SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli
Passport to Bureaucracy
I had two weeks to get a visa and passport through an overloaded system. Could professional expediters get the job done?
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 2:47 PM
I consulted my date book the other week for the coming attractions of my travel schedule: Mumbai and New Delhi in October, London and Paris in November, then three weeks in Rome to do as the Romans do.
The only wrinkle? My passport was due to expire in a few months, and this year's much-chronicled backlog at the passport offices made me wary.
Would there be enough time to get my passport renewed between trips? Not by going the normal route. I made a note to find a passport and visa expediter, one of those little-known middlemen who grease the skids of the international travel bureaucracy. For a hefty fee, expediters help you jump the lines and can get your passport renewed in as little as 48 hours. They'll also do most of the grunt work to help you secure visas.
But first I surfed to the State Department's travel section to check the Consular Information Sheet for India. Uh-oh. I had forgotten that India requires a visa. But thankfully -- or so State reported -- India isn't one of those countries that require Americans to have a passport that doesn't expire in the next six months.
I then checked in with a frequent business traveler to India. "The Indian consulates and the embassy are always swamped," she warned. "I use an expediter. Try Travisa." Isn't that convenient, I thought. Now I don't have to sift through the dozens of similar-sounding firms. I'll use Travisa to get my visa, and that will give me some experience before I use an expediter to get my passport renewed.
Like most firms that expedite travel documents for a fee, Travisa prefers to work online: You choose your applications, complete the forms, and make payments electronically. Then you download the paperwork, sign it, and send it to them. I chose an Indian visa and filled out the form, and the site promptly rejected me. Or more accurately, it said the Indians would reject me. Travisa's online explanation: India requires passports to be valid for at least six months.
Now I'm freaked. The State Department has misinformed me, there are just 14 business days before my flight to Mumbai, and it's September 11 -- an inauspicious date for doing anything travel-related. I'm thinking I'm not going to make it.
In a panic, I dialed Travisa's New York office and reached a friendly voice. Even with the passport backlog, she assured me, this passport-and-visa double play could be turned. She laid out a timetable: Submit my passport for renewal on September 18, get it back from the State Department on September 20, then run it over to the Indian consulate. I'd have everything back in my hands by September 28. Travisa's minions would take care of everything so long as I did my part: Go to the website, fill out the online applications, and get Travisa the other materials (photos, my expiring passport, and the passport bureaucracy's equivalent of power of attorney) on time.
I added a clear, simple cover letter reminding Travisa that I needed my passport and visa by September 28, slipped the whole bundle in an overnight envelope, and crossed my fingers.
Of course, nothing works exactly to bureaucratic form, and every little quirk makes a passportless, visaless, time-pressed business traveler quake. By the time I returned from the post office, I had already received an email from Travisa saying that it had received my documents. That cavalier white lie worried me. So did the fact that the Travisa rep had urged me to lie on my Indian visa application by putting my soon-to-be-voided passport number on one of the forms. And like most passport expediters, Travisa promises to email you every step of the way. It didn't.
When September 20 had come and gone without my hearing from Travisa about my passport, I called the company.
"It's all taken care of," said a different voice. "We sent your passport over for the visa."
"You didn't send an email like you promised," I replied.
"We don't do that until the end of the entire process, sir," came the answer.
"Oh, okay," I said sheepishly. "I assume we're good for getting everything back to me within the next seven days, right?"
"Seven days?" came the reply. "You should have told us you needed rush service."
"But I did. I paid the rush fee and gave you the deadline in my cover letter too."
"Well, I better get on this. What's your file number?"
Despite the communication breakdown, Travisa was as good as its promise. Better, in fact. My papers arrived a day early, just 13 working days from the start of the process.
The bill: $519.95, which included $127 to the feds for my expedited passport renewal and $90 to the Indian government for a one-year visa. Travisa's take: $179 to secure my passport, $99 to acquire my visa, $19.95 to return my paperwork by overnight courier, and a mysterious $5 "check writing fee."
All's well that ends well, I guess. But I wish Travisa had been a little better at communicating -- and at understanding that those of us who don't normally play the expediting game are apprehensive about websites that promise bureaucratic miracles.
By the way, I wrote this column sitting in Seat 8B on the flight to Mumbai. Turns out I was so paranoid about getting my passport and visa that I forgot to reserve Seat 2B.
The Fine Print
The State Department announced last month that the passport crisis was over and processing times had returned to normal. Don't believe it. Michigan-based frequent flyer Mel Ettenson emailed me last week with his tale of woe: He had to enlist the assistance of his congressman to spring his passport from the bureaucratic slush pile. "He has a staffer specifically assigned [to passport issues]. She found it buried along with many other renewals at the Passport Processing Center in Charleston, South Carolina." To find a passport expediter, consult the listings at the National Association of Passport and Visa Services.