Customs clearance by automated kiosk. Also, driving in New Zealand or Mexico?

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the December 2014 issue.

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 466th issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine. Within the last month, I’ve heard several subscribers describe this magazine as “real,” by which, they explain, they mean it’s full of candid accounts from travelers who write for the benefit of other international travelers.

You’ll see that as you flip through the pages. For now, I have the following to report.

The nearly 4,200-foot-long and up to 75-foot-tall aqueduct in Santiago de Querétaro, Querétaro, Mexico, built 1726-38, is still virtually intact but no longer transports water from mountain springs. Photo ©Bryan Busovicki/<br />

The US Department of Homeland Security’s Customs & Border Protection agency has been installing automated kiosks in major US airports to make the process of passing through Customs easier and faster. The first to receive kiosks was Orlando International in February 2014.

Travelers arriving on international flights at participating airports will no longer be given paper forms to fill out by hand to give to Customs officers. Each traveler now will display his passport to be scanned by a kiosk, have his photo taken by the kiosk, answer a series of questions about biographical information contained in his passport and then declare items purchased outside of the US and any cash he’s bringing into the country.

The kiosk prints out a receipt showing his identity, flight information and any declared items, and the traveler presents this to the Customs agent. 

The kiosks are free to use, without prior registration, by anyone with a US or Canadian passport and by eligible international travelers in the Visa Waiver Program.

According to the Vancouver Airport Authority, which manufactures some of the airport kiosks, the automated system will reduce wait times at Customs by up to 89%. Not all travelers are finding the system more efficient yet, however; see pages 14 and 56 in this issue.

Expansion is planned for the system, but, currently, the kiosks are operating in 21 airports in the US and three in Canada: Seattle Sea-Tac (SEA), Los Angeles (LAX), Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), Denver (DEN), Austin-Bergstrom (AUS), Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Houston George Bush (IAH), Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP), Chicago Midway (MDW), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County (DTW), Boston Logan (BOS), New York’s JFK (JFK), Newark Liberty (EWR), Philadelphia (PHL), Charlotte Douglas (CLT), Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (ATL), Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood (FLL), Orlando (MCO), Tampa (TPA) and Miami (MIA) and, in Canada, Vancouver (YVR), Toronto Pearson (YYZ) and Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau (YUL).


• According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (, “road crashes are the single greatest cause of death for healthy Americans traveling abroad.” At least one country has taken notice.

In New Zealand, an increase in traffic accidents involving foreign drivers has spurred legislators to consider making tourists take driving tests before being allowed to get behind the wheel.

New Zealand Associate Transport Minister Michael Woodhouse encouraged the idea after being presented with a petition in June 2014. The petition, calling for new regulations and signed by 31,000 citizens, was organized by 10-year-old Sean Roberts, whose father was killed on his motorcycle by a vehicle driven by a visiting student in 2012.

In 2013 in New Zealand, at least 558 accidents resulting in an injury or death involved a tourist. Tourists were found to be at fault in three-fourths of those accidents, 11 of which involved fatalities. In 2014, from Jan. 1 to Oct. 3 in New Zealand, there were seven traffic accidents resulting in fatalities and involving foreign drivers.

Though police in New Zealand estimate that foreign drivers are involved in only about 2% of incidents nationwide, tourists are involved in a staggering 25% of accidents in the central and lower portions of the South Island, particularly around Queenstown.

In October, the Tourism Industry Association of New Zealand created a series of guidelines for car rental companies to distribute to visitors. These advocate access to videos on traffic safety, encourage the use of GPS and suggest travelers rest overnight when arriving in the country before picking up their vehicles.

• In Mexico, anyone with a US-state-issued driver’s license is allowed to drive throughout the country for a short period of time. Extra caution may be advised in Mexico City (aka México, D.F.), however. 

Until now, Mexico City residents (including resident foreigners) over the age of 17 have never needed to take driving skills tests or written tests to get their driver’s licenses. All that has been needed is proof of residency, 677 pesos (about $50) and a completed application, although any foreigner is also required to show his passport. 

A potential driver picks up the application at a Public Ministry office, takes it to one of three supermarkets to pay the 677-peso fee and collect a receipt, then goes back to the Public Ministry to be issued a license. (The supermarket step was introduced to reduce corruption. No longer do city workers collect the money.)

This was expected to change before year’s end, however. Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera has signed a new law in the city requiring each new applicant to pass a basic aptitude test and driving skills test as well as an eyesight test.

• Travelers planning on driving in any foreign country may want to apply for an International Driving Permit, or IDP ($15). The permit, which contains information from the holder’s state license translated into 10 languages, is accepted in more than 150 countries and is mandatory in 78. If you have an IDP and are driving in a country that accepts it, you can leave your state-issued license at home. (Both New Zealand and Mexico accept the IDP but do not require it.)   

Two organizations are authorized by the US Department of State to distribute IDPs in the US: AAA (to apply, go to and, after being redirected to your state’s branch, type “IDP” in the search bar and click on “Get Peace of Mind with an International Driving Permit”) and the National Automobile Club, or NAC (www.national

While many travelers with IDPs admit to seldom actually needing them, I remember one traveler saying that whenever he was asked to present a photo ID overseas, he first would hand over his IDP, thereby keeping possession of his passport.

Caution — you may find other companies offering IDPs in the US, but these are scams. Any license not issued by the AAA or NAC is not legitimate.


Diane Robbins of Penfield, New York, wrote, “I would love to have some feedback from other travelers who have stamina issues.

“When sightseeing, my husband does well for a while, but after about an hour or so of walking or being on his feet, he needs to rest for a few minutes. We nixed a trip to Rome because of feedback that visiting the Vatican can take hours, with no place to sit.

