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shenandoah national park virginia autumn fallAs 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.

10 Things Not to Wear When Traveling Abroad

The Department of State will continue to provide emergency services as necessary to U.S. citizens overseas.

Has your trip been affected by the shutdown?

– written by Dori Saltzman and Sarah Schlichter

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.

christmas tree

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.”

The Best Ways to Commemorate a Trip

How do you use your travel mementoes to decorate your home, whether over the holidays or throughout the year?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

passport controlIf 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.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

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.

Passport Information

How about you? What have been some of your most memorable experiences with immigration and passport control?

– written by Dori Saltzman

secure-cell-phone-appPlane 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.)

Essential Travel Apps

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.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

us passport globeOne 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.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

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.

5 Common Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

royce leather RFID passport walletAs if travelers didn’t have enough to worry about. In addition to money belts to help us hide passports and credit cards under our clothes, there’s now a whole new line of travel gear to protect the electronic data stored on those documents.

Take the Royce RFID-Blocking Passport Wallet. This attractive leather case, which retails for $34, is designed to protect travelers against identity theft.

Since 2007, all U.S. passports have been issued with a small electronic chip embedded in the back cover. The chip uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to store information, including all of the identifying data printed on the front page of your passport, as well as a biometric identifier — a digital image of the passport photograph that can be used for facial recognition technology when you cross international borders. The information in the chip is transmitted via radio waves when the passport is scanned by an RFID reader.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Your passport may not be the only document you carry that has an RFID chip; many newer credit cards have them as well. (If you’re not sure, look for the term “PayPass” printed on your MasterCard, “expresspay” on your AmEx or “payWave” on your Visa — or call your credit card company.)

The rise in RFID technology has raised concerns about just how securely these chips store our information. Anyone with an RFID reader who gets close enough to the chip would in theory be able to read the embedded data — including card numbers and expiration dates — even through clothing or a purse.

royce leather RFID passport walletDoes this mean you should race out and purchase an RFID-blocking wallet? Not necessarily. The U.S. State Department offers a detailed description of the security features of its electronic passports here, which explains that the passports themselves have RFID-blocking metal built into the cover — so the chip can’t be read unless the passport is opened.

I think a protective wallet would be more useful for credit cards, which seem to be at greater risk for data skimming. The cheapskates among us can also block RFID readers by wrapping their cards in aluminum foil — if you’re willing to lose a few style points.

Four Common Travel Disasters and How to Prevent Them

– written by Sarah Schlichter

uncertainty ahead road sign“THE FEAR’S BACK,” blares a CNNMoney headline over a graph showing the stock market’s latest plunge. Other news stories are filled with phrases like “volatile markets” and “economic uncertainty.”

But despite the turmoil, one thing is certain: we still want to travel. (If nothing else, I need a vacation from these scary headlines!) Here are a few ways to hedge your next trip against economic uncertainty.

1. Buy travel insurance. Maybe you can afford your trip to Thailand now, but what if you lose your job? Not all policies offer refunds if you have to nix a trip for this reason; look specifically for lay-off protection, or choose a policy with a “cancel for any reason” clause.

2. Keep an eye out for prices that go down after you buy. You’ll have to check for change fees and cancellation penalties first, but often you can update your reservation — or cancel and rebook — to take advantage of better rates on airline tickets, hotels and the like. See Watch for Falling Hotel Rates for more information.

3. Read reviews. When every vacation dollar is precious, you don’t want to waste any of them on a fleabag hotel, a rotten restaurant meal or a chronically late flight. You can find hotel reviews at TripAdvisor.com and big booking sites; restaurant reviews at Yelp.com and Urbanspoon.com; and airlines’ on-time records at FlightStats.com. JDPower.com is a good resource for ratings of car rental companies and airlines.

4. Have a back-up plan. Dealing with a lost passport or stolen wallet can eat up valuable vacation time. Pack a copy of your passport and credit cards (in a separate place from the originals, of course), and leave one with a friend or family member at home. You may also want to consider sending a PDF copy to your e-mail, where you can access it from any computer around the world. Having a few spare passport photos on hand is also a good idea. See How to Take On Travel Trouble for more advice.

5. Know your exchange rates. Economic volatility can make it difficult to tell just how much you’re really paying for that gorgeous Murano glass souvenir. Stay up to date with currency fluctuations by checking XE.com or Oanda.com, both of which offer smartphone apps. (See also our story on how to Get the Best Exchange Rate.)

6. Allow some wiggle room. It’s sad but true: every trip ends up costing more than you expect. Avoid sticker shock on your credit card statement by setting aside extra money before you leave to cover unforeseen expenses. Our Travel Budget Calculator can help you plan.

A few resources for cutting costs on your next trip:

-Travel Deals
-15 Ways to Get a Better Hotel Rate
-Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
-Weekend Getaways Under $500

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.

paperwork In February, the State Department recommended the implementation of a new passport application form, DS-5513, that makes our current form look like a field trip permission slip — and today is the last day to cast your vote against it. Here’s a sample of what Uncle Sam might ask future passport applicants to reveal:

– Did your mother receive pre-natal or post-natal medical care? If so, list the name of her doctor and the dates of her appointments.

