Photo by Andrew Miller

It has long been known that land border crossings can be anxiety-provoking affairs. I first learned this sad fact of travel life as a backpacker in the mid-1970s.

Although I had not anticipated this particular problem in advance, I found that I had stumbled on a solution when seeking a way to avoid shakedowns by Mexican police and other corrupt law enforcement personnel.

If you have never written your congressional representativebefore, on the eve of your trip is the perfect time to start.

Power Of The Pen

Your best weapon against attempts at soliciting bribes and other hassles instigated by officialdom is the power of the pen — especially when wielded by an elected representative of the superpower of the western hemisphere.

Before traveling anywhere, contact the local office of your representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tell them that while you are not planning on traveling anywhere dangerous, you can never be too careful; therefore, you would like to have a letter from the office of the Congressperson requesting, akin to what it says in your passport, that the reader grant safe and secure passage to the bearer of the letter and extend every courtesy to speed the traveler on his/her way.

When you present the letter, be sure to say something like “the Congressman/woman is a friend of mine (my parents, my boss, etc.), and he/she will be notified if I am in any sort of trouble.”

In fact, if you know someone who knows the U.S. rep (or someone on his/her staff) well, ask him/her to request the letter, which can then vouch for you, the traveler, as a person of good character. Of course, if you know someone who knows your Governor or U.S. Senator, you can go with that option.

Take A Letter

Another kind of letter worth having is one from an international organization with branches in the United States and the countries you are visiting.

For example, the Sister Cities organization twins cities and towns in the United States with counterparts in other countries.

Check whether your city has such an arrangement, and have the appropriate person write you a letter of introduction to the liaison person in the foreign city you plan on visiting. If necessary, show the letter to the border official and tell him that you are expected by a very important person in his country.

This can be even more influential than the congressional letter, since the correspondence involves a local.

Be creative and obtain as many letters as possible; most people have ties to more than one city: where you grew up, went to college, where your parents are from, etc. And who knows? You might decide to look up the local Sister Cities committee and be pleasantly surprised with a warm welcome.

Work On Your Charm

Of course, it is altogether possible that with a little charm and an inexpensive gift of friendship, one can avoid either the necessity of brandishing the letters on official stationery, or at least mitigate any unpleasantness caused by having produced one or both of them.

Travel with a stash of souvenir-type gifts that you can give out as gestures of good will, or with some inexpensive electronic gadgets that appear impressive.

In the former category can be things like bottle openers, key chains or baseball caps with symbols of your home state, city or university. The latter could be items like laser pointers, calculators or digital mini-voice recorders. Don’t carry too many of any one thing, lest you be accused of trying to do business or importing commercial samples.

In an offhand way, indicate that it gives you pleasure to give gifts that are reminders of your home, or small tokens of appreciation to people that are helpful to you in your travels. You can even say something like, “I don’t know if you are permitted to take gifts in your job, but I would be pleased if you would accept this [whatever the gift is or symbolizes].”

In the case of a present that does not have an obvious connection to your city or state, you can suggest vaguely that it is manufactured by a “friend of the family.”

Keep Your Cool

I can assure you that if you keep your cool and carry yourself with confidence, you will sail through border crossings that sometimes trip up other travelers who are less prepared.

And once you have used these tips and passed your first customs-and-immigration test, you will have the tools and self-assurance to start to relax and truly enjoy your adventuresome journey.