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stamp that says visa“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.

In a Rush? This Passport Mistake Could Cost You

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.

Five Ways to Beat Pre-Trip Panic

— written by Dori Saltzman

person's hand holding several passportsCan 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.

13 Best England Experiences

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.

12 Best Germany Experiences

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.

11 Best Australia Experiences

Which passport would you like to hold in addition to your own?

–By Dori Saltzman

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.

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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