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Click over to get the latest on new passport requirements, discounts for union members, surfing, Wi-Fi, digital images and more.

Dates Set for New U.S. Passport Requirements

As reported here on April 27, new rules proposed by the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security will soon do away with a loophole that for decades has allowed U.S. citizens to travel to Canada, Mexico and most of the Caribbean without a passport.

The rule change, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, is part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. As originally proposed, the changes would have required all cruise passengers bound for the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central and South America to carry a valid passport as of December 31, 2005. However, following a period in which State and Homeland Security reviewed comments from the public and affected industries, that schedule has now been amended as follows:

  • December 31, 2006: U.S. citizens must possess a valid passport for all air or sea travel to or from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
  • December 31, 2007: the requirement will be extended to all land border crossings as well.

That gives you a little breathing room, but don't dawdle if you're planning any cross-border travel, whether by cruise or otherwise.

If you don't currently have a passport, the State Department website (http://travel.state.gov/passport) provides information on obtaining one. Current fees are $97 for citizens age 16 and older, $82 under age 16. Additional details on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative can be found at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cbpmc/cbpmc_2223.html.

To get a passport for the first time (or if you have an expired passport issued more than 15 years ago, or issued while you were under 16), you need to go in person to one of 6,000 passport acceptance facilities located throughout the country, bringing two photographs of yourself, proof of U.S. citizenship (an expired passport, certified birth certificate, naturalization certificate, certificate of citizenship or consular report of birth abroad) and a valid form of photo ID, such as a driver's license. Acceptance facilities include many federal, state and probate courts; post offices; some public libraries; and a number of county and municipal offices. Find the one nearest you using the State Department's search page, at http://iafdb.travel.state.gov.

Citizens who need a new passport for travel within two weeks may visit one of 13 regional passport agencies, listed at http://travel.state.gov/passport/about/agencies/agencies_913.html. Appointments are required, and you'll need to bring a completed passport application (downloadable at http://travel.state.gov/passport/forms/forms_847.html), appropriate ID, proof of citizenship (see list above) and two regulation passport-size photos. Expedited service costs $60 plus any mailing fees, above and beyond the regular application fees.

If you don't live near a passport center, you can apply for expedited service at a local passport acceptance facility, located in post offices, courthouses, and so on, and then follow up through overnight mail.

You can renew an expired passport through the mail as long as you were over age 16 when it was issued and still have the same name (or can provide legal documentation of a name change) and your old passport is undamaged and was issued within the past 15 years. Forms are downloadable at http://travel.state.gov/passport/forms/forms_847.html. Fees for renewal are currently $67. Expedited renewal services are available for an additional $60 plus mailing costs.

NCL Says There's Strength (and Discounts!) in the Union

On August 31, Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) announced a deal with Union Privilege (www.unionplus.org), an organization established by the AFL-CIO to provide consumer benefits to members and retirees of participating labor unions. The benefit in this case? Savings of between five and thirty percent off the top of any cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line, NCL America, or NCL subsidiary Orient Lines.

NCL is the currently the only cruise line affiliated with Union Privilege, and its debut as a provider dovetails with the introduction of NCL America's new U.S.-flagged, all union-crewed ship, Pride of America, christened on June 17, 2005. Onboard employees are represented by the Seafarers (SIU), Marine Engineers (MEBA), and Seafarers Entertainment (SEATU) unions.

To take advantage of the NCL's Union Plus Freestyle Cruising Program, union members can visit www.unionplus.org/norwegian-cruise-lines.cfm, call tel. 866/867-0593, or visit their local travel agent. If the latter, be sure to mention you're eligible for the Union Plus rate.

Royal Caribbean Raises the Curtain on Onboard Surfing

Poor Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/398-9819; www.royalcaribbean.com). After raising expectations for almost two years about what new innovations it would offer aboard its newest, largest ship, Freedom of the Seas, its latest big announcement was reduced to a news blip last week by the unfolding catastrophe in Louisiana and Mississippi.

So what did it turn out to be? Surfing. Check it out: www.freedomoftheseas.com.

Created by WaveLoch, Inc. (www.waveloch.com) of La Jolla, CA, the FlowRider is similar to swim-in-place lap pools with their recycling currents, except that this one is fast. Forty feet long and 32 feet wide, it's shaped like a wedge, at the bottom of which are powerful jets that pump 30,000 gallons per minute up the slope, creating a wave-like flow on which boarders can ride.

