Know Before You Go

| May 9, 2005

I was on a 14-night cruise back in November. Eleven of those nights were in Brazil, mostly along the Amazon and its tributaries, with the cruise ending up in Manaus. The cruise itself was great -- but along the way, big trouble was brewing because of visa and inoculation issues.

Now, the recent announcement by the U.S. State and Homeland Security departments about proposed changes in passport requirements for Americans raises the whole subject of just what is needed and who is responsible for making sure all is in order.

As for passports, the government recently announced a change in policy whereby all American citizens must have a passport for travel to and from the United States. The major change is that the passport requirement will apply for travel to places in the Western Hemisphere that used to require only a birth certificate or a photo-I.D. like a driver's license.

This is being phased in, with passports needed at the end of this year for travel by air and sea to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Central America and South America. Further changes take place in 2006 and 2007, until even border crossings by car from Canada and Mexico will require passports. (As an aside, I find it interesting that after this was announced, President Bush said that he didn't know about it in advance, and he disagreed with some of the details). Bottom line: Changes are taking place, and there may be changes to those changes, but if you are going to be taking a cruise, make sure you have a passport.

If you do not have a passport, getting one is really easy. It involves a bit of paperwork, some special-sized photos, a fee ($97 in total fees for first-time adult applicants; $82 for children under 16) and sending them in to a passport office (for details, see It's easier than a driver's test or getting citizenship; it requires no studying. But after this year, you will probably need one before you cruise. If you think you are going to be short on time, you can always use one of the passport-expediting services that charges extra to get it done for you faster.

Back to the Amazon cruise now. For that cruise, I tried to find out in advance what I needed in terms of a visa and shots. The cruise line told me I needed a visa for entry into Brazil -- they were very specific about that. They also said they could offer the name of a company that would expedite the visa if I needed help. They did not have information on inoculations, and suggested I check with other sources, possibly the Centers for Disease Control ( I checked with my own doctor and the local medical center that specializes in shots for foreign trips. I checked the websites for the state department, the Brazilian consulate, several guidebooks, and even Brazil itself. I finally called the Brazilian consulate in Washington, D.C. and spoke to their resident expert. The information they gave me was all over the place as to whether shots were just recommended or mandatory, but after many discussions I was able to straighten it out.

Note: the ticket documentation that came from the cruise line essentially said it's the responsibility of the traveler to know which documentation or shots were needed.

Once aboard ship, as we were ready to dock at our first Brazilian port, a huge hubbub arose when the ship's officers asked all guests to provide their visa and inoculation documentation. At least half the guests did not have the proper shots, and many did not have visas. It took most of the evening to sort it all out, and there was still a big question as to whether or not we would be able to dock. Ultimately, some guests got shots, some didn't, some wound up with on-the-spot visas. It was a mess, and it continued over to the next day when some guests went ashore without the right documents and just took a chance.

All this is intended to demonstrate that even though you think the cruise line should have the current information on the requirements imposed by foreign governments of the ports it will visit, it doesn't always have it. In this case, the situation was so fluid because the United States was changing the rules about what it requires from visiting Brazilians, so the Brazilian government changed what they require from us.

You can rely on your travel agent if you choose; many of them have the correct, up-to-the-minute info. Or they can look into it for you.

But at the end of the day, it's your trip, and if you're going someplace foreign -- especially some place exotically foreign -- it's up to you to make sure you have what you need. It would be very sad to be denied entry to a port -- or re-entry into the U.S. -- if you do not have your docs. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Even if the shots may hurt a bit.

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