Beware of buying duty-free liquor

If you can't pack it in your checked bags, don't bother

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Bringing home a bottle or two of duty-free alcohol or perfume has long been a tradition for travelers returning from overseas trips, but it's become more complicated in recent months.

In August, when the Travel Security Administration banned all but essential liquids from carry-on luggage, plenty of expensive bottles wound up in security checkpoint trash bins.

That essentially scotched the duty-free business.

"When the rules were announced, travelers stopped buying alcohol, perfume and other prohibited items," said Michael Payne, president of the International Association of Airport Duty Free Stores, which represents 500 companies around the world,

"My information is anecdotal, but I'd estimate many stores saw a 10 to 15 percent drop in overall sales."

Mr. Payne said some overseas airports adapted quickly, at least for items that could be hand-delivered directly from the store to passengers at the plane. "The security people realized the goods were being transferred from a bonded store by bonded agents into the sterile area."

Then 12 days ago, the TSA relaxed its rules somewhat. As widely reported, airplane passengers are now permitted to bring 3-ounce bottles of personal toiletries through security checkpoints, as long as the items are packed in a clear, one-quart-sized plastic bag and presented to the TSA agent for inspection.

In addition, passengers are allowed to carry beverages and food purchased inside what the TSA refers to as "security sanitized areas" onto planes. Also permitted are items bought from other vendors inside the security checkpoint, including liquids, gels and aerosols.

However, as the TSA advisory further clarifies, "In accordance with applicable laws governing duty-free items, you are limited on the amount of items, particularly alcohol, you can purchase."

U.S. Customs allows every traveler over age 21 who has been out of the country for at least 48 hours to bring back up to $400 worth of purchases duty-free. That can include one-liter bottle of alcohol. It was and still is permissible to pack up to five liters of alcohol into luggage that will be checked into the hold of the plane, but duty charges will be assessed on the additional amounts. No liquor stronger than 140 proof (70 percent alcohol) can be brought back, which leaves out potions such as strong Jamaican rum.

But the situation is not as simple as that might indicate, especially for incoming passengers who are making a connection in a domestic airport on their homeward journey. Unfortunately, that will be the case for almost all local travelers in these days of virtually no nonstop international flights to Pittsburgh International.

At most connecting airports, incoming international passengers generally have to clear customs with their luggage. They then have to recheck their bags and proceed through the airport to catch their domestic flight. That usually entails clearing security again.

So unless the traveler takes the initiative of packing their duty-free liquor and perfume purchases in their suitcases before rechecking them with the airline, all of their liquid items will have to be removed from their carry-on bags and discarded at the second security point.

The situation is even more complicated for passengers who are departing from certain "pre-clearance" airports. These include Aruba, Bermuda, Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas and Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg in Canada.

Travelers arriving on flights from these airports won't be able to repack their duty-free carry-on purchases at their connection. That's because their checked luggage clears customs at the departure airport and isn't delivered to them again until they reach their final destination. They will have no access to their bags in the interim. Thus any prohibited items they bought will be confiscated at the domestic security checkpoint.

As TSA spokesperson Amy Kudwa also noted, "Travelers who are departing from airports in Britain, which has not yet relaxed its ban against carrying liquids on to planes, have to pack everything in their checked luggage."

Ms. Kudwa advised passengers to check the TSA Web site (www.tsa.gov) for specifics about domestic policies. She also said to ask authorities at your return airport about what they permit.

Mr. Payne seconded that notion. "Our organization will be working to educate the public about what they can take on a plane. Buying anything in a duty-free store usually requires showing a boarding pass, and we hope our vendors will alert passengers who will be making transit connections of the need to repack their liquid purchases.

"If you're not willing to repack, don't buy it in the first place."

Of course, there are issues involved with packing glass bottles in luggage that will be checked onto a plane. Perfume is usually sold in packages that provide protection, but that's not always the case with liquor.

A bottle of alcohol could shatter or leak inside your suitcase, or it could disappear from your unlocked luggage before you arrive home.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to pack liquor bottles. Those that come packaged in boxes may be somewhat safer. Some duty-free shops and wineries provide cushioned carrying boxes or foam clamshell packages. At a minimum, swaddling liquor bottles in bubble wrap or clothing and packing them in the center of your suitcase is wise, as is putting it inside a plastic bag in case of breaks or leaks. Finally, be aware that when you pack those bottles, you do so at your own risk. Airlines never accept responsibility for the consequences when bottles in checked bags break in transit.

Reprieve for some passports

In a related development, Congress last week passed an initiative that postpones for 17 months the date after which all travelers entering the United States by land from Canada or Mexico, as well as cruise ship passengers, will be required to have a valid passport.

The change shifts the deadline from Jan 1, 2008, to June 1, 2009, and is intended to provide additional time for the governments to explore less expensive secure ID options for the millions of people who come from Canada and Mexico by land and sea.

This ruling won't affect the more impending deadline of Jan. 8, 2007, when all travelers arriving in the United States by air will have to produce a passport. Caribbean tourism authorities are already complaining that this development will put them at a competitive disadvantage.

In any case, if you don't have a passport or have one that will soon expire, it's time to update your documentation. The expected surge in applications has upped the time to get new passports to between eight and 12 weeks.


Post-Gazette travel editor David Bear can be reached at 412-263-1629 or dbear@post-gazette.com .


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