– Please describe the circumstances of your birth including the names (as well as address and phone number, if available) of persons present or in attendance at your birth.

– Please list all of your residences inside and outside of the United States starting with your birth until the present.

– Was there any religious or institutional recording of your birth or event occurring around the time of birth? (Example: baptism, circumcision, confirmation or other religious ceremony. Please provide details including the name, location of the institution, and date.)

But wait, there’s more! The form requires applicants to list residences of all nuclear family members living and deceased, plus fun facts like the name of your supervisor at every place at which you’ve ever been employed, and the address of every school that’s had the pleasure of calling you a pupil.

We get it. Someone in the State Department thinks our current passport application, good ol’ DS-11, isn’t quite as thorough as it should be. But this proposed form belies any sense of moderation. Asking applicants to list the name of their kindergarten alma mater and provide the details of their own circumcision is disturbingly Orwellian. And, on a more practical note, filling out this form would take forever.

Writes PapersPlease.org, “The State Department estimated that the average respondent would be able to compile all this information in just 45 minutes, which is obviously absurd given the amount of research that is likely to be required to even attempt to complete the form.” Did someone at the State Department actually fill out this form in 45 minutes? I’m impressed. Those bureaucrats must be an efficient bunch. I honestly would need to hire a private investigator to ascertain the phone number of the nurse who helped my mom give birth or dig up the full name of the manager at the supermarket where I bagged groceries for a summer when I was 14 years old. (His name tag read “Bob,” and that’s all I can remember.)

U.S. citizens have until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time today, April 25, to submit feedback on form DS-5513. To speak your mind, e-mail GarciaAA@state.gov or submit a comment online at regulations.gov. You can read already submitted comments on regulations.gov as well. I’ve checked, and the majority of comments appear to be fully against the implementation of such a complicated passport application form. Words like “anti-American,” “invasive” and “ridiculous” are copious in the comments. What’s your take?

– written by Caroline Costello

Update, April 8, 3 p.m.: The State Department just announced on its @TravelGov Twitter account that National Passport Day has officially been canceled in light of the potential shutdown.

Update, April 8, 10 a.m.: The Washington Post reports that the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade will still take place if a government shutdown happens. The parade route will be changed as necessary so that National Park Service permits, which would not be valid in the event of a government shutdown, will not be needed.

passport The looming U.S. government shutdown, which is looking more likely by the minute, could spoil your spring travel plans.

United States lawmakers have been postponing passage of the 2011 fiscal year budget, and if Congress doesn’t pass something soon — that is, by midnight Friday — a government shutdown is expected. All “non-essential” government employees would stop working during the shutdown. But some of these employees are absolutely vital to the travel industry.

Among the affected workers would be those employed at U.S. passport agencies. National Passport Day, which was scheduled to take place on Saturday, April 9, will be canceled, and anyone waiting to receive a passport or visa may have to wait longer than expected if a shutdown comes to pass.

For travelers, it gets worse. U.S. national parks, monuments and historic sites won’t be open during a government shutdown. Visitors to Washington D.C. will face particular challenges. As government-run facilities, the Smithsonian Institution museums and the National Zoo will be shuttered. Plus, according to the National Cherry Blossom Festival Web site, a handful of festival events will be canceled or postponed in the face of a shutdown, including the annual Cherry Blossom Parade, which marches down the National Mall (managed by — you guessed it — the National Park Service).

National Park Week kicks off next weekend, from April 16 through 24, during which admission is free at more than 100 national parks. Will it be canceled? Only time will tell. No one can predict the exact length of a possible shutdown, and there’s no way to know the extent to which one’s passport application may be delayed or for how long one may need to postpone that weekend getaway to Yosemite.

Travelers planning spring getaways should prepare for the worst and keep a close eye on trusted news sources. If you’re waiting for your passport to be processed, you can contact the State Department at 1-877-487-2778 or go online to check the status of your application.

Will a potential government shutdown affect your next trip?

– written by Caroline Costello

passport compass travelEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

As travel catastrophes go, losing your passport ranks as one of the most annoying. Who really feels like missing an afternoon of jungle hiking or museum hopping to wait in line at the nearest U.S. Embassy? But if the worst happens, it helps to be prepared.

In 35 Travel Tips Revealed: Top Secrets of Travel Writers, Melanie Nayer writes, “You should always carry a copy of your passport when you travel, but more important is keeping that copy safe. In the event your bags are lost or stolen, what are you going to do if your passport is in the bag? Keep a copy of your passport in the sole of your shoe. Most tennis shoes have removable inserts — tuck the copy of your passport under the insert and go about your merry way. You won’t lose your shoes if you’re wearing them, and if you’re robbed in a foreign city, the mugger won’t go after your tennis shoes — so you’ll still have a copy of your passport.”

Another way to ensure that you always have a copy of your passport on hand is to make a PDF copy of the document and e-mail it to yourself — that way you can access it from anywhere. It’s also a good idea to leave a copy at home with a friend or family member.

For more ways to ease the process of replacing a passport that’s gone astray, see Lost and Stolen Passports.

– written by Sarah Schlichter