“I’m curious about travelers who take those canes that open into seats. Are the seats easy to use? Do they feel secure sitting on them? Where can you buy them? 

“I would like to hear from anyone who has used a travel scooter. Have you used it in small European cities with cobblestones and hills?

“Can anyone recommend a travel company that travels at a slower pace, one that offers trips with few (or no) one-night stays and walking tours that don’t feel like you’re taking a forced march?

“Because we knew this time of having to slow down was coming, we did a lot of adventure travel over the past few years. But we were wondering if we really do need to eliminate future adventure travel or if there are companies we could use and places to see that allow for a slower pace.”

If you have suggestions for Diane, email or write to Travel Solutions for Stamina Issues, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Letters will be forwarded to Diane and shared with ITN readers.


A few CORRECTIONS to note —

In two letters on page 55 of the October 2014 issue (“Notes on France” and “Be Aware of Pickpockets”), editor’s notes referred to a previous item on pickpockets on pages 2 and 67 in the September 2014 issue. Each should have referred to pages 2 and 67 of the August 2014 issue.

• George F. Mueden, Jr., of Providence, Rhode Island, read the subscriber’s letter “Vaporetti in Venice” (Nov. ’14, pg. 32) and wrote with a clarification.

In the letter about Venice, the subscriber had written, “I could take buses and the vaporetti (water taxis) anywhere I wanted to go.”

Mr. Mueden points out, “In Venice, vaporetti are water buses with fixed routes and schedules, and you may go only where they go. Alternatively, water taxis will take you wherever you want to go.”

The subscriber wrote of the specific vaporetti routes she took, and they went everyplace she was interested in, so the sentence should have read, “Buses and the vaporetti (water buses) went everywhere I wanted to go.” Thanks for setting that straight, George.

• Bob Kastelic of Sunnyvale, California, took issue with The Geografile statement “The world’s tallest volcano is Ojos del Salado, which straddles Chile and Argentina and rises to about 22,570 feet” (Nov. ’14, pg. 43).

He wrote, “The tallest volcano in the world is Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which, measured from the base, rises to more than 30,000 feet. Ojos del Salado is the highest in altitude.”

Bob is right. The prominence of Mauna Kea (the base of which sits on the ocean floor) is greater. We should have used the word “highest” instead of “tallest.”


A fan of the tour company Road Scholar (Boston, MA; www.road read the letter “Road Scholar Tour of Cuba” (Aug. ’14, pg. 28), in which a traveler told what he liked and disliked about his 7-day tour, including, “I felt very controlled and would have appreciated more walking and free time and less talk.” 

The fan was concerned that people might get the wrong impression about Road Scholar tours, which, for most destinations, she wrote, “offers everything from fully organized tours to very independent tours.”

Unlike in other countries, however, the OFAC-licensed “People to People” tours offered in Cuba by ANY company have restrictions.

ITN sent a copy of the published letter to Road Scholar and invited comment. JoAnn Bell, Vice President of Road Scholar Programs, wrote, “Due to US regulations outlined by the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), our programs to Cuba, by design, must maintain a full-time schedule of people-to-people educational activities. 

“While we realize that the days can seem extremely structured, our ultimate goal is to foster interactions between our participants and the people of Cuba in the most meaningful and impactful way possible.”


In this issue of ITN, we present the winners of the latest essay contest. The subject this time was Kenya, and one subscriber wondered at that, since, she wrote, “There is currently a US State Department warning on Kenya and there have also been violent events there recently.”

The list of essay topics was written a couple of years ago by the creator and publisher of ITN, the late Armond Noble, in his November 2010 “Departure Lounge” column. One day he had the idea of running an essay contest. He was always one for puns and alliteration, and the next day he came in with a list of topics, some clever and some corny but all Armond. “I’m Keen on Kenya” was next on the list.

Yes, as repeatedly reported in ITN, the State Department has been posting warnings about threats and acts of terrorism in that country lately, or particular parts of it, anyway. Many people have canceled trips to Kenya, but others continue to travel there. 

We feel it is our job to keep travelers informed, not to tell them where they should or should not travel. It’s up to individuals to decide where they would like to visit.


Contributing Editor Philip Wagenaar has been traveling to several countries since his column, “The Discerning Traveler,” last appeared in ITN, in our May issue. He’s back this month in a big way, with the first of a 3-part article about paying Customs duties on items brought or sent back to the US.

He has taken a daunting amount of government-speak and broken it down into a form that’s easier to follow. This series is sure to serve as a helpful information resource.


The holiday season is upon us, so here’s a helpful shopping tip. A great gift for any traveling friend or family member is a subscription to ITN

This magazine isn’t known for glossy photos. What it does have is the straight scoop on hotels, tours and cruises plus travel advice and enthusiastic accounts written by people who love to travel. 

From independent travelers to tour takers and from those on a budget to the deluxe set, all types of travelers find something of interest in ITN because all types contribute letters and articles to be printed.

Call 800/486-4968, purchase a gift subscription to ITN, and let us know when you want the gift card to go out. Or visit our website and click on “Subscribe” and “Send a gift,” then select a subscription length. 

This is the gift that keeps on coming every month! How will it be received?

Dianna Sutherland of Annandale, Virginia, wrote, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ITN is the BEST travel publication there is! No hype, just simple honesty written by those who have experienced and shared the joys and trials of travel. 

“I suppose it’s good that it comes only monthly; otherwise, I’d have my head/nose in it all month long instead of just a couple of days.”

Philip A. Shart of Tamarac, Florida, wrote, “I always look forward to my copy of ITN. I refer to it as the mom-and-pop candy store of travel magazines. I say this because these family-run candy stores had goodies that you could afford. The same is true of ITN. Unlike the flashy travel magazines, it has goodies and ideas on trips to fit any budget.”

Sounds like a stocking stuffer to me!