On Christmas night I went to the airport with my wife. We were set to fly to Amsterdam, and would be spending the next eight days enjoying a festive vacation in various cities in Holland and Belgium. Too bad they didn’t let my dumb ass on the plane!
Here’s a thing I did not know, and it is something I am hoping to save you from not knowing in a similar way: If you’re flying to Europe and your passport expires less than three months after your scheduled return date, you’re fucked! Some countries even require a six-month buffer between expiration and return date. This means that every day scores of extremely sad travelers are sent home from the airport because their passports, which have not expired, have effectively expired. I know this happens to a lot of people because I met many of them.
Here’s what happens when you get told by the very nice woman at the check-in counter that you can’t get on a plane because your passport is no good: she’ll send you over to an equally nice woman at the rebooking counter, to whom you will explain your nightmarish ordeal as if it is somehow novel. You’ll be surprised by how immediately she understands your predicament, and how quickly she lays out your next steps. She’ll book you on a new flight leaving the next day, then tell you that you need to get to a passport agency where you can get an expedited passport before your new flight departs. She’ll tell you that you need to bring your old passport, a 2x2 photo of your face for the new passport, a printout of your new flight itinerary (to prove that you need the passport ASAP), and that you’ll need to get there very early. How early? She told me that the passport office in Manhattan opens at 7:30 a.m., but she also told me that people start lining up at 5:00 a.m.
After managing to find a CVS that was open on Christmas night and would print a new passport photo for me, I went home and slept a few hours before getting up early and arriving at the passport office by 5:15 a.m. When I got there, eight people were already waiting in line, all with the exact same problem I had. By 6:00 a.m., the line had stretched around the block. By the time the doors opened at 7:30, there were hundreds of people, all bitterly cold and depressed, waiting to get an expedited passport.
And this happens every damn day. Seriously, go read the office’s Yelp page, where you will find years worth of people sharing their stories and giving advice on when to get in line. The fact that enough people need expedited passports every day in New York City to make lining up 2.5 hours before the passport office opens standard practice suggests that not very many people know about the three- and six-month passport rule.
I hesitate to get too Fed Up about this—I’m not here to bore anyone by shouting, “Shouldn’t the expiration date ON your passport actually BE the expiration date??!??” in Lewis Black’s voice—because I’m sure there are perfectly good reasons for the rule existing. But it does seem to me that if the primary purpose of the NYC passport office is to service hundreds of spectacularly owned and clueless dopes like me every day, then the system isn’t quite working.
I count the real villain here as Delta Airlines, which asked for my passport number and expiration date when I booked the tickets last summer, but did not provide me with any kind of warning about the three-month rule. It’s not surprising that an airline would hang their customers out to dry in these situations—I gave Delta a truly obscene amount of money when I rebooked my flight!—because that’s what an oligopoly does.
Standing in opposition to Delta Airlines are the people who work at the NYC passport office, who were all extremely helpful and courteous. After my long, frozen wait on the sidewalk, I got through the application process in under an hour. I paid a $190 fee, and was told that my brand new passport would be ready within four hours. I went to a bar around the corner, ate breakfast and watched soccer, and then returned at noon to find my passport ready for me. I made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare before my 4:30 p.m. flight. I managed to have a very nice trip.