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Spring break in Mexico? You’ll need more than flip-flops

It’s a familiar rite of passage for many college students – heading south of the border for a week or two to blow off steam and forget about the pressures of school. Unfortunately, thousands of students are bound to have their plans delayed or even canceled due to one simple problem: they don’t have a valid passport.

First, let’s be clear about one lingering misconception: Since Jan. 23, 2007, you cannot travel by plane to any destination outside the U.S. without a valid passport. No border security agent cares how your lack of planning is wrecking what would have been an awesome trip. In fact, you won’t even get the chance to talk to border security because you won’t be allowed to board the plane.

Driving? You still need a passport card, at the very least, which is no quicker or easier to get.

Second, while some cruises qualify as “closed-loop travel” that only require passengers to carry a government-issued birth certificate and photo ID, the countries you visit may require more in order for you to get off the boat. Don’t assume that because friends went on a cruise without passports last year, you can too. Check with the cruise line to be absolutely certain about their policy.

Now that you know your international travel plans most likely require a passport, here’s how to be sure your passport is valid for this trip:

* You must have it in your possession. If it’s lost or stolen, you cannot simply ask to be sent a replacement, as many travelers wrongly assume.
* The passport must be in good condition. Normal wear and tear is expected, but water damage or torn pages are not acceptable.
* You can’t travel with an expired passport. Many students received their first passport prior to age 16, which means it’s only good for five years. If you don’t have at least three months of validity left after your expected return, it’s time for a new one.

Think you need a new one? You have some options, but time is not on your side.

* All passport applications are submitted to the U.S. Department of State in paper form by mail or in person. There is currently no way to get a passport online.

* If you are younger than 27 you almost certainly need to apply for a new or renewal passport in person. You will need the proper form, photos, proof of citizenship, photo ID and payments by check or money order totaling $135.

* Normal processing takes four to six weeks but spring break applications usually start to flood the system this time of year and can slow it down. If you need your passport sooner than six weeks, you can pay an additional $60 at the time of your application to get it in under a month if you also include a travel itinerary that justifies the rush.

* Can’t wait two weeks to a month? Make an appointment to apply in person at a regional passport office by calling (877) 487-2778. Find out if there is one near you at www.travel.state.gov/passport.

* If you need your new passport in under month and can’t get to a regional passport office, a passport expediter may be able to help. Their fees vary widely, and so does the quality of service they offer. However, they can often help you get a new passport in days, not weeks. When choosing one, do your homework and look for good reviews, friendly advice and a guarantee that you can make your trip.

For more detailed information about how to plan a safe and enjoyable trip, visit the Department of State’s page: Spring Break in Mexico – “Know Before You Go!”

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