Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Passport-less in New York City

Police, airlines, consulate have different opinions of what to do

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As my wife and I headed off for our first visit to New York City, people warned us: "Watch your cash." "Keep a close eye on your credit cards and ID." "Don't go through Central Park after dark."

Nobody said anything about passports.

It was a warm Saturday and instead of wearing a shirt with a front pocket -- where I always keep my passport -- I decided to wear a T-shirt, which didn't have any pockets.

So I put my passport in the front left pocket of my jeans, along with my iPhone. In the other front pocket I had my wallet.

We soaked up the sights of the Big Apple, heading through the Theatre District, walking through Times Square, strolling through Central Park, and then going down Park Avenue. Dozens of times I removed my iPhone from my pocket, took a picture, then slid it back in my jeans next to my passport.

But just after 3 p.m., near the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, as I put my iPhone back in my pocket yet again, there was no passport. It was gone.

I had suddenly joined 55,000 other Canadians who report their passports lost or stolen each year.

The booklet Bon Voyage, But ... Essential Information for Canadian Travellers, issued by Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, indicates that "If your passport is lost, stolen or damaged, report the loss or theft immediately to Passport Canada or the nearest Canadian government office abroad and to the local police (either in Canada or abroad)."

So we found the nearest police station, and I said I had lost my passport and we had tickets to fly back home to Regina tomorrow.

"If you have any other photo ID, you should be OK to get on a plane," the officer said. What a relief that I had my driver's licence and my birth certificate in my wallet.

I asked him if he wanted details of my lost passport.

"I can't file a report until you get a signed statement from the Canadian Consulate that you actually had a passport," he explained, as he jotted down the address and phone number of the consulate. "So you have to go to the consulate to get that statement for me. And when you're there, ask for what's called an Emergency Travel Certificate so you can travel even if you don't have a passport."

But when we got to the consulate at 3:45 p.m. on a Saturday, it was closed.

I phoned, and a recorded message said the consulate is closed on weekends and would reopen Monday at 9 a.m.

My next call was to United Airlines, and an agent calmly confirmed what police said -- my licence with photo ID and birth certificate would be OK for me to fly home tomorrow.

But it was a different story when I got to the Newark Airport.

"You can't get on a plane without a passport," the agent told me. "But you could drive back to Canada."

I decided to appeal, so went to another lineup. This agent was more sympathetic, and apparently knew how to deal with this situation, explaining "You need to get an Emergency Travel Certificate from the Canadian consulate first thing tomorrow morning. I'm re-booking you on an Air Canada flight tomorrow evening that leaves LaGuardia Airport at 5:30 for Toronto, and then leaves at 9:55 for Regina."

So we spent another "final" night in New York.

Monday morning I told my story to a woman at the Canadian consulate.

"Well, we can't do anything today, because this has to go through Ottawa and everything's closed there because it's Easter Monday," she said.

It also happened to be April Fool's Day.

"After Ottawa reopens, it'll take two or three days for this request to be handled. So you won't be able to leave New York for another three or four days. Or, you could drive or take a bus to Canada."

I figured we needed to fly to someplace near Canada, get across the border on the ground, and then fly to Regina.

I phoned United again, asking frantically: "Could I change our New York-to-Toronto-to-Regina flights today at 5:30 from LaGuardia Airport -- which were originally New York-to-Chicago-to-Regina flights from Newark yesterday -- to a New York-to-Buffalo flight as soon as possible? And then I'd like to get a flight tonight from Toronto to Regina."

That would give us time to go by bus or rental car the 160 kilometres from Buffalo to Toronto.

"No problem," the United agent cheerfully said. "I'm re-booking you to leave for Buffalo at noon from the Newark Airport."

It was 10:15 a.m.; we got the next bus for the Newark Airport. Just as we left Manhattan and entered the Lincoln Tunnel, my cellphone rang.

"This is the Canadian consulate. Someone turned in your passport a few minutes ago. Please come and pick it up."

"Uh, well we're on our way to the Newark Airport for a flight to Buffalo. We've made other plans to get home -- so can you just mail my passport home?" I asked.

"Sorry, I cannot mail it. Passports must be picked up in person. Otherwise, I will have to destroy it."

"OK," I said, "I'll come and pick it up."

When we arrived at the United counter at the Newark Airport, we asked to be re-booked. Instead of going to Buffalo, could we fly to Toronto and then Regina?

A few keystrokes on the computer and we were re-booked -- yet again.

After another bus ride back to Manhattan, we picked up my passport, got the bus to LaGuardia, and flew to Toronto and then home to Regina.

The lesson learned: guard your passport, because if you lose it, advice from others may not be accurate, consistent or helpful.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 E7

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