Q: Peter, I plan to go on a cruise to Ensenada, Mexico, in November and have been told that a passport is not needed—only a valid driver's license and birth certificate. Is this true?
–Shirley Evans, San Francisco, Ca.
A: If your cruise is headed to a neighboring country and is "closed-loop," meaning that it starts and ends in the same U.S. port., you don't need a passport. But you do need to bring a valid (not expired), government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license, along with proof of citizenship, such as an original or certified copy of a birth certificate or a certificate of naturalization.
This is one of the few exceptions to the new international travel regulations that became effective June 1, 2009. Known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), the rules require each U.S. citizen coming into its boundaries by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, or Bermuda, to have either a passport, a passport card, an EDL (enhanced driver's license), or a Trusted Traveler card. Those entering by air from these locations must have a full passport.
But be aware that even if the government wouldn't require you to bring an official WHTI-compliant ID on your cruise, the cruise line still could. If you are unsure what your cruise line's policy is, or if you're not sure whether or not your cruise is "closed-loop," call your cruise line or travel agent pronto! That way, if you don't have the right documents, you can apply for them before it's too late. The current wait time is about six weeks.