Passports are required for any U.S. citizen whose cruise embarks or disembarks in a foreign country, including Canada. They're also required for sailings that begin and end in different U.S. ports. You also will need a passport for certain shore excursions -- such as Alaska's White Pass and Yukon Railway train ride and day trips to smaller Caribbean islands -- that cross a land or sea border into a foreign country.
Here's the confusing part: Cruisers are exempt from having to bring passports if they are on "closed loop" sailings -- which start and finish in the same U.S. home port and only travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. If you choose to travel without a passport, you still need to show a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver's license) and proof of citizenship (a certified copy of your birth certificate or similar documentation) to get back into the U.S. after your trip. Again, be sure to check the entry requirements of the cruise ports you plan to visit. Just because you don't need a passport to return to the U.S. does not mean that you don't need one to enter one of the foreign countries on your itinerary.
What's the downside of cruising without a passport? If an emergency arises, only an official passport will allow you to fly home from a foreign port. But what will actually happen if -- due to an unexpected injury or illness, or a mechanical failure on the part of your cruise ship -- you end up stranded in another country with only your birth certificate and photo ID? The answer is you can return home -- it will just take more time and effort to get the proper documentation to do so.
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