Archive for September, 2014

Bringing Wine Home to the USA

A few weeks ago I posted a guide to the best ways of bringing your wine home after traveling in wine country.  That piece was devoted entirely to domestic (US)  wine travel; however, thanks to some odd and often misunderstood quirks in dealing with customs, a follow up for international travel seems appropriate.SYD Duty Free3

One of the best parts of overseas wine travel is the fact that, often, high-quality wine sells for pennies on the dollar compared to what you’d pay in the US.  So quite naturally, we often purchase as much as we can.

But most of us only have two option for getting that wine home: ship it or bring it with you on the plane as luggage. However, international shipping is complicated and often prohibitively expensive.  And since international cargo is x-rayed, FedEx and UPS have been known to periodically confiscate shipments.  Therefore, most people opt to haul a case or two on the plane.

Contrary to popular conception, bringing wine into the USA as luggage is incredibly simple, cheap, and remarkably painless.

Here are the basics: for personal use, US Customs allows 1 liter (translated: 1.3 bottles) of wine per person tax and duty free. Beyond that, you’ll have declare your stash and pay duties and taxes. Exactly how much you’ll pay is something of a crapshoot, but most people report paying less than $20 per case. Trust me, that’s a bargain. And most airlines allow for a free checked bag (or two) on international flights which helps further defray costs. Of course, the airlines will be glad to haul as many cases of wine as you like so long as you pay the baggage fees.

If that all sounds too simple, well, you’re right. There’s a catch or two.

If you’re hauling more than a couple of cases with you, Customs may try and argue that you’ve exceeded what they deem a “reasonable” quantity for personal consumption. This seems to be at the discretion of the individual officer, but so long as you don’t have more than two or three cases the risk of this happening is very low.

When it comes to alcohol, US Customs is also tasked with enforcing any STATE laws applicable in the state where you first enter the US. So if you clear customs in a state where wine transport is restricted, you may be in for a nasty surprise. While in theory those restrictions are only supposed to apply to residents of that state, Customs often enforces them on everyone and warns travelers as much in two publications.

Requirements For Importing Alcohol for Personal UseAirplane At Gate

Can I bring (carry in my baggage) back alcohol for my personal use or as a gift?

If that sounds complicated, here’s a scenario on how this could play out. Let’s say you live in Houston, have been traveling in Europe and have accumulated two cases of wine to bring home.

  •  If you fly Europe > San Francisco > Houston (clearing customs of course in San Francisco) you’ll be subject to California law, which does not place a cap on wine shipments.
  •  However, if you fly Europe > Memphis > Houston (where you’ll clear customs in Memphis) you’ll be subject to Tennessee law. Tennessee restricts wine to 12 bottles per person per month, so Customs would seize your second case.

So the biggest keys to getting your wine home hassle-free are to be reasonable with your quantities and  pay close attention where your return flight enters the United States.

Generally speaking, the big airports along the coast (and Chicago) are wine-friendly and will pose no problem if you book your point-of-entry connection through one of them.  Be careful if you’re offered an international connection through an airline hub in a state with very restrictive wine laws (Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee and Utah come to mind).

Happy travels!

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Special “Strong Roots” Napa Valley 2-for-1 Tasting Offer Through End of October

If you’ve spent much time with us, you know that we’re often critical of Napa Valley for it’s crazy high prices. That being said, Napa is a must-visit for any wine lover and we highly encourage you to visit at least once.

In light of last month’s earthquake, Dirt Cheap Wine Country along with the rest of our friends in the business, are encouraging folks to make Napa a part of your fall travel plans. We’ll be there in October, and we’d love to see you there as well!

That’s why when we found this deal, we knew we had to pass it along. Several Napa wineries have partnered with to offer a special 2-for-1 tasting voucher. The “Strong Roots” voucher is valid for up to four people at over 35 participating wineries through October 31.

You can get yours at

While a few of the wineries on the list already offer 2-for-1 deals, most don’t which makes this a great offer in a region where deals are becoming few and far between. Plus, you only have to carry one coupon versus a handful.

So go show your support for Napa, and we’ll see you there!

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A Backdoor Way To Get The Flights You Really Want – But It’s A Gamble!

How often has this happened to you?  You finally get around to booking flights for your next trip, but the only flights available (that you can afford) are the the ones that nobody really wants.  You know – the crazy red-eyes with the four-hour connections? It’s no secret that the most ideal flights are nearly always the most expensive.Airplane At Gate

But if you’re a bit of a gambler, there is a backdoor way to get the flights you really want at the price you’re willing to pay.  And the airline coughs up the difference.  It doesn’t work every time, but it does work more often than you might imagine.

The key is to book early.  Travel pros (or their travel managers) are in the habit of what they call “harvesting” their reservations – that is, periodically checking on them for changes.  Seasoned travelers know that when they book flights months in advance, the schedule they booked is rarely the schedule they’ll actually fly.

This is because most airlines publish a “best guess” schedule about a year in advance of a given travel date.  That schedule is continually tweaked up until just a few weeks prior to your flight.   Typically the changes are minor – a few minutes here or there – maybe a flight number change – and usually their computer systems automatically rebook you onto new flights as the schedules are updated.

On occasion, however, something big happens behind the scenes:  maybe demand forecast was way off, an aircraft type was retired, or an airport began major construction.  These things will result in a major schedule change. (I’ve found that weekends and holidays are particularly vulnerable to schedule changes.)

Rather than get upset, you can use this to your advantage!  Because what the airlines don’t tell you is that if ANY of the flights in your itinerary are changed by more than 90 minutes (or 2 hours on some airlines) or a nonstop flight suddenly picks up a connection, you have the right to reject the new itinerary and your ticket becomes fully refundable… or FULLY REBOOKABLE.

That’s right – you get a one-time shot to rebook on whatever flights you want.  And the airline eats any price difference.

Plane TicketSome airlines will alert you to schedule changes by email, others  will simply throw up a warning message next time you log into your account.   An extreme schedule change will often prompt the airline to give you a call.

Web sites can be quirky, so in the event you qualify for a rebooking, I recommend doing it over the phone (telephone reservation fees are also waived).  If you call to rebook, there are a few general rules to play by:

– First, be exceedingly polite. This will go father than you imagine!
– Your origin and destination airports must remain the same.  Exceptions are made for cities with multiple airports (ie. New York, LA, Dallas) or certain Caribbean islands with multiple airports.
– You can re-route through another hub if you’d like.
– You can’t switch airlines, although in extreme circumstances supervisors and travel agents can override this.
– Within reason (a day or two) you can usually change dates.
– Any flight with enough open seats in the cabin you originally booked are fair game.

So if you’re debating whether to book your flights sooner or later, in my opinion this is a great reason to book sooner. My strategy is to book flights that I can afford with flight times I can live with if I have to keep them and then stay on top of my reservations with an eagle-eye for any changes.

While I have had success with this on American, Delta, and United, no such guarantees are offered on Allegiant or Spirit.  How Southwest handles these is a mystery.

Good luck, and happy travels!

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