YOU'VE made a travel list, checked it twice. But at the airport, you discover something not so nice: Your photo ID is missing.
Can you still fly?
Much to my surprise, I recently boarded a flight to New York while my driver's license stayed home.
Checking in with an American skycap, I realized the license was AWOL. Digging through my overstuffed purse, I prayed it was hiding with the lipsticks and loose change. Nada.
Then, as I dumped the entire contents of my bag on the ground, I remembered: It was still in the pocket of jeans I'd worn on the previous day's flight. The trip was over before it began. Or so I thought.
The Transportation Security Administration doesn't advertise it. And few travelers know about it. But it's possible to fly domestically, even if your ID is lost, stolen, expired or forgotten. You'll just have to go through additional security.
"Most people think if they don't have ID, we won't let them fly," said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez. "We recognize that travelers often have wallets stolen or lose their belongings in tsunamis in Thailand."
Although federal law requires passengers 18 and older to present a government-issued picture ID, TSA and the airlines will make exceptions for passengers who have become separated from their identification.
But the extra inspection could add another hour to the curb-to-gate schlep, making for some close calls during the holiday season. (I almost missed my plane.) And there's no guarantee your trip will be hassle-free on the other end.
As a "selectee," or high-risk passenger, I embarked on a journey to the gate that got longer and grew more touchy feely.
Even with boarding pass in hand, I had to join the ticket-counter conga line to check bags -- and get a new pass stamped SSSS, airline code for potential threat. Then at security, I was inspected more thoroughly than a piece of USDA-grade meat.
Although TSA won't divulge actual numbers, the LAX screener assigned to my secondary once-over wagered that about one in 10 fliers shows up without credentials.
And it isn't a cakewalk for everyone. Like policies for shoe-removal or liquid carry-ons, each screener decides who flies and who doesn't.
"There's no one-size-fits-all scenario," Melendez said.
Airlines too are mum on policies for handling "high-risk" fliers. And check-in policies vary as well. American, for one, won't let selectees check bags or get boarding passes from skycaps.
"They're third-party contractors, usually not as highly trained on the reservations system ... as our ticket agents," says American spokesman Tim Wagner.
Not so at Southwest, where skycaps and ticket agents are equally empowered to check in passengers without IDs. Other airline policies vary.
WHAT about hotels? Will they let you register if you've lost your wallet?
Chances are you won't end up homeless like Tony Soprano, who was turned away at the front desk last season after losing his briefcase.
Many properties ask only for the credit card that was used to make the reservation, which was my experience at New York's Loews Regency. (I called ahead after discovering the problem.)
But that's changing. Starwood has a corporate policy that requires a government-issued photo ID at check-in. Individual and franchise hotels of large chains also have been known to ask for picture credentials.
Some cities have laws that require hotels to ask for government-issued ID. Earlier this month, Los Angeles passed a similar ordinance, though in this case, it's designed to crack down on prostitution.
"As the world becomes increasingly dangerous, and as airlines are tightening rules, hotels will have to as well, because the hotelier owes a duty of care to all guests," said Stephen Barth, a hospitality law professor at the University of Houston.
If your trip includes a car rental, you're out of luck. It's against the law to rent a vehicle without a valid driver's license.
Hertz will arrange transportation to a taxi, train or bus station if it's not too far, said spokeswoman Paula Rivera. Some Hertz reps have even been known to call the Department of Motor Vehicles for a faxed copy of the renter's license if you contact it immediately.
"The more time we have, the more help local reps can provide, like getting documentation sent overnight," Rivera said.
What about cruise lines? Show up at the dock without proper ID (either a passport or birth certificate and photo ID), and you still might be able to board.
"It's a case-by-case situation depending on what the passenger can produce," said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz. "We may let them board, depending on how many other forms of ID they have, or if they're able to get additional proof of ID and citizenship faxed to the pier."
But there is no guarantee, she added. And if a passenger is denied boarding, "There's no refund."
What should you do if you're separated from your ID?
* Check the airlines' websites. In lieu of a government-issued photo ID, some carriers will allow other types of federal identification (voter registration card or Social Security card, for example) along with a credit card, birth certificate, school ID or library card.
* Make copies of your ID and keep them separate from originals. Although photocopies are not considered acceptable forms of ID, airlines and TSA said they could speed the process of clearing security.
* Call ahead. As soon as you discover your ID is gone, alert the airline, hotel, car rental and cruise line. They will note your record and have time to make other arrangements, if necessary.
* Get a police report. It's not a guarantee of passage, but TSA and the airlines recommend getting one to expedite screening.
* Use your elite status. If you're a high-level member, the supplier may be able to verify your identity through a database.