Question: My wife and I will be traveling to central Europe next year for a 10-day trip. Should we be concerned about our passports, which expire about four months after our trip? Should we renew the passports now? If we do renew our passports now, will that affect our Global Entry card, which expires in 2019?
Answer: Journalists often say they became journalists because they are not very good at math. I plead guilty. But I did well enough in numbers courses to know that 10 isn't nine.
Except nowadays it is, at least when it comes to passports.
To explain: Adults' U.S. passports are valid for 10 years. (Passports for children younger than 16 are good for five years.)
But the State Department is encouraging adult travelers to renew after nine years because an increasing number of countries want the document to be good for at least six months beyond the travel date.
If you arrive in a country and don't have that much time left on your passport, you may be turned away, assuming you are allowed to board the flight.
If you're reading this and you're traveling soon, set this aside and go check the expiration on your passport. Please. It may save you panic, trouble and/or a big fight with your spouse/partner.
The countries McAuliff is traveling to in all likelihood require only three months' validity. We surmise this because 26 European countries are part of the Schengen Agreement.
That agreement means that travelers (business or tourists) may visit these 26 countries for up to three months without a visa: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Even so, the State Department recommends at least six months remaining on your passport for visits to these countries, although you may be able to squeak by with less. But why risk it?
(You'll notice that Britain, a favorite destination of many, isn't on this list. Britain requires only that your passport be valid "for the whole of your stay," its border control page says, and you do not need a visa unless you have a criminal record or have been denied entry previously.)
Because Global Entry, the program that allows you to go through U.S. Customs more quickly and gives you fast-lane privileges through domestic airport security, is run by Customs and Border Protection, "your membership date is not dependent on the passport expiration date," a Customs official said in an email. "Membership will remain valid and active if the passport expires; however, you will not be able to use your account until you update your new passport in the GOES system" — the Global Online Enrollment System in which you created access when you applied for the program.
You need to keep track of when your Global Entry privileges expire (your $100 fee buys you five years), although Customs also told me it would flag you at the six-, three-, two- and one-month points before your card expires.
Whew. I haven't even been anywhere and I'm already exhausted thinking about the documentation. But here are two more tips before you check "passport validity" off your to-do list:
•First, some countries require that you have a certain number of passport pages left in your document. This could be an issue if you travel frequently, so check to see what your destination requires and how many of your pages are blank.
The bad news: As of this year, you can't add pages to your passport book. (You used to be able to but no more.) If you travel a lot, you might want to consider getting a 52-page book instead of the usual 28-pager.
•Second, an early distant warning: Remember how we used to be able to travel to Mexico, Canada and other places without a passport? The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative put an end to that about 10 years ago. That initiative means that even if you are going to Baja for the weekend, you need a passport.
What followed was an avalanche of passport applications. At one point, we reported that there was a backlog of 3 million passport applications and wait times of up to three months. People were furious, frantic and flipping out.
We mention this because if you were one of the people who applied for the passport about then, it will be expiring in the coming months. Yours and millions of others. In fiscal year 2016, the State Department expects 17.4 million passport applications. In 2017 that number will climb by more than 3 1/2 million, State says.
We don't expect a repeat of the 2007 Summer of Our Discontent, but if your passport expires in 2017, you may want to give yourself an early holiday gift and get that new one before the calendar flips to the new year. Because the best gift of all is ensuring that the calendar is the only thing that flips.
One final note: As it was in 2015, travel will be part of the 2016 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. If you would like to learn more about the when, how, why and where of passports, Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for Passport Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs, will answer questions about passports and more at 1:30 p.m. on April 9 at the Travel stage. The festival is on the USC campus. Admission is free.