Service of the Custom of Traveling with the Goods

November 5th, 2018

Categories: Custom Duties, Customs, E-Commerce, Internet, Travel, Trust


I was 15 the first time I traveled alone internationally and my parents warned me to never accept a package or letter from a stranger who’d ask me to pop the missive in the mail when I got to my destination. Fast forward and airline agents for years now ask whether you packed your suitcase and if anyone has given you anything to take with you.


This custom has changed dramatically with the advent of Grabr, an online company that introduces travelers to shoppers in foreign countries who count on them to carry purchases. Customs charges are the responsibility of the traveler who is supposed to ask enough of the shopper to cover them. They negotiate the amount before the trip.

Wrote Andrea Fuller in The Wall Street Journal, “Grabr works like this: A shopper posts on Grabr’s platform that they’d like to buy an item, such as a new smartphone. A traveler who plans on visiting the shopper’s country then agrees to transport the phone for a delivery fee negotiated with the shopper. The traveler then buys the phone, packs it, and gives it to the shopper, who pays them back via Grabr’s system. The company earns a commission on each transaction.”

Bangkok Airport. Photo:

Some travelers pay for their trips. Grabr pays for others “in lieu of per-item rewards.” They “transport suitcases full of goods assembled by Grabr staff.” [The company says it is phasing out this part of the business.]

Duty free limits range from $300 in Argentina to $500, in Brazil, for example. “Travelers to those countries should owe customs 50% of the portion of the value of items over the duty-free limit,” wrote Fuller.

Kevin Hartz, whose company invested $250,000 in Grabr–it attracted $14 million in all–who had also invested in Airbnb which, in its infancy, faced doubts about the legality of home sharing, said about the concept: “This is just a matter of sentiment change.”

Grabr’s co-founders Artem Fedyaev and Darla Rebenok say the company’s terms of service require users to comply with customs.

In my experience, customs officers are smart. They know that a Gucci handbag costs many multiples of $450, should a traveler try to get away with the smaller amount on a customs document, and that people don’t travel with three smartphones and four laptops for personal use. If they don’t already know about Grabr, they soon will so there won’t be any savings at the customs counter for travelers-with-the-goods. I wouldn’t be surprised if customs duties in certain countries increase.

If you’re planning a trip to a country where electronics and other items are pricey, would you be interested to give Grabr a whirl? Do you believe a stranger will pay for the items you give them? Can you predict the success of the business model? Has customs ever stopped you—and have you had to pay up–in this or another country?


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4 Responses to “Service of the Custom of Traveling with the Goods”

  1. Martha Takayama Said:

    I can only relate my experience of the 1980’s when Brazilian friends told me I could go to Rio on a very low airfare and with only one piece of carry on luggage, if I remember correctly. It was legitimate despite my reservations. If I am not mistaken the service that used couriers was DHL. It meant going to Jamaica Long Island or somewhere near there, to a commercial office and signing documents. The baggage allowance for my seat was taken up by whatever was being shipped. I did not have anything to do with the shipment itself as I remember.

    There were awkward or uncomfortable moments when accompanied by a friend based in New York, as we had to get out of what was a “gypsy taxi” because evidently that was the available transportation in the area. It was so long ago, but I was also a Federal Employee and ascertained that it was legal. On the other hand Grabr sounds very dicey and like a pool for all kinds of potential mishaps, legal and criminal. I think that in Pablo Escobar’s day and even now it would be or is fancy (but not very) nomenclature for a “mule.”

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    How clever of DHL! That sounds perfectly legit to me. I’m the worst packer in the history of the world so I’m not sure how well I’d do with one carryon for a long stay although these days it’s easier than it was.

    I was an Air Force wife traveling from Thailand to India. Dependents had to be accompanied and there was only one seat left on the Air Force aircraft. My husband took it and most of our luggage and I flew commercial. On landing in India I had a difficult time explaining the situation to customs officials who wanted to know how an American tourist had no camera and so few clothes!

  3. Protius Said:

    I, too, have travelled extensively internationally and was even younger when I made my first unaccompanied flight in 1947 at just 13 from New York to Rome. (I remember it and taking the train in to Grand Central, going across 42nd Street and checking in to TWA which bussed me to the plane at Idlewild, [now JFK].) The flight took some 20 hours in those days and three refueling stops.

    I’ve probably flown well over a 1,000,000 miles altogether, and have travelled on a variety of documents, from diplomatic passports to military travel orders to multiple passports, including special ones good for travel in Israel and South Africa–but nowhere else. I’ve also travelled in places like Libya which did not have diplomatic relations with the US.

    Your parents were absolutely right. Smuggling schemes to avoid paying customs duties, like the ones you describe, don’t work in the long run and bring nothing but trouble when they go wrong. Stay away from them! Travel is complicated enough these days. They are not worth it.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    WOW. You got to the airport through NYC by yourself at 13. You were sophisticated!

    My parents were WWII-smart and had to think of things that desperate people did at the time and were still doing. Who knows what dangerous or contraband items might be in the package or envelope? There might be things that would put a person in jail, not just cost them customs duties. Pan Am 103 was said to have blown up because someone gave a naïve passenger a box of explosives to carry.

    The people in the Grabr business know what they are carrying, at least. Nevertheless, the scheme smacks of potential problems starting with bribing customs officials.

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