What you don't know can't hurt you? I beg to differ. What you don't know can kill you, like disease, for example, or not knowing which way to look when you cross the street.
It can also have lesser, but still painful, effects. Like when you're making travel plans. Costly travel plans. Surprise travel plans. Plans for someone's 40th birthday. In this case, mine. The truth is, what you don't know can hurt the pocketbook and the heart too.
No one likes a big-effort surprise to be foiled after all the preparation and anticipation put into it. I felt sorry for my husband. He'd made such an effort to surprise me on my 40th, and just days after Christmas too. The holidays alone can leave you feeling like a beached whale, gasping for life. Throw your wife's 40th on top, and that could spell sudden death for even the best husband.
But not my husband. He went above and beyond. He'd booked a surprise trip to Paris for the three of us, and it was all happening! The bags were tagged, and our boarding passes were being printed. I was wondering what movies would be on the plane when the woman at the check-in counter stopped printing and said there was an issue with our daughter's passport. A supervisor needed to be consulted before our passes could be released.
Naturally, I panicked. What could be wrong with our daughter's passport? It wasn't expired. It doesn't expire until the end of the month, January 24. We'd be back a week before that.
I wracked my brain. It would have to be a technical problem. Maybe the passport was torn or bent, malfunctioning in some way.
The woman returned. "Your daughter's passport is expiring," she said.
"But it isn't expired," I said.
"France doesn't allow travel within three months of a passport's expiration," she informed us.
Clearly, we should have known. Clearly we were idiots. But, isn't an expiration date an expiration date?
Not when it comes to passports, apparently; they go bad three to six months (depending on the country) before their "Use By" dates. Europe, Asia, and The Americas (except Canada and Mexico) all require six-month validity.
I've since read that these rules are in place for different reasons to prevent accidentally overstaying one's allotted travel time in another country by travelling too close to your passport's expiration date. Most of these reasons suggest an illness or a physical accident that could happen while you're travelling that would detain you in the country you were visiting past the expiration of your passport. All sorts of complications can arise from this, the worst case being deportation and then the inability to ever enter that country again.
But come on. A terrorist on the run can go from Berlin to Paris to Chambery to Turin to Milan before finally being stopped, and my five-year-old can't fly with her parents from Australia to France for a week because her passport expires in a month?
Nope. She can't. After two hours at the check-in counter and frantic calls among the travel agent, the airline, and my husband, it was clear that a resolution to this problem was not going to happen in a matter of minutes or hours but rather days … or worse.
The travel agent told us to go to the American Consulate immediately and get an emergency passport for our daughter so that we could rebook the trip as soon as possible and not lose much more time or money in the process. The Consulate closed in an hour, so it was a mad dash from the airport, luggage in tow, but we made it.
A passport photo was obtained, and within minutes, we were raising our right hands, signing our names, and getting her an "Emergency" passport. Next, we needed to rebook our tickets.
At which point, the man who'd sworn us in and processed all of our paperwork, concluded by saying, "By the way, some countries don't accept travel on emergency passports."
"Well, is France one of them?" I asked, resisting the futile urge to lunge at the glass between us."I don't know. You'll have to check online or call the Embassy. You might need to get a visa or something."
Why he didn't tell us this before we spent the time and money getting the Emergency passport remains a mystery.
The French Embassy in Melbourne was closed. The American Embassy in France didn't open for three hours. Whatever was going to happen wasn't going to happen today. It was time to go home.
After talking on the phone to someone at the American Embassy in France later that night, it turns out France, as a party to the Schengen Agreement, doesn't accept emergency or temporary passports. If we'd made it to France, we would have been turned around and sent back to Melbourne straight away.
It's the responsibility of the passport holder to know the rules of the countries he or she is travelling to, but shouldn't this be more common knowledge? I've asked around. Most who know about this have learned about it in an instance like ours, where what you don't know can actually cause a lot of problems.
The best advice the Internet has to offer to avoid something like this is to recommend that all would-be travellers consult the embassy websites of the countries they plan to visit before booking travel plans. To that, I'd add: check your passport's expiration date too. It might be going sour.
See also: The world's most powerful passports
Listen: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater
The things that will surprise first-time visitors to Europe
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