Passport to adventure

Passport to adventure

This column first appeared in the July 19 News-Gazette.

The first hint that our vacation might require a bit more planning than usual came about a month before our scheduled departure.

Our drive out east was to include a visit with family, a couple of days in New York City and a stop by Niagara Falls on our way home.

My husband and I had gone there about 20 years ago and wanted to show the kids. I had been dubious back then, deterred by the tales of casinos and crass souvenir stands lining the falls. But I was stunned by their sheer size and magnificence.Blog Photo

This time he said, “I wonder if you need a passport to go to the Canadian side.”

We checked, and sure enough, post-9/11 security concerns meant we’d need our passports — which unfortunately had lapsed 15 years ago. The kids, it appeared, could get by with a birth certificate and ID card.

We didn’t have time to wait the usual six weeks, so we decided to pay the extra $60 fee for expedited passports. Fortunately, I learned the local courthouse could handle the processing so we wouldn’t have drive to Chicago.

I called and reviewed the documentation we’d need with a clerk. After getting decidedly unattractive new passport photos (disclaimer: they told us not to smile), my husband and I went to the courthouse the next afternoon.

Having covered court hearings before, I knew I couldn’t bring my phone or tape recorder inside, so we made it through security.

The trouble started when we got to the clerk’s window. I had somehow left our birth certificates at home.

My husband stayed there while I dashed home to get them. I drove back to the courthouse, went back through security, and we finished the process. Almost.

“Do you have your overnight stamp?” the clerk asked.

I didn’t know we needed one. Fortunately, there was a post office next door, so I suggested we complete the processing and I’d run over to get the stamp so my husband could be on his way.
I handed her my debit card.

“We can’t take debit cards because we have to send the check to the State Department,” she said.

I reached into my purse for the checkbook just as I realized I’d used my last check that morning to pay a bill.

I turned to my husband. He hadn’t brought his checkbook along.

I went back to the car, back home to get the checkbook (to my children’s bemusement), stopped by the post office to buy two stamps ($22.50 each), back to the courthouse and through security.

Turns out we only needed one stamp.

I made out the check and paid the county’s $50 handling fee ($25 each).

We finally left, and sure enough, the passports arrived within a week. It was a small miracle.

In the meantime, I started fretting about my 16-year-old. Some of the Niagara Falls websites said kids “under 16” didn’t need them, while others said “16 and under.”

I called the visitors’ bureau, and a very bubbly woman assured me that here was no problem. Still unsure, I called the U.S. Customs office in Niagara.

“Well,” the officer said, “I’ve never seen a 16-year-old turned away if he’s with his parents. And we’d let him back in if they allow him into Canada,” he offered.

Well, that’s reassuring.

“But technically he’s supposed to have one,” he said.

It was now about 10 days before our scheduled trip. We’d probably be OK, I told myself. Then I had visions of a scene at the border, with red lights flashing and guard dogs sniffing my illegal stashes of chocolate.

I decided not to leave anything to chance. Back to the courthouse with my son.

This time I was ready. We brought his birth certificate. We brought his ID. And I still had the extra stamp.

We went inside, but I had forgotten to take the tape recorder out of my purse. Back to the car, back through security, up to the clerk’s window.

“Is your husband here?” she asked.

Apparently there’s this minor concern about parents skipping out of the country with their children.

I went back to pick up my husband, back to the courthouse, back through security. We got everything filled in and my son started to sign the form.

The clerk said, “Oh, he doesn’t need to sign it, just the parents.”

So we signed, paid and were on our way.

We had to go out of town unexpectedly because of a family emergency, which delayed our planned vacation. When we returned to Champaign a week later, we had an urgent email from the State Department. Never a good sign.

Apparently my son was supposed to sign the passport application after all.

We had to do the whole process over again, overnight the application to Washington — no processing fee this time — and pray that it arrived before we left on our trip the following Sunday.

We dashed off to the courthouse and completed the forms (miraculously in just one trip). Then at 4:30 p.m. I got a call from the courthouse: “You’re going to kill me,” the clerk said. They had forgotten to make a copy of his ID. Back to the courthouse, back through security, one more time.

Shockingly, the passport arrived the following Saturday, the day before we left on vacation.

When we finally made it to Niagara Falls a week later, we were tired. A week of sightseeing had taken its toll.Blog Photo

As we stood on the American side of the falls, looking at the line of cars on Rainbow bridge waiting to go through customs into Canada, calculating the hours we still had to drive home, I thought, “Do we even want to bother?”

You’d better believe it. We were going to Canada if it killed us.

The trip through customs was uneventful. And it was definitely worth it. The view of the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side was unparalleled. And we had a nice dinner overlooking the water — with about 10,000 other tourists.

Blog PhotoOur three-hour stay only cost about $600 in passport fees.

I think I’ll go ahead and get my daughter’s passport before we start planning our next trip.


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for the News-Gazette. Leave a comment belor, or contact her at 217-351-5226, or at


Alert reader Mark Pettegrew, a passport clerk for the U.S. Postal Service, wanted readers to know that three U.S. Post Offices in Champaign, Urbana and Savoy also process passport applications, with several advantages:

They offer a picture service on site, allow debit cards for payment, and you can purchase money orders there if you forget your checkbook. And there's free parking - with no security screening.

He said the process rarely takes six weeks, with customers often receiving their passports in four weeks or less.

In our case, we couldn't chance it, because we barely had four weeks until our expected departure.  But it's a good reminder for other travelers who are planning trips in the near future.

The locations are:

- 3100 Tatman Court, Urbana

- 2100 N. Mattis Ave., Champaign

- 415 N. Dunlap Ave., Savoy

Thanks Mark!


Three views of Niagara Falls from Canada's shores:

Top: Tourists on the 'Maid of the Mist' get an close-up look at Horseshoe Falls at Niagara Falls.

Middle: A rainbow appears over Horseshoe Falls.

Bottom: A close-up view of water rushing over Horseshoe Falls.

Photos by Julie Wurth

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):People, Travel


Comments for this post are inactive.