Last summer, when my family arrived at Dulles International Airport for our flight to Amsterdam, I was informed by a KLM agent that I couldn’t travel abroad because my passport was set to expire in four months. I already had a return ticket.

My family proceeded without me and I spent the next 24 hours rebooking myself on a new flight, purchasing new passport photos, filling out paperwork and getting myself to the passport office by 6:30 a.m. the next morning so that I was first in line when it opened.

All passport websites say that “less than six months from expiration” is recommended — but not explicitly required — for Europe travel. Why was I not allowed to fly?

Thanks, Dana

P.S. I am prized with a photo in my new passport that looks like a mug shot. A memorable memento to an unfortunate experience, although the trip ended up being wonderful.

Years after college, I — like so many people — still have nightmares about showing up to the lecture hall on final-exam day, never having studied. I applaud you for living through a real-life, travel-themed version of that: the anxiety dream to beat all anxiety dreams.

I can tell from your note that you’re an organized, highly capable person; after all, most people — perhaps myself included — might not even realize that it’s possible to renew a passport so quickly. But indeed, travelers whose trips fall within 14 days can make a passport agency appointment online, bring proof of immediate international travel (say, printed-out flight receipts), and pay a $60 expedite fee.

When you say that you thoroughly researched your ability to travel with a four-month-to-expire passport, I don’t doubt that’s true. And you’re right: Our State Department uses the word “recommend” in its guidelines for European travel, suggesting that American passports should be valid for at least six months.

But that figure only applies to date of departure from the United States: when you leave. The math gets trickier when one considers date of return: when you come home.

As you probably learned while researching, American travelers can stay in the Schengen Area — the 26 European countries, including the Netherlands, France, and Germany, where one can freely cross borders during short-term visits — for up to 90 days without a visa. But per European Commission rules, passports must also be valid for at least three months after travelers leave.

You had a return ticket, sure, but return tickets are changeable, and airline agents don’t have crystal balls. Let’s imagine that you fell so hard for Amsterdam’s rijsttafel and canal houses that you decided to stay in town for 90 days: exactly what you’re allowed to do without a visa. After one month and a few days, your passport’s expiration date would fall short of the three-month minimum. By the time you eventually came home, you’d only have one month left on your passport before it expires.

A State Department spokesman confirmed this, emailing, “Many European countries that comprise the Schengen Area require that a U.S. passport be valid for three months beyond the three-month entry visa. Some of the countries assume you may stay the full 90 days of your visa validity which is why we suggest travelers have at least six months of validity on their passports when traveling to this area.”

Another tip: Travel guidelines from official government agencies are always worth adhering to, even when couched in terms like “recommend.” Case in point: I traveled to Montreal this summer alone with my infant son and didn’t bring a parental consent letter (a notarized document stating that one parent or guardian has permission to travel alone with a minor), even though Canada “recommends” one. And sure enough, I was stopped and questioned by an immigration agent. (All good, ultimately.) With passports, much like anything airport — and final exams — related, it’s always better to prepare and prevent, rather than repair and repent.

As for the mug-shot passport photo: Aren’t they all? But yours is also a badge of honor, a reminder of the lengths you went to in order to salvage a family vacation. May the one you get in nine-and-a-half years have just as much grace and gravitas.

The Times reader Aintre recently emailed Tripped Up, asking about CLEAR lanes at airports: “How are they able to take a fee and advance passengers to the front of the TSA PreCheck line?” In fact, the two can work hand-in-hand. CLEAR uses biometrics (fingerprints and iris scans) to verify your identity; after that, PreCheck expedites the physical screening of bodies and bags.

Trying to figure out which security program to join, to get through those airport lines faster? Read our guide on the pros and cons of PreCheck, Global Entry and more.

Sarah Firshein formerly held staff positions at Travel + Leisure and Vox Media, and has also contributed to Condé Nast Traveler, Bloomberg, Eater and other publications. If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].

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