an hour.
Another time, I was leaving Romania, where I had been living for a couple of years. I did not have a permanent visa, so I left the country every three months for a week or so. Nobody cared, except for one passport control worker who told me as I was leaving that I wouldn’t be allowed back in and that I should stay in my own country. I was shocked and spent several hours in Madrid, Spain, trying to find the Romanian consulate so I could get permission to go back. By the time I found the consulate it was closed. My Romanian fiance told me not to worry (ha! Fat chance of that). But he was right. Coming back, they didn’t even give me a second glance.
Not all my memorable immigration experiences have been bad. My favorite passport control story is the time my sister and I were training it from Prague to Switzerland. Passing through Germany, the train was stopped and several immigration officers got on to check passports. When the stern German officer got to our car he methodically took a passport, looked at the photo, looked at the person and handed it back. Except when he got to one young Italian man. With him, the officer looked at the photo, looked at the man, looked at the passport photo, looked at the man, then kept the passport. He then checked all the other passports. Returning to the young Italian, he repeated the photo, man, photo, man routine. Then with a wink, he simply returned the guy’s passport and left. I guess that was his way of having fun.
Plane tickets, hotel reservations, copies of your passport and credit cards: Would you trust your most sensitive travel documents to a cell phone app? We were skeptical, so we tested it for ourselves.
We first checked out Web site www.personal.com, where we created an account and added “gems” — categories under which you can upload and save everything from contacts to bank statements. (For our purposes, we tested out the travel gem, where we stored passport copies, trip itineraries and flight information.)
Overall, we found the site a little tricky to use — there are still some pages we can’t figure out how to get back to — but the cell phone app, available for iPhone and Android, proved a bit easier to navigate. The app allows you to easily access your important information on the go, even while abroad, without incurring crazy international fees. The best part? It’s free to download.
So, how secure is it? Personal.com’s Web site promises all information is encrypted, and your account is also protected by a username-and-password login combination. There are ways to share gems, but much like Facebook, users have to request to share information with other users before it can be seen by others, and each user has the right to deny said requests.
As part of its newest software updates, Apple has released a program called Passbook, which, through various applications, offers functions similar to those afforded by Personal.com. We haven’t had much time to test it out, but it seems these sorts of paper-saving features are becoming more common.
Overall, we’re still unsure how safe these services are — especially if a phone containing sensitive documents were lost or stolen — but they sure do make traveling a lot more convenient.
Have you used applications like this? If not, would you consider it? If so, how was your experience? We welcome your comments below.
One oft-forgotten rule of international travel is that many countries won’t allow you to enter if your passport‘s expiration date is less than six months away. It certainly was a rule that I forgot about until I was reminded by a cruise line that my European voyage next month would be null and void if I didn’t have a new passport number, even though I have a few months left to go on the old one.
Which meant I was in “your passport must be expedited” territory.
I assumed my Google search of “need to renew passport” would lead me straight to the State Department’s Web site. It didn’t. Instead, I ended up in the nether regions of a for-profit site called USPassportOnline.com. Clicking along obliviously — the Web site makes it somewhat but not overly clear that it’s not the official State Department site — I registered for the renewal. I checked off the box for the $45 nonrefundable fee even as a flickering in my brain began to suggest that perhaps this wasn’t where I intended to go.
It wasn’t until I started downloading the renewal forms that it twigged: This is a for-profit service with for-profit prices. US Passport Online passes along the State Department’s $170 official fee ($110 for the passport + $60 for expedited service) but then tacks on an additional $54 for processing, the aforementioned $45 nonrefundable reservation fee and $30 for shipping. And that was for service in 8 – 12 business days; charges rise steeply if your turn-around time is shorter. My bill totaled $299.
In contrast, the State Department charges $110 for the passport, $25 for processing, a mere $12.72 for overnight shipping and $60 for expediting — a grand total of $207.72, almost $100 less.
I don’t know about you, but spending nearly $100 extra for nothing special makes me cranky. And while I could have, and should have, paid closer attention while submitting my request, US Passport Online’s Web site, with its red, white and blue color scheme, really could be mistaken for the official “passport” site.
In a call to the company’s toll-free hotline, I expressed my dismay about the process, and the sales representative’s terse response led me to believe he fields a lot of these calls from frustrated travelers. I canceled the order. The kicker? In an e-mail confirming the cancellation, US Passport Online notes that the refund, minus the $45 cancellation fee, will take a jaw-dropping “12 – 15 business days from your cancellation date” to return to my coffers.
Was it all just a scam? Not necessarily. Using a for-profit expeditor makes good sense if you have a really challenging turn-around time (less than a week) or if you don’t live near a regional passport agency where you can apply in person. (See Passport and Visa Expeditors for more info.) But otherwise, there’s nothing easier or cheaper about using them over the State Department.
In checking out other expeditors for my not-quite-an-emergency needs, I noticed that CIBT.com at least didn’t use US Passport Online’s stars and stripes Web page design to confuse you into thinking it was part of the State Department’s passport services, but it still wasn’t terribly helpful; you have to go through the whole process of registering to find out what the fees are (or call its toll-free number and wait on hold; I hung up after 10 minutes). At G3 Visas & Passports, the pricing info is right up front and seemingly easy to access; my two-week expedite cost would have been $245, but there was no mention of special fees and, yes, you have to go through the registration process to find out what other costs there are.
Ultimately, I was most comfortable with simply going through the U.S. State Department’s passport renewal service. I made an appointment for my nearby office in Philadelphia, planned it around a lunch with an old friend and saved money in the bargain.