Souvenirs: Bringing Them Home

Magnet Souvenirs

If you’re like me, you love finding beautiful souvenirs abroad. I try to make sure I only pick up things I will actually put on display at home, but usually end up with so much extra that I make care packages for friends and family. But there’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re out searching for that perfect gift to bring back for your best friend. Below are some tips for planning your souvenir haul while keeping your baggage weight low and customs officials happy.

Duty-free

A lot of the souvenirs I bring home are for others. My mom and dad have a shot glass collection, and my mom also collects magnets from the places I go. On top of that, I’ve started a collection for my boyfriend of magnets that are also bottle openers. I think he picked one up in New Orleans, and I decided that was going to be his gift from the rest of my travels. Aren’t I the best? And don’t get me started on my buying habits around the holidays.

My point is, all those little things start to add up, both in weight, size, and value. I try to keep my gifts for others (and yes, I buy more than just the tourist souvenirs to add to everyone’s collections) fairly small so that I can get more of them. I’ll talk about making room in your luggage shortly, but I also want to discuss value.

When re-entering your home country, you will determine whether you have to declare any items. Depending on the countries you visited, there is a dollar value that your purchases have to stay below. You can visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection site to find exact values and how it all works. But a good rule of thumb is to make sure your haul is valued at less than $1000 USD.

You may be thinking ‘who buys that many souvenirs?’ The answer is me. I have gone to certain countries with a priority to shop (for example, I went to Jaipur, India to buy jewelry), so it can be very easy to hit that limit. Now,  you can bring home more than that limit, you will just have to pay taxes on it.

Textile souvenirs
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Food Items

Wine from France. Chocolate from France. Cheese from…France. France has a lot of delicious food to bring back home! But once again, there are limits to what is allowed back into your home country. 

The first thing you should keep in mind is what the food item is. Unopened and commercially packaged food is typically in the clear. Most cheeses, herbs, oils, bakery items, coffee, tea, and (surprisingly) fish is allowed. 

Fresh Produce

do not recommend trying to bring fresh fruits and vegetables back into the U.S. In general it is not allowed, and even when it is, you will have to declare it and speak with a Customs Agriculture Specialist.

Meat Products

This is an exact quote from the Customs website: 

The importation of fresh, dried or canned meats or meat products is generally not allowed from most foreign countries into the United States. This includes products that have been prepared with meat.

Beef and beef products from a country not known to be infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) generally are enterable. However, like all other food items the meat must be unopened and commercially labeled indicating the country of origin and meat type.

In very few cases swine and swine products can enter the United States. Commercially canned pork is allowed if the CBP officer can determine from the label that the meat was cooked.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Alcoholic Beverages

You are allowed to bring one liter of alcoholic beverages back into the U.S. from Europe. Anything after that is subject to taxes. But keep this in mind if you’re flying:

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits the amount of unopened alcohol that can be brought onto a plane to five liters per person if the alcohol content falls between 24 and 70 percent (up to 140 proof.) If it’s less than 24 percent you can bring more than five liters, but it would be taxed by Customs. Anything greater than 70 percent isn’t allowed since it’s considered a hazardous material.

Trvl Channel

Pro tip: wrap bottles in your clothing it help protect them from breakage. Red wine should be stored with dark clothing, and as insulated as possible from your lighter clothes.

Tobacco Products

You can bring up to 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars from most countries into the U.S. if you are an adult aged 21 and up. As of 2014, this also includes cigars from Cuba, which were previously embargoed.

There are a lot of rules surrounding food items and what is allowed and how much and at what value. If you are unsure about what you want to bring back, I suggest searching on the Customs site of your home country.

Food as souvenirs
Some of the sweets available in Cartagena, Colombia

Making it All Fit

Whether you’re a minimalist or the shopping queen, you have to think about how you’re getting your souvenirs back home. Lucky for you, I’ve had to consider this problem many times, and with many solutions.

Bring an Extra Bag

If you’re planning to buy a lot, bring an extra suitcase. I generally will pack a smaller suitcase inside of a larger one. Then, as I travel, I have plenty of room for my new souvenirs, and will only potentially have to pay a baggage fee on the way home.

This also works out really well if you can manage to go to your destination with no carry-on. Then, on the way home, the smaller suitcase can be your carry-on item, and you’ve avoided baggage fees altogether.

Buy a Bag

Once upon a time I visited Ireland, knowing full well that I would be buying souvenirs, and not planning for it at all. I ended up buying a pretty sweet fold-up duffel bag and filling it to the brim. I paid the baggage fee on the way home for the extra bag, and my Waterford and Belleek lived happily ever after. But really, if you’re not sure what you’re going to buy before you go, don’t sweat it. Luggage and various bags are pretty easy to find abroad, just pick when up when you need it! 

Strategically Pack

If you can, just don’t fill your suitcase when you’re packing to leave on your trip! I recently visited Colombia for 10 days, which in my world means I just need a small carry-on bag. I brought my smallest suitcase and a backpack as my personal item. My backpack was essentially empty so that I could fill it with souvenirs. This worked out well. Between the two bags, I had no problem fitting in the usual suspects (shot glasses, magnets) as well as a traditional mask, two paintings, three boxes of candy, a handful of notebooks, and two purses for my nieces. Easy peasy.

Don’t Forget Weight Limits

Now before you leave your bag half-empty in anticipation of the goodies you plan to buy, remember the weight limits. I ignore weight limits for carry-ons, I’ve literally never seen someone weigh one. But the checked bags? Oh, that is a delicate game. I keep a travel scale in my big suitcase now so that I can pack, weigh, re-pack, weigh, on and on until I am just at the limit.

My only advice here is to keep space in your carry-on to redistribute heavier items to. If you’re having trouble with weight, move all your books to your carry-on and ditch toiletries. Keep your heaviest shoes and coats on your body for the flight. If that’s not enough, keep your fingers crossed that the desk agent at check-in is feeling generous that day (it happens!).

souvenirs in India
In India I bought a duffel bag to hold all the jewelry I was buying.

Practical Tips

Keep the following in mind as you pick up souvenirs around the world:

  • * Avoid buying souvenirs at the airport or hotel, they are usually overpriced.
  • * Ethical buying – do not buy endangered animal products or anything made from enforced labor.
  • * Shop around! Unless you don’t think you’ll be able to make it back, don’t buy at the first place you see an item you like. Chances are, you’ll see it a few more times and can compare prices.
  • * Consider sending postcards if you’re tight on space. It’s still a nice souvenir for friends and family, and you won’t have to lug in around!
  • * Are you actually going to use/display what you’re buying? I try to keep this in mind to make sure my purchases make sense.
  • * Buy locally handcrafted items! 
Souvenirs
Photo by Coleen Rivas on Unsplash

Do you have any souvenir collections? Shot glasses, magnets, vintage maps? Let me know in the comments below! I don’t have a specific collection, but I decorate my home with my souvenirs, so they are usually pieces of art.