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WHO TAUGHT YOU TO DRIVE?

The Canadian honeymoon that almost wasn’t

Getting through a Canada Border Services Agency crossing poses a number of requirements for American drivers.
Getting through a Canada Border Services Agency crossing poses a number of requirements for American drivers. Toby Talbot/Associated Press/file 2012

Four weeks ago today, my bride and I were driving merrily through Maine toward the Canadian border, freshly married and excited about our little “mini-moon” in Quebec City. Nothing could burst our bubble of happiness — or so we thought.

Little did we know that trouble was riding with us, stowed just a few feet away in the back seat.

For our nuptials, we’d rented a farm in Bar Harbor, and in the haste of packing up and leaving, a friend, unbeknownst to us, had thrown a pair of tiki torches into the rear of my small SUV. A tiki torch is a decorative lantern atop a long stick, with a simple wick, and a canister that holds about 8 ounces of lighter fluid.

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The problem was, these torches had been used at the reception, and still contained a few ounces of lighter fluid. So we were crossing the border with two flammable devices in our car. Not the best idea.

That wasn’t our only problem. In our haste, we’d also packed a bunch of beer and wine that was left over from the wedding. Was that legal to bring across the border? And then there was the issue of passports: Did we, or did we not, need one to travel to Canada?

An important question, it turned out, as six days before our trip I discovered that my passport had expired.

Sometimes the best way to instruct is by making an example of other people’s mistakes. On the honeymoon that almost wasn’t, we made plenty.

Here’s Part 1 of our tale of what to do — and more important, what not to do — when driving to Canada or Mexico.

Passport, please

It’s my job to know driving rules, but I can trip up like anyone else. Amid the craziness of preparing for our wedding, I’d forgotten to attend to one very important detail: renewing my passport.

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Actually, one does not need a passport to travel into Canada. Your driver’s license plus some proof of US citizenship, such as your birth certificate, will suffice, according to Jacqueline Roby, a spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency.

However, since 2009, the US government has required a passport for anyone entering this country. So in reality, you need to have one when traveling to Canada if you’re planning to ever come back.

Fortunately, my wife to be, Laura, had me check my passport a week before our wedding, giving me a small window to act. For an extra $60, the US government will expedite a passport renewal, but the process still takes up to three weeks.

Because I had so little time, I had to use a private, third-party service specializing in ultra-fast renewals. I’m grateful such services exist, but you pay heavily for the convenience; in my case, more than $300.

What would have happened had I reached the US border with an expired passport, or no passport at all? Would I have been stuck in Canada, waiting at a hotel for a valid passport to arrive in the mail?

Sean Smith, spokesman for US Customs and Border Protection, told me that someone traveling without a valid passport certainly would be “delayed” while officers tried to verify his or her identity and citizenship.

In all likelihood, said Carl Richardson, the “travel guru” of AAA Southern New England, you’d be asked to show as many forms of identification as possible, from car registration and insurance papers to everything in your wallet.

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“I believe there’s a process that would probably be fairly lengthy to determine who you are, everything short of having someone fax them a copy of your passport,” Richardson said. And, you might even be asked to do that.

It’s worth noting that had I been a resident of Vermont or a few other states, my driver’s license would have been all I needed to show when driving to and from Canada.

That’s because Vermont has begun issuing what’s known as enhanced driver’s licenses, which have a radio frequency identification chip embedded in them. When you drive up to a crossing, the chip essentially transmits a personal identification code to the border patrol station. Once they have your code, officers can look you up in a Department of Homeland Security database.

When the enhanced driver’s license “is presented by a United States or Canadian citizen traveler, no other documentation is required for purposes of proving identity and citizenship,” Smith said in an e-mail.

Massachusetts does not issue the enhanced licenses, setting up potential complications for Bay State travelers that Globe reporter Jessica Meyers wrote about last month.

The federal government wants all states to shift to the enhanced-chip system as an added security measure against terrorism; several of the hijackers in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, used driver’s licenses to board planes. But enhanced licenses have also been controversial, opposed by various groups that see them as interfering with states’ rights, violating individual civil liberties, discriminating against non-US residents, and being too costly and cumbersome to process when weighed against their added benefit.

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Just four states — Michigan, New York, Vermont, and Washington — as well as four Canadian provinces have started issuing the chip-embedded licenses.

Sara Lavoie, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, told me there are no plans for the state to move to the enhanced licenses, saying that demand for them is low and the cost to produce them would be “considerable.” So for the foreseeable future, pack your passport when headed north or south of the border.

Fueling the fire

How much trouble did we get in for transporting flammable torches in our back seat? Fortunately, none.

Our car wasn’t inspected beyond the normal window pull-up, so we assumed that, like us, border officials just didn’t notice them.

Had the torches been discovered, though, our honeymoon still would have gone off as planned, said Roby, the Canadian border official.

“A tiki torch is not considered a firearm or prohibited weapon. Lighter fluid should be declared and may be examined by a border services officer. The officer would then determine if the goods are inadmissible,” she e-mailed me.

“Travelers should be aware of the goods in their vehicle,” she added, “and be able to address questions about these goods. If you do not need an item for your trip, the CBSA recommends that you do not bring it with you.”

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I, as well, do not recommend bringing used torches on your vacation to Canada. Passing through security with them is one concern. But you might also have to contend with hitting a bounce in the road that knocks the torches open, splattering lighter fluid all over the back seat and filling your car with noxious fumes just as you’re about to pull into your hotel in old Quebec City.

What to do when that happens on Day 1 of your honeymoon, as well as more border crossing dos and don’ts, next time.


Peter DeMarco can be reached at peter.demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.