Re - 6 month issue. It depends on the country.
I went to Spain in Sept, and my passport was to expire in Nov, so I got a new one last spring. Several folks (both friends and some travel customer service people), plus travel literature mentioned Spain does not like passports with less than 6 months. Even folks at RailEurope mentioned it to me. I did the renewal early, as I was traveling by myself and just did not want to have any trouble. Losing 5 months on my old passport was worth it.