TravelA Practical Guide to Getting All Your Souvenirs Home
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A Japanese magnet that looks like a highly realistic fried egg. A set of hand-painted Sicilian espresso cups. Two unframed prints from a German artist’s studio. You name it, I have figured out a way to get it back into the country, either on my person or as oversized luggage, without shipping it separately. Sniffing out good souvenirs is one of the true joys of traveling—it’s part of the fun of exploring a new place, and you get to bring a little piece of it home with you. But struggling to fit too much loot into a carry-on while navigating complicated customs and security regulations is not how anyone wants to end a trip, lest something gets damaged (or worse, confiscated). Here, a detailed guide to getting all kinds of things home safely.
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When it’s really fragile
Whether you’ve bought a set of whisper-thin Murano glasses or a vintage ceramic lamp, always pack it in your personal item—no matter how well it’s bubble-wrapped. It isn’t worth the risk to check it, or even to put it in the overhead compartment, as you never know who’s going to try and squeeze something on top of it or how bags will get knocked around during turbulence. When in doubt, keep it where you can see it and in a bag that only you’ll be handling. Surround it with plush sweaters or scarves for good measure.
When you go a little overboard with the shopping
When my sister and I spent a week in Japan a couple of years ago, I made sure I left a little extra room in my suitcase. But on our last day in Tokyo, we stocked up on vintage photography titles and artsy zines at Tsutaya Books and hit Kappabashi Street (where they sell all that irresistible plastic food) and my original estimate for how much space I’d need went out the window. Enter the packable, collapsible duffel, which you can slip in your suitcase on the way in and then use as an extra bag on the return trip. I ended up buying a cheap nylon version, but we’ve listed some of our favorites collapsible duffels here.
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Another overdoing it scenario? You have enough space in your luggage, but you still end up spending serious cash on the souvenirs you did buy. That’s where the back of the Customs form comes in, which will require you to list the value of everything you bought while abroad. Each individual is usually allowed to bring up to $800 worth of goods back into the U.S. with them without paying duty fees, but once you go over that limit, you’ll need to pay duty on each individual item, so make sure you keep track of what you spent.
When it absolutely won’t fit in a suitcase
Couldn’t resist that eccentric antique but don’t want to deal with the logistics of shipping it home? In most cases, you can bring it with you, but plan ahead: An architect friend once bought an antique bamboo broom in Miami (as a decorative object, not to replace his Swiffer), but when he got to the security line, TSA wouldn’t let him bring it through. After a roundabout conversation with the check-in desk, he ended up having to get it wrapped up by one of those saran-wrap stations at an irritatingly high cost and was forced to check it in, narrowly making it onto the plane in time.
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A happier tale: Travel specialist Katalina Mayorga bought three custom-designed Acapulco chairs from a boutique in Mexico City on her way back to the U.S. The store wrapped them for her and delivered them to the airport—once she checked in, all she had to do was pay a $35 fee for each piece.
And when in doubt, wrap or package oddly shaped items before you get to the airport—you’ll have more peace of mind checking-in a sturdy box than something that feels like it’s been flimsily wrapped on the fly. And check your airline’s policy for irregularly shaped luggage beforehand so you can get a sense of what it’ll cost to check.
Put fragile things in your personal item.
Check with the TSA and your airline before you fly.
Ship the big, expensive stuff.
Bring a collapsible duffel.
When it’s art
Earlier this summer, I bought two prints from an artist friend in Berlin and carried them onto three different flights in a 17" by 22" cardboard cachet portfolio—separate from my personal item and carry-on bags. I kept thinking someone was going to say something, or that a gate agent would insist that the portfolio counted as my personal item, but it never happened. During every flight, I just placed it under the seat or nestled it between the seat and the wall of the plane. As a general rule, if it’s relatively small and flat you can probably get away with a little extra, but I’d be prepared to check your carry-on, just in case.
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Alternatively, if you’re buying a large sculpture or something framed, ask the gallery if they can pack it in a crate for you, so you know it’s as secure as possible. If it’s on the more expensive side, any reputable gallery will have crating, shipping, duty, and insurance procedures in place—don’t even bother trying to bring it with you on the plane.
When you’re wondering if it might be a customs or security issue
For domestic flights, the first step is to consult the TSA’s searchable, amusingly alphabetized “What Can I Bring” tool, which breaks down whether specific items are okay to pack in carry-on or checked bags—from airbrush make-up machines (carry-on: yes; checked: yes) to English Christmas crackers (no; no) to magic 8 balls (no; yes) to yogurt (less than 3.4 ounces; yes). If you can’t find something listed or you’re not sure what category it falls under, you can send a photo of it to askTSA on Facebook Messenger or Twitter, and someone will respond between the hours of 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET on weekdays (9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends or holidays).
If you’re coming into the U.S. from another country, Customs and Border Protection has a similar (if less comprehensive) database. Generally, plant and animal materials are risky: That packet of seeds you found at the market are almost definitely a no-go, and any decorative skull or pelt (anything that was once alive, for that matter) are best avoided. Depending on where you’re departing from, shells and coral can pose an issue as well: Because of an apparent lack of conservation efforts in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago, you’re not allowed to bring queen conch shells into the U.S. from those countries (it’s fine to bring them in from others, including the Bahamas and Jamaica).
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When it’s something edible or drinkable
Baked goods and packaged food like jam or chocolate are generally fine. (I once came back from Rome with a backpack containing nothing but a Roscioli panettone.) Because of their ability to carry disease, fruits, vegetables and meat can almost never cross borders. Cheeses are tricky: hard and semi-soft are fine, but anything with a creamy or liquid consistency (read: unpasteurized) is not.
For alcohol, you can’t bring full-sized bottles in your carry-on thanks to the TSA liquid restrictions, unless they were purchased in the airport after security. If you’re buying a case of wine from a vineyard or an upscale shop, ask if they can put it in a box with foam inserts that keep each bottle packed snugly and separately in your checked bag. (If it’s just one bottle, you can consult our handy guide to packing wine.)
Then there’s the question of duty: According to the Customs and Border Patrol Website, if you spend more than $200 on alcohol in Europe, anything over one liter will be dutiable at 3 percent, plus any additional taxes.
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