“Bring me back cigars” was a common refrain before I recently traveled to Cuba for the first time. I would have happily obliged more requests if it were not for the ominous warnings about the cost — financial and otherwise for Americans who return with too much.
Since the U.S. government moved to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in late 2014, Americans have been allowed to return from the communist island with $400 worth of newly bought merchandise. However, no more than $100 of the loot can be of the tobacco and alcohol variety. And for those found in violation, penalties can reach $250,000 and 10 years in prison, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol noted just last month in its most recent warning on the matter.
In Havana, it only takes a quick trip to a government-run cigar shop to realize that the $100 limit can approach quickly – and can be downright imposing if you’re shopping for an aficionado.
Cuba’s famed rum, by comparison, is cheap, and the bottles are inspected for quality and sealed at the factory. I found it might have been more economical to buy everyone on my souvenir list a large bottle of rum – if I could have carried it all home.
So, what to do? Here’s a look at how to reach your $100 limit – and how to get it home:
The basics: The 3-year-old rum that Cubans mix into mojitos is clear and relatively cheap, about $7 per bottle, meaning you could theoretically lug home at least 14 bottles — enough to start your own bar. But here’s the tricky part: airlines now usually impose fees for checked luggage over 44 pounds, meaning on your return flight, you might have to choose between your rum or your clothes.
The upgrades: Cuba’s finer sipping rum, aged 7 years, runs about $20 per bottle, meaning you could take home five bottles for close friends. It’s even better maestro class runs about $40 per bottle. But all that would leave nothing left over for cigars.
The unaffordable: Forget about it. There are a dozen classes of even nicer rum, but it’s over the $100 limit. The most expensive is Havana Club’s “Maximio” which goes for $1,700 a bottle.
Smoking: On the tobacco front, there are plenty of ways to quickly reach $100. Almost every brand on Cigar Aficionado Magazine’s Top 10 can set you back $250 to $650 per box. There are a handful of exceptions, but finding those also can be tricky. The only box this reporter could find under $100 was a box of Romeo y Julieta Coronitas for $72.
But here’s another thing, it’s also not clear how much the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is checking. And it’s entirely unclear how the agency will grapple with enforcing the limit once as many as 110 regular flights between the U.S. and Cuba resume later this year.
On a recent day at Miami International Airport, there were no searches of carry-on luggage for cigars when a chartered flight arrived carrying several officials from Washington. However, the rum was slowing down the processing of all international arrivals.
From the one flight alone, screeners insisted on individually testing more than 100 bottles of rum purchased at Havana international airport’s duty-free shop. Each was placed in a spectrometer, then put back in a duty-free bag, and resealed with tape bearing the Transportation Security Administration’s logo. Only then were passengers allowed to continue to their connecting flights to D.C.
In Cuba, tour guides have heard about the process and pitfalls of Americans returning with too much in their bags. They warn not to draw attention by packing full boxes of cigars. Instead, you should pack the cigars singly. And when it comes to rum, they suggest packing in your checked luggage if you want to try to make a connecting flight.
The guides also say repeat American visitors to Cuba have told them they have been able to pay small fines at the Miami airport when necessary and continue on with their trips without trouble.
According to the most recent customs report, however, there were almost 400 instances of U.S. agents seizing Cuban cigars at entry points to the country in the last month. The report does not distinguish which seizures involved visitors, and which involved American citizens.