Your trip won't get off the ground if you don't prepare your documents — passport, student and hostel cards, rail pass, international driving permit — well before your departure date. Give yourself plenty of lead time.
In much of Europe, the only document a US or Canadian citizen needs is a passport. (The US Passport Card works only for those driving or cruising to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.) And for most American travelers, the only time any customs official looks at you seriously is at the airport as you re-enter the United States.
Getting or Renewing Your Passport
US passports, good for 10 years, cost $135 ($110 to renew). The fee for minors under 16 (including infants) is $105 for a passport good for five years — kids under 16 must apply in person with at least one parent and the other parent's notarized permission.
You can apply at some courthouses and post offices, as well as municipal buildings, such as your City Hall. For details and the location of the nearest passport-acceptance facility, see the US Department of State's travel site or call 877-487-2778. Processing time varies; the current wait is posted on the State Department website. During busier periods, a six-week wait is common. One or two weeks after you apply, you can check online for the status of your passport application and its estimated arrival date.
If you need your passport in less than six weeks, tack on an additional $60 expediting fee (plus overnight shipping both ways), and you'll get it by mail within three weeks. In a last-minute emergency situation, call the above number and speak to a customer-service representative. If you can prove that you have to leave within two weeks (by showing a purchased airline eticket or a letter from work requiring you to travel overseas on short notice), you may be able to receive a passport in a day or so. Make an appointment to go in person to the nearest US Passport Agency and pay the additional $60 fee; they'll issue your new passport in 24 to 72 hours.
Keep an eye on your passport's expiration date. Most European countries require that your passport be valid for at least three months after your ticketed date of return to the United States (Russia requires a six-month window). This means that even if your passport doesn't expire for a few months, you may still be denied entry to a country. Check your destination country's requirements, and if necessary, get your passport renewed before you go.
Countries can have surprising entry requirements. For example, the Czech Republic and Poland technically require visitors to carry proof of medical insurance (your health insurance card usually suffices). While it's virtually unheard of that a border guard would actually request this, it's worth knowing about. For requirements per country, see the US Department of State's travel site.
If you're a frequent international traveler, consider the US Customs' Global Entry Program, which lets you bypass passport control at major US airports ($100 fee).
Canadian citizens can refer to voyage.gc.ca for Canada-specific passport information.
Traveling with Your Passport
Take good care of your passport: Keep it in your money belt, and if you're asked to show it, put it back in your money belt right away.
Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania are in the process of joining the Schengen group, and other countries, including Turkey and Montenegro, are considered Schengen candidates but don't yet meet the requirements. Of European Union countries, only the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are holdouts.
When traveling between Schengen countries, you usually don't have to stop or show a passport — you'll simply blow past abandoned border posts on the superhighway or high-speed train…souvenirs of an earlier, more complicated era of European travel. Non-Schengen countries still have border checks (for now) — but even in these places, the border crossing is generally just a quick wave-through for US citizens. Schengen or no, you always need to show your passport at your first point of entry into Europe, and to re-enter the US.
Replacing Your Passport
If you have to replace a lost or stolen passport in Europe, it's much easier to do if you have a photocopy of it and a couple of passport-type photos, either brought from home or taken in Europe.
A visa is a stamp placed in your passport by a foreign government, allowing you to enter their country. Visas are not required for Americans or Canadians traveling in Western Europe and most of the East (including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the Baltic states).
When you enter without a visa you're officially on "short stay visitor" status. Within the Schengen area, that means you can stay up to 90 days within a 180-day period; most non-Schengen countries in Europe also have a 90-day limit (one big exception is the UK, which allows you to stay up to 6 months within a 12-month period). If you think your trip may extend beyond the three-month mark, you'll need to get creative with your travel plans (for example, spend the requisite amount of time outside the Schengen area before re-entering) or look into getting a long-stay visa (France offers a one-year visitor visa, albeit with plenty of requirements and restrictions; under certain circumstances you may qualify for a similar visa elsewhere in Europe).
If you do need a visa, it's usually best to get it at home before you leave. If you forget, just about every country has an embassy or consulate (which can issue visas) in the capital of every other European country.
Both Canadians and Americans need visas to visit Turkey, and must obtain them before entering the country. You can get your "e-visa" online, or visit a Turkish consulate or embassy. US residents pay $20; Canadians pay $60 — that's US dollars, not Canadian. However, cruise-line passengers don't need a visa if they are doing day trips in Turkey but spending nights aboard their ship. On the other hand, cruise passengers arriving in Turkey to start their cruise, or staying on Turkish soil for more than 72 hours must get a visa before their arrival in Turkey. For more information, check with Turkey's embassy in the United States or in Canada.
Travelers to Russia also need visas. The process can be expensive, and you should begin several weeks in advance (see my how-to on Russian visas).
For travel beyond Europe, get up-to-date information on visa requirements from your travel agent or the US Department of State.
Student Cards and Hostel Memberships
The International Student Identity Card (ISIC), the only internationally recognized student ID card, gets you discounts on transportation, shopping, restaurants, hotels, entertainment, and sightseeing throughout Europe, and includes some basic trip insurance. If you are a full-time student (and can prove it), get one. Your ISIC card can also be used as a prepaid credit card. But, if you're older than 26, you might have trouble using the card in some places. Two other varieties of the card, offering similar discounts, are available, though they're often not honored: for teachers of any age (International Teacher Identity Card, or ITIC) and for non-student travelers under age 26 (International Youth Travel Card, or IYTC). Each card costs $25 and is good for one year from the date of issue. Get yours on the ISIC website, through STA Travel, or from your university foreign-study office.
Travelers who'll be staying at least six nights in official HI hostels should get a hostel membership card from a local hostel or Hostelling International.
Rail Passes and Car Documents
Most rail passes are not sold in Europe and must be purchased before you leave home. If you're renting a car, be aware that an International Driving Permit is required in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain (get it at AAA before your departure — for $15 plus tax).
Copying Key Documents
Before your trip, make photocopies and/or take photos of your documents (front and back) to pack along or leave with someone at home to email to you in case of an emergency. It's smart to make a copy of prescriptions for eyewear and medicine as well, but don't photocopy a debit or credit card — instead, keep just the number in a retrievable place. It's easier to replace a lost or stolen passport, rail pass, or car-rental voucher if you have a photocopy that helps prove you really owned what you lost. Consider bringing a couple extra passport-type pictures, which can expedite the replacement process for a lost or stolen passport.
While traveling, guard your photocopies as carefully as you would the originals. I hide mine in a second money belt clipped into the bottom of my luggage (don't tell anyone). Some people scan their documents and email them to a Web-based account or store them on a cloud service such as Dropbox for easy access from the road. If you're concerned about having electronic copies floating around in cyberspace, you could put them on a USB flash drive and tuck it into your money belt. If you're traveling with a companion, carry photocopies of each other's passports and other important documents.
It's also smart to have a backup physical or digital copy of your itinerary, including hotel and car-rental confirmations. An itinerary-storage website (such as Tripit) is handy; you can also keep a list of contacts you'll need, including your hotels — printed on a slip of paper as small as you can read — to store in your money belt.