A Traveler In The Foreign Service: No Passport? No Honeymoon

The day after I got married, I spent much of the day nursing a hangover. And when I was finally ready to emerge from my bed, in the middle of the afternoon, I told my new bride that I was going out to rent “Braveheart” and “Rob Roy” to get us geared up for our honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. But when I returned from the video shop, I had some bad news for her. Our first full day as man and wife was going to be a stressful one.

After suffering through an interminable, miserably hot summer in Washington, D.C., my first after joining the Foreign Service in 2002, I wanted our mid-August honeymoon to unfold in a cool, comfortable foreign locale. My wife was lukewarm on Scotland, but I sold her on the idea of hiking in The Highlands and on the island of Skye and spending our nights in cozy pubs listening to traditional fiddle music.

I’m a risk taker by nature and had no qualms about booking most of our trip with nonrefundable bids on priceline.com. I booked the flight and four nights of accommodation in London on Priceline and made reservations at B & B’s in Scotland for the rest of the two-week trip. At the time, I was in a six month long Albanian language course at the Foreign Service Institute in Northern Virginia, and my wife was finishing up a masters program in Chicago. We were newlyweds, but didn’t live together yet.I don’t recall what triggered my memory but I came to the sickening realization that I’d left my passport 1,000 miles away at my apartment in Washington, D.C., as I drove down Western Avenue on Chicago’s north side back to my wife’s apartment. It was about 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon and our completely non-changeable, non-refundable flight to London via Cincinnati was scheduled to depart in 24 hours.

I dreaded telling my wife about my mistake, but when she didn’t lunge after me with a butcher knife I knew I’d made a wise choice in marrying her. I had a good woman but no passport.

A series of frantic phone calls and web prowling revealed that there were two options to get my passport: A) I could fly to Washington myself, get the passport and then catch a flight to Cincinnati to board our connecting flight to London, or B) Find someone in Washington to bring my passport to Dulles airport on Monday morning and send it via cargo to Chicago.

Both scenarios left no margin for error. If I traveled myself, I’d have to pay about $500, and would arrive in Cincinnati just on time for our flight, but the routing involved three total flights and if any were delayed then my wife would be going on the honeymoon herself. When I broached this topic with her, and opined that if I didn’t turn up at the airport, she should proceed to London on her own, and I’d try to buy a ticket for another flight, she took a stand.

“I am not leaving for our honeymoon alone,” she said. “You bought non-refundable tickets and now we just have to deal with it.”

Option B was cheaper, at about $175, but was also more complex and riskier. The routing had the passport arriving in Chicago about a half hour before our flight was due to board, but this plan meant that I’d have to find someone in D.C. who could gain access to my apartment, where the passport was, and then drive the passport to the airport at an ungodly hour on a Monday morning to catch an early flight.

I decided to ask two people to help me execute option B. I asked Mike Katula, the nicest Foreign Service colleague I could think of, to try to get my passport, and Kathy, my cousin’s wife, to drive the passport to the airport. Both immediately understood the gravity of the situation and offered to help immediately without complaint.

Katula had to go to my apartment building and do some detective work to find the super to explain the situation. I would have called to warn her but I had no idea what her phone number was, and didn’t even know her full name to look her up in the phone book. As my wife and I sweated the situation out in her little apartment in Chicago, I got a call from the super.

“There’s a tall guy here who says he needs to get into your apartment to get your passport,” she said.

“It sounds a little fishy, I know,” I said. “But, please, let him in.”

Katula got the passport, and Kathy, saint that she is, got it to the airport on time and for us, all that was left to do was chart my passport’s progress online. My passport had a connection to make in Cleveland, and even though it was August, we feared delays. We spent much of the day online, refreshing flight data pages to see if our flights were running smoothly.

The first flight to Cleveland appeared to have come off without a glitch, and the onward flight to Chicago left on time so we left for O’Hare full of hope that the passport would be there. We had to report to a cargo office on the periphery of the airport and as we entered the building, which was full of boxes and delivery people, I felt pretty certain we were the first people with a honeymoon riding on the arrival of a package.

The passport wasn’t there when we arrived at the office but the clerk verified that the flight had just landed. We had a little more than an hour before our flight to Cincinnati left and I explained our situation to the woman at the desk.

“Well, it takes a while for the packages to get here and be sorted,” she said, much to our chagrin.

About twenty very nervous minutes passed and finally the woman announced, “I have something here for you,” holding up a large white envelope. I have never been so excited to receive a package in my life.

“Now the honeymoon can begin,” my relieved wife said.

We dashed over to the airport in a celebratory mood, caught our flight and had a terrific time, despite the initial fright. Two months later, I took up my first job in the Foreign Service at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje and frequently dealt with Americans who had lost their passports. And while some of my colleagues were prone to scolding and hectoring Americans about taking better care of their passports, I was sympathetic because I had a dark passport secret of my own.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

Top five travel documents to email yourself before you travel

A lost or stolen passport or ATM card is a surefire way to add stress to any trip. As a preventative measure, I keep a list of travel documents (scanned, as necessary) in my inbox, so I have them at the ready should I run into trouble. Before you head out on your next trip, make sure you have the following documents, copied, prepped and prepared in the event you need them quickly:

1. Passport
If your passport mysteriously goes missing from the hotel security box or hostel front desk, or you’re mugged or robbed on the road, scanning a back-up copy can save you hours of paperwork and waiting. If you need a visa for travel, scan a copy of it, as well.

2. Medical and travel insurance cards (if applicable)
Not all medical insurance covers travel outside of the U.S., so check before you get on a plane. If you plan on visiting a region prone to civil unrest, natural disasters, or general sketchiness, have a medical condition, or are a fan of adventure travel, travel insurance might be worth looking into.

3. Bank and credit card collect call numbers
Keep the bank phone numbers nearby. It won’t bring your cards back if they’re lost or stolen, but at least you can report and cancel/put holds on them, ASAP. Most financial institutions have collect call numbers you can use from a foreign country.

4. Emergency contacts and relevant health information
At a recent appointment with a new physician, he noted that I was allergic to penicillin, and asked what happens if I take it. I explained I have a family history of anaphylaxis, and he asked why I don’t wear a medical alert bracelet, especially given my occupation as travel writer. It’s a good idea that never would have occurred to me. So while you’re typing up that list of contacts, including doctors, add in any life-threatening allergies or medical conditions. Should you wind up in a medical emergency, odds are someone, somewhere, will speak English. Or write it down in the language of the country you’re visiting (Lonely Planet Phrasebooks are invaluable for this kind of translation, even if you need to say it in Urdu or Thai).5. Itinerary
Be sure to send copies of your travel itinerary to family and/or a close friend. If you’re backpacking and don’t know where you’ll be staying or don’t have a world phone, the ubiquitousness of global cyber cafes makes it easier than ever to stay in touch, even in rural areas.

*Bonus round

U.S. Department of State contact info/Embassy and Consulate list
If you spend a lot of time overseas, especially if you fall into the category cited in #2, it’s a very good idea to register your trip with the U.S. Department of State. In the event of an emergency requiring evacuation, you’ll be in their system. It’s also helpful to keep the embassy/consulate link in your inbox and on your person, in case you or a fellow traveler runs into trouble.

Immunization card
Some countries or regions require you to present this, to prove you’ve had the necessary vaccinations before being admitted entry. Admittedly, I’ve never actually had to produce this document, but better safe than denied. For a list of recommended and required inoculations for destinations, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cubicgarden]