The FlowRider will be located on Freedom's aft sports court, spanning decks 12 and 13, and will be adjoined by open space for gawkers. Participants must sign up for group sessions and go through a quick introduction, after which they and the other members of their group take turns riding the wave, either in traditional stand-up surfing or less-balance-demanding body-boarding. A soft, flexible surface absorbs the impact when you fall, which you probably will: In a demonstration at the Cape Liberty, NJ, cruise port on August 31, demonstration boarders seemed to be having as much fun bodysurfing the wave back up to the top as they did angling their boards to soak bystanders.

The new surf park is the latest aqua-attraction to be announced for Freedom of the Seas, which is set to debut in May 2006. Other wows include a top-deck water park with a sports pool, an interactive spray-and-splash area for kids, and whirlpools positioned on overhangs twelve feet beyond the sides of the ship, 112 feet above sea level.

INTRAV Teams with Chosen Voyage for New Kosher Travel Division

In 2003, ordained rabbi and travel-industry veteran Matthew Shollar founded Chosen Voyage, a Pittsburgh-based company dedicated to offering the cruise industry's only all-kosher experience. For its first two years Chosen Voyage chartered various small and midsize ships including Windstar's Wind Surf, Ponant's Le Levant and Le Diamant, and Clipper's Clipper Odyssey, transforming their galley and service routines to accommodate Jewish kosher laws and offering Jewish-themed excursions and activities. Now, Chosen Voyage has teamed with specialty travel operator INTRAV, parent company of Clipper Cruise Line (tel. 800/325-0010; www.clippercruise.com), to create a new division, Chosen Voyage at INTRAV, that will combine Chosen Voyage's proven track record in the kosher travel market with INTRAV's infrastructure and wide catalogue of travel offerings. Chosen Voyage founder Shollar will serve as vice president.

"Chosen Voyage at INTRAV is a testament to the size and sophistication of the kosher travel market," says Shollar. "This audience boasts very high demographics, is well-educated, and well-traveled, making it a perfect fit for the highly respected travel options that INTRAV has provided over its 45+ years in existence."

First up is an all-kosher version of Clipper's popular "Exploring the Yachtsman's Caribbean" cruise, a weeklong sailing through the U.S. and British Virgin Islands aboard the 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper, departing January 19, 2006. The full line of Chosen Voyage cruises, with day-by-day itineraries, dates, prices, and amenities, will be available later this year at the Chosen Voyage at INTRAV website, www.chosenvoyage.com. More information is also available by calling tel. 800/234-6900, ext. 6835.

QE2 Becomes Longest-Serving Cunarder Ever

On Sunday, September 4, Cunard's (tel. 800/728-6273; www.cunard.com) venerable Queen Elizabeth 2 became the longest-serving ship ever in the line's 166-year history, surpassing the former record of 36 years, 4 months, and 2 days held by the 19,930-ton liner Scythia, which sailed from 1921 to 1957. The record was celebrated aboard QE2 with a special dinner, the unveiling of a plaque, and the distribution of commemorative certificates to all passengers.

Princess Introduces Digital Photo Kiosks Fleetwide

Digital photography is all about instant gratification: Take the picture, push a button, and bingo, there're your memories. For those who still like to print out those memories on glossy paper, though -- or for those who've used up all the memory on their disks -- Princess Cruises (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com) has just added digital photo kiosks to every ship in its fleet.

The user-friendly stations, manufactured by Pixel Magic Imaging and located adjacent to each ship's photo services desk, let passengers make prints or quickly save images to a CD, freeing up your camera's memory for the rest of your trip. Each kiosk accepts all popular formats of digital imaging media and allow users to crop or enlarge images and add boarders and other special effects. Prices for kiosk services begin at 45¢for a 4x6 print.

Silversea Becomes Latest to Offer Wi-Fi Hot-Spots

Wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) has been gradually rolling out across the cruise world over the past couple years, and is now offered aboard all the Carnival, Holland America, NCL, and Princess vessels (usually in designated areas such as the atrium and some public rooms) and aboard the entirety of a few ships, such as the small luxury vessels of Seabourn and the huge Carnival Valor. Now ultra-luxe operator Silversea Cruises (tel. 877/215-9986; www.silversea.com) has jumped on the bandwagon too, partnering with Maritime Telecommunications Network to create Wi-Fi hot-spots aboard its vessels and implement other communications enhancements, including installation of 17-inch flat screen monitors in the ships' Internet centers.

With the implementation of the Wi-Fi system, guests with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops will be able to access Internet and e-mail in the Panorama Lounge (aboard Silver Cloud and Silver Wind) or Observation Lounge (aboard Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper), as well as the library, card room, and conference room aboard all ships.

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