Q: Is the “service charge” on my room-service bill the same as a gratuity?
A: Though the exact definition varies from hotel to hotel, service charge usually indicates a pooled tip, to be divided up by the entire room service department. If your specific attendant was particularly good, you may consider giving an extra gratuity—but are in no way obliged to do so. To be sure, ask what the hotel’s policy is when placing your order.
Q: I love to bring food back from my trips abroad. What are the restrictions? —Alexander Bauman, Lexington, Mass.
A: The lure of forbidden fruit is strong—as is the authority of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to confiscate it once you hit American soil. Why so stringent? The agency cites the example of a Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak in California in the 1980’s that cost the state and federal government $100 million to contain. It started with a single traveler bringing in a piece of contaminated food. Add to that the threats of hoof-and-mouth and mad cow disease, avian and swine flu, and exotic beetle infestations, which can devastate livestock and crops, and you get a sense of why caution is necessary.
That said, there are still plenty of foods that you can carry home from your travels. You just need to be aware of the rules, which can be tricky—and fluid. Restrictions change as disease outbreaks occur. Look for updates on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service websites. And always declare your food: trying to bring in undeclared prohibited items can result in a fine of $300 for a first offense and more for repeat offenders.
Cheese and Milk Products: Hard and soft, pasteurized and unpasteurized cheeses are generally acceptable—that includes everything from Camembert and Brie to feta and mozzarella, even in brine. Nonsolid cheeses, such as ricotta and cottage cheese, pose problems, unless you’re a registered importer. Yogurt and butter are unrestricted.
Meat and Seafood: Unfortunately, almost anything containing meat products is off limits. This includes most fresh and refrigerated meats, cured and dried ones (salami, sausage, and prosciutto, sigh), and even dried soups and bouillons. (Some pork products are allowable from Spain and Italy, but—before you grab that chorizo—require official certification from the country’s health inspectors.) Pâté and foie gras in unopened hermetically sealed containers can usually be brought into the country. At press time, beef and pork products were allowable from Australia, Canada, Fiji, Iceland, and New Zealand with proof of origin (such as a grocery-store receipt or a label indicating where they came from). Seafood, including fresh, dried, canned, and smoked fish, is generally permitted.
Fruits and Vegetables: You need an official permit for most fresh fruit and vegetables, though Canadian produce is generally exempt, once again, with proof of origin. (Check the USDA’s Fruits and Vegetables Import Requirements Database to see what can be carried onto U.S. soil.) Dried fruits, herbs, and spices (except seed-based ones) are by and large okay.
Pantry Items: Good news: oils, vinegars, mustards, canned or jarred meatless sauces, pickles, honey (without honeycombs), jams, baked goods, noodles, roasted nuts, candy, and chocolate are all basically unrestricted.
Alcohol: Anything less than a liter is generally permitted duty-free. Thanks to the 21st Amendment, it’s up to each state to determine how much alcohol you can carry. Most states limit you to a “reasonable” amount for personal use. If you’re from a control state, however, check with the local alcohol board to see if there are restrictions. Utah, for example, sets a two-liter limit. For the record: absinthe (anything bearing the brand name Absinthe, containing thujone, or decorated with artwork “project[ing] images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects”) is not allowed in the States.
The World Economic Forum just released its 2013 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index, a report that evaluates 140 destinations across the world based on safety and security, environmental sustainability, and cultural and natural resources, among other "pillars" of tourism.
Among the findings:
° Switzerland is the best overall place in the world for tourism.
° In a further blow to its floundering travel industry, Egypt ranks last for safety and security, behind Yemen (139) and Pakistan (137). Kenya is ranked no. 135. Finland, meanwhile, is the safest place to travel.
The Federal Aviation Authority approved yesterday Boeing’s plan to redesign the lithium-ion battery system aboard its troubled Dreamliner aircraft.
The announcement comes after a series of disturbing battery fires forced the FAA to ground the long-awaited new plane in January. Boeing has been under intense pressure to come up with a solution to the battery problem—preferably one that doesn’t scrap the entire lithium-ion system altogether. The proposed modifications involve better insulation for the batteries, along with changes that make them less prone to short circuiting. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood said that the aircraft would still be subject to a series of tests to ensure the batteries work: “We won't allow the plane to return to service unless we're satisfied that the new design ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.”
American Airlines loyalists and US Airways frequent fliers who were disappointed to hear that the merged carrier would stick to AA's OneWorld alliance rather than join up with the larger Star Alliance, have reason to celebrate today. In a big coup for OneWorld, South America's airline conglomerate LANTAM Airlines Group (a combination of Brazil's TAM Airlines and Chile's excellent LAN Airlines) announced that it will become a fully committed member of the alliance during second quarter of 2014.
What might that mean? For one thing, getting to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio will be easier than ever for American Airlines fliers.
Context Travel: The company has walking tours in 21 European cities, plus a robust collection of 50 itineraries in Rome. Outings are led by master’s- and Ph.D.-level scholars in such disciplines as archaeology and urban planning. From $75.
Marriott International and a subsidiary of the Swedish home furnishings giant Ikea announced yesterday that they're teaming up to launch a new budget hotel brand, called Moxy, with outposts across Europe. The plans, which have been in the works for at least a year, call for the first Moxy to open in Milan in 2014, with 150 to follow in the next decade.
Though the new hotels will surely channel Ikea's cheap and chic contemporary design sensibility and Marriott's legendary hotel management savvy, details about the brand are scarce. (We are somewhat disappointed to learn that they will not be kitted out in Ikea furniture, though happy to hear that free in-room wifi and floor-to-ceiling wall art are on the menu.) The announcement got us thinking, though, about our vision for the ultimate Ikea-style hotel:
° In-room dining menu features meatballs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Your mid-afternoon snack: Swedish fish.
° Guests who assemble their own Birkeland nightstands upon arrival receive a 15 percent discount on their room.
° Taking the pillow menu to new heights, Moxy allows guests to select their own bedding from a vast basement warehouse.
° No need to surreptitiously smuggle bathrobes, slippers, and bathroom amenities away in your suitcases. For your convenience, the hotel provides guests with a bright blue plastic bag.
° Finding your room involves wending your way through vast, crazy-making hallways until finally, with great relief, you arrive at your door.
Wellington Society of Madrid: Join one of the dozen walks offered by Stephen Drake-Jones, a history professor and longtime resident. You’ll get his lively perspective on topics including Hemingway’s Madrid (past clients include the writer’s niece, Hilary), the Hapsburgs, the Prado and Modern Arts museums, and the curiosities and anecdotes of old Madrid, with stops at historic taverns. From $76.