Cruising to Canada: How I managed to board the ship after forgetting my passport

Jan 19, 2020

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My parents recently celebrated their 40th anniversary and, to commemorate the occasion, wanted to take my sister and her family of four and me on a cruise. My niece and nephew were young – 6 and 4 years old respectively — so a cruise seemed like a great way to spend time together, experience some new places and not have to move hotels every night. My mom had always wanted to “leaf peep” in New England, so a cruise that departed from Boston and included stops in Bar Harbor, ME; Saint John, New Brunswick; and Halifax, Nova Scotia seemed like the perfect fit.

We booked our cabins, organized three different sets of flights and the seven of us made plans to meet in Boston in October 2017.

The whole crew in Halifax. (Photo by Katie Coakley)

After a few days of pre-cruise touring around Boston and taking day trips to Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, we were ready to set sail from the Port of Boston Black Falcon Cruise Terminal at South Boston Waterfront (about two miles from downtown).

With a 9 a.m. departure time, we were up early, organizing, when my dad called out, “And everyone has their passport, right?”

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I froze. I could feel the blood draining from my face; I might have swayed a bit. I certainly felt faint. My passport was in Colorado.

I’m a frequent traveler; I take two or three international trips a year. My passport is fat (I had to add pages a few years ago), is a bit battered and the cover is starting to fray. After I got back from a short trip to Montreal, I had been carrying my passport around in my backpack before removing it “to make sure I didn’t lose it somewhere.”

As I stood in a hotel room in Boston, my passport was still in its “safe place” in my apartment in Denver, hours before the Serenade of the Sea would set sail.

I don’t like to think about the next part. There were tears (from both me and my mom); there were cries of “You travel all the time! How could you forget your passport!” My brain has blocked out a lot of this traumatic scene.

With little idea of how to proceed, we gathered up kids, suitcases and stonily silent parents and piled into a cab for the dock. At arrival, I made a beeline for the first person in a uniform with an air of authority and explained what had happened. There might have been more tears.

My sister, my niece and nephew in front of the Serenade of the Seas in Canada. (Photo by Katie Coakley)

Karen, the Royal Caribbean representative, was incredibly sympathetic and attempted to help. The fact of the matter was, without a passport I could not board the cruise ship. I had a copy of my passport (I keep a picture of it on my phone for emergencies), but that wasn’t sufficient.

“Can anyone retrieve your passport and overnight it to you?” Karen asked. If I could retrieve it, I could figure out a way to join the cruise at a later point. But I had no way to let a friend access my apartment.

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Things were looking pretty dire at this point. My family didn’t want to leave without me, but this mistake was my fault and, if need be, I would stay in Boston and wait for them to get back in five days.

After several calls between the Royal Caribbean representative and “the main office,” Karen had another potential solution: “Do you have a copy of your birth certificate?”

Well, no, not on me. But my birth certificate was still at my parents’ house in Florida. My dad called a neighbor; with some hunting, he found a spare key and located the birth certificate. We walked him through how to take a picture with his phone and the photo was then forwarded to the Royal Caribbean office. We herded as a group to check-in where I told the story again; with several more checks from managers and approvals, the copies of my passport and birth certificate were enough to get me a band and get me on the ship (every passenger receives a band that allows you to depart the ship for shore excursions without showing your passport each time).

In total, from first speaking to Karen until (finally) boarding the ship, this entire saga took about three hours. There was a lot of waiting, nail-biting, more tears, self-flagellation and wistful looks at other passengers boarding. My family was amazing — even my 6-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew were incredibly well-behaved and patient. However, when we finally arrived in our cabins, the sigh of relief that we collectively let out might have swayed the massive ship.

The entire family in Acadia National Park. (Photo by Katie Coakley)

The cruise was fantastic. The fall colors were starting to pop and exploring Acadia National Park, seeing the Bay of Fundy and strolling the super cute town of Halifax were wonderful. We had a great time and the rest of the trip went off without a hitch.

Trying to get back into the U.S. was another ordeal — the U.S. customs officers didn’t want to accept the copies of my documents that had gotten me on the ship — but after going through several layers of command, they finally let me in and we could put my massive, almost trip-ending mistake behind us and just remember the highlights.

Here’s how you can avoid my situation:

  • Make sure you have your passport. The Department of State’s website suggests you “Always bring your passport in case of an emergency, such as an unexpected medical air evacuation or the ship docking at an alternate port in an emergency, even if your cruise says you won’t need it.” If you’re docking at any international port, including Canada and Mexico, you must have your passport to board the ship. Your cruise company may also require you to have a passport even if U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not.
  • Apply early for your passport, or make sure your current one will be valid at least six months beyond your travel dates and has two or more blank pages. This particular situation hasn’t happened to me but I’ve heard stories about travelers being turned around and sent back to the U.S. because their passport expired in five months or they didn’t have enough blank pages.
  • Keep a copy of your passport photo page on your phone. One thing I did do correctly was have a copy of my passport in my phone (I also have a photo of my driver’s license and (now) my birth certificate, just in case). It won’t replace your physical passport, but it proved that I did have one.
  • Having access to a copy of your birth certificate isn’t a bad idea. Having a certified copy of your birth certificate is even better. When we arrived back in the U.S., part of the issue with customs was the fact that the copy of my birth certificate wasn’t certified. It was cause for much scrutiny, even when I also provided my driver’s license and pointed out my thick southern accent.
  • Make color copies of your passport photo page, foreign visas, and itinerary. Leave one copy with a trusted family member or friend and carry one separately from your actual documents. If something happens to your documentation on your cruise (like if your passport is lost or stolen), having copies will make the replacement process a little easier.

I made a massive mistake but, due to the incredible efforts by Royal Caribbean staff and our amazing neighbor, it worked out in the end. I now triple-check that I have my passport and even renewed it nine months early, just in case.

Featured photo by Basic Elements Photography/Getty Images.

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