How to: Bring a Bottle of Alcohol Home from the Caribbean

by  Diana Kelly | May 28, 2014
Alcohol in airport
Alcohol in airport / MJ_Prototype/iStock

Ever wanted to bring back a favorite rum you discovered on vacation – but hesitated because you thought it was pricey or likely to lead to a suitcase of alcohol-soaked clothes? We’re here to help.

First things first. Bringing alcohol into the country is completely legal. You will have to be 21 years of age, of course, but the U.S. Customs and border protection says that “U.S. travelers to the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) countries are allowed a $800 duty-free exemption on their return to the U.S.,” for up to two liters of alcoholic beverages as long as one of the liters was produced in one of the CBI countries.  If you’re returning from the U.S. Virgin Islands, you can bring back up to $1,600 worth of goods.

It’s important to know that different states have different laws about the amount that you can bring back, and even whether you can ship alcohol to your state, so learn your state’s laws at the Alcohol and Tobacco and Trade Tax Bureau site. Then, with little forethought and planning, the rest shouldn't be too difficult. Here’s how to make sure you're getting a good deal and how to get your purchases back home.

1. Research the local shops on the island for deals and reviews. On a recent trip, I learned that a shop like The Wine Cellar in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos is a great place to chat with locals, learn about the island’s spirits, and get help with recommendations. It boasts a vast selection of more than 3,000 wines, 100 rums, and 500 spirits. For those staying at resorts, buying at local shops will be much more affordable, whether you want to enjoy a sip while you're there, or have something wrapped to bring back with you. (Note: The Wine Cellar doesn’t ship to customers’ homes, but you're welcome to buy and pack items.)

2. Compare local and big company shipping costs. I originally thought that if you wanted to buy more than two bottles to bring back with you, it would make financial sense, and be convenient, to have them shipped to your home. But according to The Wine Cellar’s Desmond Williams, a local shipping company would charge about $600 in brokerage and trucking fees. Even FedEx, which only allows sea container shipping to and from places with alcohol business licenses, would still cost about $100. Use these as a benchmark for evaluating shipping prices at local stores.

3. Leave room in your suitcase and wrap your bottles. If you pack the alcohol in your suitcase, ask your hotel’s gift shop to cover it in bubble wrap and tape it together for you. To be safe, you can also wrap each bottle in a plastic bag to minimize the affects of any leakage, and be sure to slap a “fragile” sticker on your suitcase. Of course, if your bags are filled to the brim, jamming a few bottles of alcohol in there and barely squeezing it shut might be a recipe for disaster, so relegate the bulky items to your carry-on (or don't pack them at all).

4. Explore the duty-free shops – but know the prices back at home. Yes, the duty-free shops in the Caribbean have a nice variety of alcohol and much better prices than I found at my resort. But remember that you don’t know what they’ll have in stock, you might not have a ton of time to shop before your flight, or - like I discovered in St. Croix - there might not actually be a duty-free shop if the airport is very small. It’s also a good idea to know the prices of your favorite spirits if you’re purchasing at home, to see if you’re actually getting a good deal and if it’s worth the hassle. Some price comparisons that I saw:

  • Bambarra Trouvadore rum (750ml): $32 at airport, $59.99 at resort
  • Patron Anejo (750ml): $49 at airport, about $61 in the U.S.
  • Patron Silver (375ml) with a shot glass: $35 at airport, $25 in the U.S., $48.99 for smaller bottle at resort

5. Liquor stores may be closed some days. Research the policies. I’d originally planned to visit The Wine Cellar on my last day in Turks and Caicos until I learned that it’s illegal to purchase alcohol from any grocery store or liquor store on Sundays on the island. On Sundays, only the hotels are able to serve alcohol. Check before you go, or ask your hotel’s staff.

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