11/26/2013 10:07 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Airport Rip Off, Or Was It?

Talk about a disappointing wind-up to an magical vacation in Ecuador! The two bottles of Bailey's Irish Cream I bought in a duty free shop in the Quito airport were confiscated by a "security" official when I changed planes in the San Salvador airport. Grabbed without a work of explanation. Taken out of my hands and put out of reach. Was it a screw-up? A con? An over-zealous airport employee?

First of all, both bottles -- big ones, intended as gifts for friends-- were pristine. The original caps were sealed tight and the bottles were in a bag clearly labeled "duty free." In addition, I'd been there in the secure boarding area from the moment my Quito-to-San Salvadore flight landed. In fact, my incoming plane landed at Gate 15, right next to Gate 16, where my outgoing plane was parked, waiting to board.

But none of that mattered. When it was my turn to be "inspected" -- as were all 90 passengers waiting in line -- an officious little woman in an tight-fitting uniform took the bottles out of the bag, turned them over as if she'd never seen a bottle of liqueur before and shaking her head, refused to return them. When I argued she waved for her boss, who hustled up looking pained. A frowning man with a shiny badge and a radio clipped to his shirt, he shrugged and blamed the easiest victim: "It's the United States who makes us do it," he said.

Back at LAX, I related the story to the immigration official who stamped my passport, and he was equally baffled. "Maybe their airport security doesn't follow international standards," he said. "Maybe the shop in Quito was labeled duty free to attract customers, but wasn't really duty free. Or maybe El Salvador and Ecuador can't agree long enough to adopt similar airport procedures."

So, be warned. If your flight back to the U.S. isn't non-stop, save your shopping for the last airport you'll go through before arriving home. Walk on by those inviting duty-free shops, the ones so conveniently located near departure gates, and wait for your trip's last leg. Most important: if the clerk who waits on you doesn't copy down the information on your airline ticket, or if he/she tells you to carry your purchases yourself, close your wallet and walk away. If it's legal "duty-free," an airport employee will hand it to you as you board. As always when you're overseas, caveat emptor.