Let me start off by being very clear about two things. First, I’m a planner and second, I’m a worrier. Oh, and a third thing – my husband is not either of those. He’s spontaneous, and more carefree. I’ve spent close to a year planning and researching this Camino de Santiago adventure via the internet and guide books. My husband and I made reservations at the hotels at least 3 months before our departure date. This is why what I’m about to describe is such an odd state of affairs.
At dinner one evening Dave, the third “musketeer” on our great Camino adventure casually asked us if our passports were close to expiring. Tony’s expires in 8 years, but mine would expire in September. He went on to tell us a story of a traveling companion who was not allowed to board the plane because his passport expired less than 6 months from his departure date. The country they were traveling to had a rule that all visitors’ passports must be valid for more than 6 months from the trip date in order to enter the country. We listened, then brushed off his warning. That is, until 14 days before our trip. I was checking the entry requirements for Canada, where we have a layover and didn’t see anything special. So, I clicked on the entry requirements of Spain. There in my screen, in digital black and white it stated clearly that passports must be valid for 90 days past the trip. Mine was 2 weeks short of that!
Frantically, I searched the internet for the US Dept. of State information on passport renewal. To renew by mail and pay for expediting wasn’t a possibility since the estimated turnaround time was 2-3 weeks. Since I was traveling in 14 days or less, I could renew in person. The only possible options for me were to either take a day off and go to the passport agency in person to renew it and receive it the same day, or pay an expediting service around $330 to do the same thing. So, I followed the instructions on screen and attempted to schedule an appointment at the San Francisco passport agency. I was told that there were no appointments in the next 14 days. I called the next day and the same thing. However, I navigated the voice menus and spoke to a representative of the State dept. who informed me that there would be a cancellation and to keep trying. Alternately, if I was not able to get an appointment in the next week, I could call back and they could schedule an emergency appointment – but ONLY if it were less than 5 days from my departure. Baffling, I know.
While searching the internet for the exact address of the San Francisco passport agency, I stumbled upon a page on yelp.com, a internet community where people can post reviews of restaurants, local businesses, etc. Why did yelp have a page on the passport agency? Why would there be reviews about a government office? After all, most of us know how a review for the DMV would read. However, I was astounded to see over 1 dozen reviews stating that although the US government website, human operators and the automated appointment system insist that you will NOT be allowed to enter the building without an appointment confirmation number, if you arrive early and have all necessary paperwork, you will be allowed to enter and given a number. If all paperwork is in order, pay the additional $60, you are given a receipt and a time later in the day when you may return to pick it up. That’s it! That’s all! How can that be?! It sounded like “no fuss, no muss.” If it were just one or two reviewers who stated that, I might not have taken them seriously, but there were over a dozen people who wrote about how quick and painless it was.
So, after getting my boss’ ok to take a day off, I convinced my dad, a San Francisco native to drive to the “City” with me. We arrived at the office a little after 9:00am and read the lettering on the front door “Appointments Only”. There were no guards at the door, so we proceeded up the elevator. We got off and were met by no less than 3 armed guards and metal detectors that rival airport security. The lady behind the bulletproof glass at window 1 asked for my confirmation number. No appointment? Go to window 3. At window 3, my passport and travel itinerary were reviewed and I was given a number. In under 1 hour and 30 minutes, my number was called, paperwork approved, fees paid and a time given for me to return to pick it up. We returned a half hour before the specified time and there was already a line on the sidewalk of folks like me, who just wanted a new passport – in a hurry! A security guard was outside, making sure that everyone had their receipts and was ready to pass through metal detectors. There was something about him that reminded me distinctly of Robert on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” No matter, I was there, clutching my receipt and went up to the 5th floor and through the metal detectors where I traded it for my brand new, chip-embedded passport. Mission accomplished.