Getting Your Travel Documents Together

By Rick Steves

Your trip won't get off the ground if you don't prepare these documents — passport, student and hostel cards, railpass, international driving permit — well before your departure date. Give yourself plenty of lead time.

Passports

In much of Europe, the only document a US or Canadian citizen needs is a passport. (The US Passport Card works only for those driving or cruising to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.) And for most American travelers, the only time any customs official looks at you seriously is at the airport as you re-enter the United States.

Getting or Renewing Your Passport: US passports, good for 10 years, cost $135 ($110 to renew). The fee for minors under 16 (including infants) is $105 for a passport good for five years — kids under 16 must apply in person with at least one parent and the other parent's notarized permission.

You can apply at some courthouses and post offices, as well as municipal buildings, such as your City Hall. For details and the location of the nearest passport-acceptance facility, see www.travel.state.gov or call 877-487-2778. Processing time varies; the current wait is posted on the State Department website. During busier periods, a six-week wait is common. One or two weeks after you apply, you can check online for the status of your passport application and its estimated arrival date.

If you need your passport in less than six weeks, tack on an additional $60 expediting fee (plus overnight shipping both ways), and you'll get it by mail in two to three weeks (check the State Department's website for current processing times). In a last-minute emergency situation, call the above number and speak to a customer-service representative. If you can prove that you have to leave within two weeks (by showing a purchased airline eticket or a letter from work requiring you to travel overseas on short notice), you may be able to receive a passport in a day or so. Make an appointment to go in person to the nearest US Passport Agency and pay the additional $60 fee; they'll issue your new passport in 24 to 72 hours.

Keep an eye on your passport's expiration date. Many European countries require that your passport be valid for three to six months after your ticketed date of return to the United States. This means that even if your passport doesn't expire for a few months, you may still be denied entry to a country. Check your destination country's requirements, and if necessary, get your passport renewed before you go. Other countries can have surprising entry requirements. For example, the Czech Republic and Poland technically require visitors to carry proof of medical insurance (your health insurance card usually suffices). While it's virtually unheard of that a border guard would actually request this, it's worth knowing about. For requirements per country, see www.travel.state.gov.

If you're a frequent international traveler, consider the US Customs' Global Entry Program, which lets you bypass passport control at major US airports ($100 fee).

Canadian citizens can refer to www.voyage.gc.ca for Canada-specific passport information.

Traveling with your Passport: Take good care of your passport, but relax if a night-train conductor asks you to temporarily give it up. When you sleep on an international night train to a non-Schengen country, the conductor may take your passport so you won't be disturbed when the train crosses the border at 3:00 a.m. It's also standard for hoteliers to hold onto your passport for a short time so they can register you with the police.

If you find yourself in a situation requiring a cash deposit (for bike rentals, audioguides, and so on), a passport can serve as collateral if you don't have cash on hand. You also may need to show your passport if making a purchase for which you'd like to claim a Value-Added Tax refund.

Replacing your Passport: If you have to replace a lost or stolen passport in Europe, it's much easier to do if you have a photocopy of it and a couple of passport-type photos, either brought from home or taken in Europe.

Visas

A visa is a stamp placed in your passport by a foreign government, allowing you to enter their country. Visas are not required for Americans or Canadians traveling in Western Europe and most of the East (including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Baltic states). Both Canadians and Americans need visas to visit Turkey, but cruise-line passengers do not need a visa if they are just visiting ports of call and not flying in or out from Turkey. Turkish visas are cheapest and easiest to get upon arrival at the border or airport. You can pay in US currency or euros (US residents pay $20 or €15; Canadians pay $60 — US dollars, not Canadian — or €45). For more information, check with Turkey's embassy in the United States or in Canada.

For travel beyond Europe, get up-to-date information on visa requirements from your travel agent or the US Department of State.

Student Cards and Hostel Memberships

The International Student Identity Card (ISIC), the only internationally recognized student ID card, gets you discounts on transportation, entertainment, and sightseeing throughout Europe, and includes some basic trip insurance. If you are a full-time student (and can prove it), get one. Your ISIC card can also be used as a prepaid phone card. Be aware that if you're older than 26, you might have trouble using the card in some places. Two other varieties of the card, offering similar discounts, are available, though they're often not honored: for teachers of any age (International Teacher Identity Card, or ITIC) and for non-student travelers under age 26 (International Youth Travel Card, or IYTC). Each of these cards costs $23 and is good for one year from the date of issue. Get yours on the ISIC website, through STA Travel, or from your university foreign-study office.

Travelers who know they'll be staying at least six nights in official HI hostels should get a hostel membership card from a local hostel or Hostelling International (tel. 301/495-1240).

Railpasses and Car Documents

Most rail passes are not sold in Europe and must be purchased before you leave home. If you're renting a car, be aware that an International Driving Permit is required in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain (get it at AAA before your departure — for $15 plus tax and the cost of two passport photos).

Safeguarding Key Documents

Before your trip, make two sets of photocopies of your valuable documents (front and back). Pack a copy and leave a copy with someone at home — to fax or email to you in case of an emergency. (I wouldn't, however, photocopy a debit or credit card — instead, keep just the number in a retrievable place.) It's easier to replace a lost or stolen passport, railpass, or car-rental voucher if you have a photocopy that helps prove you really owned what you lost. Consider bringing a couple of passport-type pictures, which can expedite the replacement process for a lost or stolen passport.

While traveling, guard your photocopies as carefully as you would the originals. I hide mine in a second money belt clipped into the bottom of my luggage (don't tell anyone). Some people scan their documents and email them to a Web-based account or store them on a site such as Google Docs for easy access from the road. If you're concerned about having electronic copies floating around in cyberspace, you could put them on a USB flash drive and tuck it into your money belt. If you're traveling with a companion, carry photocopies of each other's passports and other important documents.

It's also smart to have a backup copy of your itinerary in case you lose the information. You can save hotel and car-rental confirmations online, email a copy of your itinerary to yourself, use an itinerary-storage website (such as Tripit.com), or at the very least, leave the details at home with a friend. You can also write or print, as small as you can read, any phone numbers or email addresses you might need in an emergency, including a list of your reserved hotels, then store this slip of paper in your money belt.