THE days of passport-free air travel between the U.S. and much of the Western Hemisphere are numbered -- and that number is nine.
On Jan. 23, just nine days from now, travelers -- Americans included -- will need a passport to enter the U.S. by air from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Central and South America and most of the Caribbean.
The change has triggered a frenzy among travel agents and government agencies trying to get the word out so people aren't left holding their bags as flights leave without them. It also has prompted some hotels in countries affected by the change to offer discounts aimed at those who have shelled out money for a passport.
Based on recent figures, travelers seem to be taking the change in stride. In fiscal 2006, a record 12.1 million U.S. passports were issued, more than double the 1996 number and nearly 50% more than in 2004. In 2007, the government expects, it will process up to 17 million applications.
According to a survey of travel agents, that jump may be because six of the 10 most popular international destinations for U.S. travelers -- places such as Cancun, Mexico (No. 2 in the survey after Caribbean cruising); Montego Bay, Jamaica (No. 5); and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (No. 6) -- didn't previously require a passport.
The survey, released this month by Carlson Wagonlit Travel, asked fellow travel agents to rate the most popular destinations based on bookings.
"A lot of our agencies are working overtime just to really drive home the point that you need that passport," Carlson spokesman Steve Loucks said.
Customers seem to be getting the message. Forty-four percent of travel agents surveyed said that a majority of their clients had recently obtained passports, up from just 32% in August.
"Agents have told us that they are sponsoring cruise nights and passport fairs that enable their customers to apply for passports on the spot," Loucks said.
The new rules don't apply to air travel from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other U.S. territories. Eighty-seven percent of visitors to the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2004 were U.S. residents, compared with about half on the French and Dutch island of St. Maarten/St. Martin.
Air travel sees change first
FOR now, the new rules apply only to air travel. Land and sea travelers to the region have until Jan. 1, 2008, to obtain a passport or a new form of identification called a passport card.
The less expensive wallet-size passport card allows for land and sea travel only between the U.S. and Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. The card cannot be used for air travel.
Details are still being worked out for the card, but the current proposal calls for onetime fees of $10 for children and $20 for adults, plus a $25 execution fee -- or less than half of the $97 it costs for an adult passport ($82 for children younger than 16).
And for those who just got new passports, Marriott and Renaissance resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico have a deal: They're offering a $100 credit from Jan. 23 through April 30 for such guests who travel to one of their nine resorts in the region. The fine print: The first stamp in the passport must be for that destination, there's only one credit per room and a minimum five-night stay is required.
For those who haven't yet received new passports, the government says to allow up to six weeks for regular processing of applications. The passport agency has hired extra help to cope with the increase in applications expected this year, according to a spokesman. For travelers who need a passport in a hurry, there are a number of options.
If you have a couple of weeks, you can pay $60 more to have your application expedited. Go to any of the 9,000 locations around the country that accept passport applications, such as post offices and other government offices. The State Department has a very useful website with a search function allowing you to find the nearest location for submitting your application (iafdb.travel.state.gov). I typed in my ZIP code and up popped a list of 20 nearby locations, including two within walking distance of my home.
If you are traveling within two weeks, you can apply at one of the 15 passport agencies around the country (there is one in the Federal Building in Westwood; see box above).
You can drop off your application and pick up your passport in a day or two, thus avoiding any delay in delivery through the mail. The agency's office in Westwood even has a special window for these transactions that allows applicants to avoid going through security to enter the building.
If it's not convenient to go in person, specialized courier services will go in your stead -- at a price.
If you need it right now
"THERE are easily over 100 [passport] expediting services," said Greg Bennett president and founder of American Passport Express (www.americanpassport.com). Twenty are members of the National Assn. of Passport and Visa Services, or NAPVS, a Maryland-based nonprofit industry group (www.napvs.org for a list of members).
The services act as a proxy and submit a traveler's application at a passport agency like the one in Westwood.
Using one of these services still requires travelers to first appear at a passport acceptance location such as a local post office to present their photo identification and other paperwork in person. The completed application is then forwarded to one of these services, which expedite the legwork at one of the main passport offices. And though it may be convenient, it's not cheap.
American Passport Express charges $59 to $179 on top of government fees, depending on the urgency of the request. The companies generally guarantee that if they accept your application, you will have you passport in your hand before you travel.
Because they handle so many passports, they make certain that the documentation is in order before taking it to the agency, thus saving time lost to a rejected application.
When looking for a passport courier service, Bennett recommends choosing one that's a member of NAPVS, the American Society of Travel Agents (www.astanet.com) and the Better Business Bureau.
The AAA also offers passport assistance, providing application forms and photos ($8 for members, $15 for nonmembers).
Contact Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
For those in a rush
If you need a passport for travel within two weeks, apply in person at one of 15 State Department passport agencies nationwide.
Los Angeles Passport Agency
Where: Federal Building, 11000 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1000, Los Angeles, CA 90024-3615
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays
Contact: (877) 487-2778 for mandatory appointment
One of the following is required:
* Airline ticket with departure date in the next two weeks;
* Confirmed airline-generated itinerary; or
* Letter from your employer stating your need to travel
Save time by downloading the application at travel.state.gov/passport and completing it in advance. Click "Application for Passport: DS-11" in the left-hand column.
-- James Gilden