Your feet are sore, your camera card is full, and you’ve checked off all the places on your sightseeing list. Yep, you can chalk this vacation up as a grand success. But now it’s time to pack your bags again and head back to the daily grind.
Thankfully, being the wise person you are, you left plenty of room in your bag to pack away bottles of the local beer, wine, and spirits that you discovered during your travels. Before you get too ahead of yourself, though, there are a few things you need to know about flying home with booze in your bag.
While you may have gotten away with carrying on your bag when you flew out to your vacation (you absolute legend, you!), you are going to need to bite the baggage-fee bullet and check your bag on the return trip home. According to the TSA, travelers can only make it through security with 3.4-ounce bottles of liquid, so that Westvleteren XII you spent an entire day purchasing in Belgium will have to get checked. And even though you can carry on as many of those mini bottles of liquor “that fit comfortably in one, quart-sized, clear plastic, zip-top bag,” it’s against the law to crack them open and imbibe on the plane.
There are other restrictions set by the FAA for domestic travel in the U.S. to be aware of. For starters, air travelers can pack as many bottles of beer, wine, and spirits that clock in under 48 proof (24% ABV) and fit into a checked bag. However, they are limited to traveling with five total liters of alcoholic beverages in the range of 48–140 proof (24%–70% ABV). Beverages over 140 proof are flat out banned.
Two last considerations: 1) Be sure to check with the airline to review its policy on alcoholic beverages. There is a chance they have specific restrictions beyond those stipulated by the TSA and FAA. 2) Check the alcohol laws in the state of your final destination (and any layover states) for additional restrictions and taxes.
Call of Duties
If you’re traveling internationally, things get a little more complicated. While all the same TSA and airline rules still apply, you may be assessed duties and excise taxes for your liquid souvenirs. Generally, a traveler is allowed to bring one liter of alcohol into the U.S. duty-free. (Special caveat: If you’re traveling from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, or American Samoa, you can bring in five liters duty-free, provided they were all bought in those territories and at least one liter was produced on the territory where it was purchased.)
I know what you’re thinking: Can’t I just buy my booze at the duty-free store at the airport to avoid the fees? Yes and no. Yes, you won’t be assessed duties or taxes in the country where you purchase the alcohol; however, when you arrive back home in the U.S. you will be assessed U.S. duties and excise taxes. Additionally, you’ll need to check your state statutes as they may assess additional taxes on alcohol coming into the state.
Still with me? Good. Because here comes another curveball. Even though the FAA doesn’t limit the number of bottles of alcoholic beverages for personal use (and not for resale) under 48 proof that you can pack in your checked bag, U.S. customs will likely flag you if you are trying to bring in more than a case of beer or wine. The customs officer may require you to obtain a commercial importer license from the TTB before releasing it to you.
Tips for Packing
To state the obvious, the key to successfully transporting glass bottles home in your luggage is minimizing contact. There are plenty of specialty luggage options made specifically for transporting bottles, but if you’re relying on your big standard suitcase (you absolute maverick, you!), the goal is entombing your bottles in a sarcophagus of your softest clothes and towels.
Create a shallow well in your suitcase, leaving enough padding on all sides to ensure none of the bottles will touch the walls. Next, place your bottles in the well and create a barrier between each one to avoid any glass-on-glass contact. Bubble wrap is king. Socks are also handy, or else a towel woven over and under each bottle is a good alternative. Pay special attention to the bottle necks—they are the vulnerable thermal exhaust port to your glass Death Stars. Cushioning the necks so they are not floating will give you the best chance of survival.
A few notes of caution:
Place your bottles in a plastic bag (I find a garbage bag is lightweight, easy to pack, and large enough to fit plenty of bottles) to protect your belongings from breakage or leakage.
Bottle-conditioned beer with live yeast may be more prone to leaking or breaking open as it may have quietly built more carbonation sitting on the shelf than your standard force-carbonated beer.
Leave growlers behind. I’ve heard some people have successfully gotten a growler home without leakage, but all the jostling with baggage handling will test every ounce of resilience of the screw caps.
Move all electronics and other irreplaceable items into a protected pocket of the suitcase or transfer them to your carry-on.
Godspeed fellow traveler. May the winds of fortune bear your libations safely home to your cellar.