Travelers, it seems, have a choice these days of whether to travel with a US passport or with the new passport cards being issued by the Department of State. Each has its use, however which is best for what kind of traveler? Beyond saving money, does the new passport card make sense? Or should everyone opt for an old basic US passport?

Passport cards cost $55 less than passports, but there’s a catch. They can’t be used for air travel anywhere, and may only be used for land and sea travel to WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) countries including Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and most, but not all, Caribbean islands.

US law already requires all citizens returning home by air, or from any non-WHTI country, to have a passport. Starting June 1, 2009, US law will require all citizens reentering the country by land or sea from WHTI countries to have a passport, passport card, or for some Americans, an alternate WHTI compliant ID, such as a Trusted Traveler Card (NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST), or a state issued Enhanced Driver’s License, if and when they become available. (Trusted traveler programs have special benefits and are more expensive than obtaining a passport card.)

Both the US Passport and Passport Card are valid for 10 years for adults. A first time passport costs $100 for adults and a renewal $75. A first time passport card costs $45 for adults and a renewal $20. If cost was the only criterion to make a decision to get a passport or passport card, this article wouldn’t need writing.

Some Caribbean nations, such as Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago, are not WHTI countries. US citizens, even when traveling by sea to and from these nations, need a passport. US WHTI law does not preclude WHTI countries from requiring a US passport to enter their country. Jamaica, for example, a WHTI country, requires US citizens traveling there for work or extended stays to have a current US Passport.

US citizens on closed-loop cruises (cruises that begin and end at the same US port) which visit only WHTI countries won’t need either a passport or passport card and will be able to reenter the US with a certified birth certificate, and a state driver’s license.

For travel solely between the US and its territories, such as Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands, US citizens are not considered to have left the US, and therefore don’t need anything more than a state issued driver’s license as identification.**

There’s a crucial factor to consider, other than how or where you travel, when deciding which travel ID document you need. It’s the “potential emergency.” Emergencies are very real possibilities when traveling. I’ve run into a few over the years myself.

Cruisers can miss their ship leaving port. I’ve heard hundreds of stories of this happening when cruisers fly into their embarkation city on the day of the cruise, and their flight is significantly delayed. These cruisers must fly to the next port to meet their ship. Ships can and do occasionally break down. A family member at home can become ill. Travelers or their companions can become seriously ill themselves, and have to return home immediately, by air. In each of these circumstances, you need a passport to fly home to the US, or fly to another country. While emergencies aren’t an every day occurrence, they aren’t particularly rare either.

Here’s my “practical” advice on which travel ID to get for your planned or potential foreign travel.

If your foreign travel will take you to any non-WHTI country, or if you’ll be flying, there’s no choice, you must have a passport.

If your foreign travel will be only by sea, and only to WHTI countries, while a passport card is sufficient, I recommend you get a passport in case of an emergency. The emergency may never come, but if it does, you’ll be very happy you have a passport so you’re not denied flying on to the next port, or when reentering the US, you are not detained for inspection and questioning — or worse — by Customs and Immigration.

If your foreign travel will consist solely of overland travel to either Canada or Mexico, with no thought of traveling elsewhere, then go for the passport card.

Bon Voyage!

**While US citizens will not need a passport when returning directly to the US from one of its territories according to the Department of Homeland Security, US citizens traveling directly from the US to some US territories, including American Samoa and Swains Island, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands will need either a passport, or a state driver’s license and a certified birth certificate or naturalization papers, to enter those territories.