Fliers Face New Passport Rules

If a sunny beach in Mexico or the Caribbean or a trip to the ski resorts of Canada is in your future plans, you will now need a passport if you're traveling by air.

It used to be all you needed to jet off to those destinations was a driver's license but that all changes beginning Tuesday.

Already, vacation destinations worry they're going to lose American tourist dollars.

"They're concerned," says Washington Post travel editor K.C. Summers, "and rightfully so."

Of the top 10 international destinations, Americans did not need passports to travel to six of them, including Cancun and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, and the Dominican Republic and Montego Bay in Jamaica -- but now they will.

Resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean have launched aggressive campaigns, including taking out full-page adds in newspapers offering to pay the cost of a passport for American travelers.

Less than a quarter of all Americans have passports. In advance of the rule change, the State Department last year issued a record 12 million passports and expects that number to climb to 16 million this year.

The new rules are part of the recommendations by the 9/11 commission to help secure America's borders. Passports for air travelers are just the first phase. By 2008, passports will be required for everyone entering the United States by land or sea.

Island resorts complain the one-year delay gives cruise companies an advantage. But Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories may have the greatest advantage as passports are not required to travel there.

Across the border in Canada, the new requirements have resulted in a 33 percent rise in applications, leading to long lines with waits of up to five hours.

One unidentified applicant waiting in line at a post office in Alberta, Canada, said, "We've got an upcoming trip, and decided to bite the bullet and come and stand in line here."

For the snowbirds, as they're called -- the Canadians who flee the harsh winter for sunny Florida -- the State Department will exempt them from the new rules if they are already in this country. Officials also will make exceptions for stranded travelers who drove down, but now must fly back.

"No one is going to be so inhumane," says Frank Moss of the State Department, "as to say to someone they can't go back for a medical emergency, for some family situation, just because they don't have a passport. We're going to make that kind of situation work."

But Moss adds it's best not to take any chances and instead get that passport.

To apply for a passport, here is some useful information:

A passport costs $97 for anyone over 16, $82 for people under 16.

There is no age limit. Even infants need passports traveling abroad.

The application process takes about six weeks.

There are ways to expedite the process to about two weeks at an extra cost of $60.

Passports must be applied for in person, not online.

For further information and to find a passport agency near you, visit the U.S. Department of State at www.travel.state.gov.