Too much duty

Our expert offers advice on duty-free goods, allegedly smoke-free rooms, golfing packages and San Francisco lodging, revisited.

Published July 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Returning to New York from Paris, we ended up having to pay duty on anything above $400. Somehow I thought the amount you could bring into the country before you paid duty was higher than that. How can we look into this?

Sorry to say, the $400 threshold is standard for purchases made by U.S. residents returning from Europe and, indeed, from most destinations around the world. The limit on duty-free goods rises to $600 if you're returning from various Caribbean and Central American nations, including Antigua, El Salvador, the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba, Grenada, Nicaragua, Bahamas, Guatemala, Panama, Barbados, Guyana, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Haiti, Saint Lucia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominican Republic, the British Virgin Islands and Montserrat (and that's a lot of souvenir volcanic ash).

There's a $1,200 exemption if you're returning from American Samoa, Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

There also are numerous other twists and turns on the exemption road, including limits on cigarettes and alcohol and exceptions for crafts and gifts.

But better not take my word for it. "Don't rely on advice given by persons outside the Customs Service," says the service's booklet "Know Before You Go." "It may be misleading. You could violate Customs laws and incur costly penalties. Any questions should be directed to the nearest Customs office before you leave or upon entry into the United States."

Or you could visit the Customs Service site, which goes into great detail.

Customs also notes: "If you understate the value of an article you declare, or if you otherwise misrepresent an article in your declaration, you may have to pay a penalty in addition to payment of duty. Under certain circumstances, the article could be seized and retained by Customs if the penalty is not paid."

If only Columba Bush, wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had visited that site before she returned from a Paris shopping spree in June. She declared only $500 in purchases after landing at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta. As it was, she ended up paying the Customs Service a $4,100 fine for not declaring $19,000 in clothing and jewelry.

I booked a sale fare to London, and the cheapest motel/hotel I could find was the New Atlantic at 1 Queens Garden. I booked it over the Internet and even though I specified a nonsmoking room, I see no mention of my preference in the receipt I was e-mailed. What can I expect? Should I assume I may or may not end up in a nonsmoking room? I tend to get headaches if I inhale too much cigarette smoke.

That the hotel didn't specify a nonsmoking room on your return receipt may or may not be ominous, but since a nonsmoking room is important to you I suggest you clarify the matter with an e-mail follow-up and consider canceling the reservation if the hotel doesn't respond to your satisfaction.

Many hotels would rather dangle the possibility that you'll get what you want than to flat out tell you they can't guarantee the nonsmoking room. The New Atlantic shows up on several Internet booking engines, and none that I viewed mentioned nonsmoking rooms under the amenities section. That does not bode well, methinks.

In most other countries, public sensitivity to smoking isn't as great as in the United States. International business hotels may be familiar with the concept of no-smoking rooms, but you may find them scarcer at the lower end of the budget scale. Make sure you understand the hotel's cancellation policy; "tourist class" hotels usually will let you cancel without penalty as long as you don't wait until the last minute. The New Atlantic's phone number (dialed from the U.S.) is 011-44-171-262-4471.

That would leave you with the task of finding another, similarly priced hotel that can guarantee nonsmoking rooms.

A book with good advice for scrutinizing and selecting budget and moderate hotels is Cheap Sleeps in London by Sandra Gustafson (Chronicle Books, third edition, 1997).

England's crown system for grading hotels is described at the British Tourist Authority site.

How can I locate a golfing package to Myrtle Beach, S.C., including lodging and transportation?

Myrtle Beach has dozens of courses, and many of the resorts in the area offer packages. You can get descriptions of them in a golf vacations planner available from Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, a nonprofit association representing many of the golf courses. Visit the site or call (800) 845-4653. The guide has good descriptions of the properties and clubs, as well as photographs and airline information.

There's a golf section on the Myrtle Beach official tourism site.

A guidebook with a golf section is The Insider's Guide to South Carolina's Myrtle Beach & the Grand Stand (Insider's Guides).

Revisiting a previous Travel Advisor Q&A

In an earlier column, a reader asked about clean, inexpensive hotels in San Francisco. Other Salon readers weighed in with their favorites:

From G.K.: I live in the Marina, and there are some good deals in this neighborhood. The Edward II Inn is very nice. Small rooms, but very clean and pretty. It's on Lombard Street, which is busy, but there are good sound-blocking panels around the windows.

Also, the Cow Hollow Inn is clean and easy. Nothing fancy, but it has free parking (huge asset in S.F.) and it, like the Edward II, is about five blocks from the water and barely two miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. Union Square, to me, is the worst part of the city. People who stay there miss out on the funkier aspects of the city.

From B.J.: I have stayed several times at a small pension in North Beach near Columbus Avenue called the San Remo Hotel. It is a truly lovely place with a very friendly staff and the room rates of $45 a night can't be beat.

This is a simple room with a bed and armoire and will face into the hallway (it is furnished with antiques and has a "window" into the hallway) or you can add $10 and get an outside room (I have stayed in inside rooms and they are quite nice and very quiet). For an additional $10 you can get a lavatory in the room. Bathrooms are shared, but absolutely immaculate.

For a big $89 a night, you can get the honeymoon suite (if available) with a private bath and rooftop location. This hotel is a real find and well worth it -- very European. Very nice. Very cheap.

From M.B.: The cheapest and best place to stay in San Francisco is in Berkeley. Ride the BART from Berkeley for about $3 and you're there! Stay at the Shattuck or the Durant in Berkeley for less than $100. Both are old and great. Some may feel the Shattuck is not top notch, but it's clean, you have your own bathroom and the BART station is directly across a side street. The Durant is a bit nicer, but a five-block (albeit usually delightful) walk to the BART station.

There are plenty of trains, they are relatively on time and safe -- it's a good ride.

A bonus -- many folks don't know that downtown San Francisco "rolls up the sidewalks a bit" around 11 p.m. It can be harder to find a meal or drink or other fun.

Berkeley, however, is one of America's premier college towns and at 11 p.m. it's just getting started -- you have five movie theaters in walking distance, live theater, bookstores open late and a wealth of coffee shops and bars. Good cheap food! Especially for vegetarians.

By Donald D. Groff

Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

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