If you’re searching for a cheap way to make your head spin, just look up the rules for carrying booze back to the U.S. from abroad. Amid a long list of contradictions and misinformation provided by everyone from government officials to your favorite airline, you might find this little nugget: you can bring back as much alcohol as you like.
Apparently, how much wine or spirits you can get away with bringing into the U.S. from other countries all depends on the customs agent you get at the border. Some sources say the duty-free limit is two bottles of wine per person. Others say one liter of hard alcohol. I heard about one woman who, upon being called out by the customs agent for her suitcase full of French wine, proceeded to cite the fine print to him: that the calculation of how much booze can be brought into the country is based on the percentage of alcohol by volume. She had several bottles of very low-alcohol wines and, when they did the math together, they found that she was not over any limit.
Much of the confusion has to do with that mysterious tariff called "duty." What is it exactly and is it really such a burden to have to pay it? As the great Seinfeld sage George Costanza memorably put it, “Duty-free is the biggest sucker deal in retail… Duty is nothing.” (See clip below.) Well, practically nothing, anyway: three percent of the total value of an item, if you’ve been abroad for at least 48 hours and are bringing back up to $800 of merchandise. In rare cases, like Ukrainian diamonds, duty can be up to 100 percent of the item’s value. For wine and spirits, it shouldn’t be more than 3 percent on anything above the duty-free limit. If you’re coming from Mexico or Canada, the duty-free limit may be higher than when traveling from other countries. Where you live also matters: state liquor laws, too, can affect what you can bring in.
And yet, I know of many thirsty travelers who lug cases of booze across the border, declare it and get charged nothing. It all comes down to the discretion of the agent who takes your customs declaration card. If he or she is cool, you’re good to go.
Of course, customs is not the only obstacle between you and your delicious foreign alcohol. You also have the air pressure at 35,000 feet to deal with. Experts estimate the chances of a bottle bursting in your suitcase at 13 to 19 percent. And, the main cause isn’t even poor packaging, but air pressure. So, how do you avoid opening your suitcase to find your clothes soaked and your precious cargo in a million pieces? Here are some tips:
- Pack bottles in your checked luggage. Duh: I know. But, it’s amazing how much booze TSA agents collect each day. Enough to throw regular after-work ragers.
- Wrap each bottle individually. In a pinch, you can fold each one into one of your fluffiest sweaters or slip them into your shoes. But if you’re serious, bring your own bubble wrap.
- If you’re really serious, invest in one of several products especially designed to transport wine, like the JetBag, which not only protects against accidental breakage, but also pressure-induced explosions.
- Be prepared to pay. Hoping for a kind customs agent is not a great strategy. Be prepared to get charged for bottles over the limit. A good guess for the limit in a given airport is two bottles of wine per person or one liter of spirits.
Be honest. Remember, you may not be charged any duty at all if you declare what’s in your suitcase. Worst case scenario: you get charged pennies per bottle. Even TV's notorious cheapskate George Costanza would spring for that.
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