When travel disaster strikes, how do you handle it?
True story: just two weeks before an anticipated trip to Iceland, I realized that my dog-eared, nearly-filled passport was missing. My last passport renewal was back in 2012, when, like a person not in crisis, I had applied for renewal the recommended eight weeks early in order to allow for processing. But now, with documents about to expire, I was caught off-guard by this sudden hitch in my logistics. Should I cancel my trip? Re-apply and pray? Go into credit card debt paying a professional expediter to work shady back channels on my behalf? All of the above?
The good news: I got my passport through normal, non-bankrupting means, and had the adventure of a lifetime.
The bad news: It could have been much, much worse. Here’s what I learned.
An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure
You can’t travel internationally without your passport. So while you’re on the road, treat it like your most valuable possession. Start by preventing airport thief and pick an internal pocket of your bag for passport storage, one you’re not likely to disturb while frantically grabbing your wallet to pay for pre-flight snacks. Then—this is the tricky part—no matter how much of a rush you might be in, make sure you always put your passport back in the same pocket.
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Many hotels have in-room safes, so just to be safe, slip your passport in alongside your MacBook and the family jewels. Or, if your stay is short, it might be worth it just to forego maid service altogether. Let’s be honest, if you’re worried about security, calling down for towels is, at best, a minor inconvenience.
What If You Lose Your Passport Before You Leave?
If you still have an eight-week window, congrats, you can mail your application and fees into the state department and go about your daily life. Breathe. You got this.
INSIDER TIPIt’s important to know the U.S. government suggests renewal nine months before expiration, and many countries require your passport to be valid at least full six months beyond your departure date.
If you’ve got fewer than four weeks (or a week and a half like I had), it’s best to apply at a local passport office. If you’re on an extremely tight turn-around, bring proof of your booked flight. (I personally wasn’t asked for this documentation, but other people have reported having to prove their upcoming travel plans.) Be sure to bring all your required documents since missing a step will slow your roll. If you’re an American citizen, that means
-a form DS-64 (statement of lost or stolen passport)
-a filled-out and signed application
-proof of citizenship (this is one of many compelling arguments for carrying a scan or photograph of your passport)
-a color passport photo
-payment (cash, VISA, MasterCard, American Express, Discover)
Total price tag: $205 ($110 for the book, $60 for expediting, and $35 for the “execution fee”)
But I Need to Leave Tomorrow!
If you’re flying domestically, this might not be a problem, even if your passport is your only form of identification. (However, keep in mind this isn’t always a sure thing–Southwest Airlines and United have stricter policies than most airlines.) Be sure to get to the airport early, and bring library cards, utility bills, prescriptions—anything that you can help to verify your name and address. Explain your situation to the check-in agent and, after a few rounds of security questions (i.e. social security number, make/model of your car, street address, etc.–stuff you know), they’ll make a note on your boarding pass that you’ll be flying without ID. You’ll likely sign a statement saying you told the truth. The TSA agents will likely put you through another screening, including extra inspections of your carry-on and perhaps a pat-down, but on the bright side, after that, you’ll be able to go.
INSIDER TIPA cool head and a lot of politeness will go a long way during this process.
You still need a valid passport for international travel, since it’s the country of arrival (not the U.S.) that has documentation requirements. If there’s a life or death emergency, which the government defines as “serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family that requires you to travel outside the United States within 72 hours,” then this process might be easier. Any official documentation you can present, including police reports, hospital forms, and mortuary records will help your case. Having these in order will allow you to jump the appointment queue.
But what if your “emergency travel” doesn’t match the government definition? Currently there are 27 regional passport offices that can process same-day applications. The catch: you need to be physically present for an appointment, as they don’t accept walk-ins. If you do live in the same city, consider returning to collect your passport in person.
This is where third-party passport renewal services come into play. They can be a helpful concierge service—especially if you don’t live near a regional passport office. However, they’re not part of any government agency (despite what official-looking seals they might display on their websites) which means if anything goes wrong, or they’re delayed, you don’t have any protection. If you’re desperate, keep in mind you’re likely to pay triple what you would otherwise (this price spikes the faster you need it). And, since you’re handing over personal information, do your homework! Yelp reviews and the Better Business Bureau are good places to start.
Oh No…I Lost My Passport While Traveling Abroad
So, you made it to your personal sliver of paradise, only to drop your passport in a Reykjavík bar after one too many Brennivín. Don’t panic. Unless you’re traveling to a place where the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations, you probably won’t have to cash in your sick days or buy a new flight home.
First, if you’ve been the victim of a crime (mugging, hotel room break-in, ect.), file a police report, as this will help speed up the process and invalidate your passport so it can’t be used by anyone else. The report can also be used to speed up your passport process.
Next, bring your documents in person to the nearest U.S. Embassy. In addition to the same form DS-64, photos, and payment you’d have to present at home, you’ll also need proof of citizenship, so travel with your drivers’ license or snap a photo of your passport and keep it in a safe place on your phone. You’ll also need to show proof of flights. This will help the official to work within your timeframe, and allow you to get home, sanity intact.