Duty Free Shopping. No, It’s Not Always A Deal

May 31, 2018

Whenever my husband and I travel, we inevitably find ourselves in the airport duty-free shop where he looks for new and interesting additions to our home bar. No, we're not big drinkers but he takes pride in his collection of rum from around the world.

Duty Free at the Miami International Airport. Flickr photo by Mark Hillary

I digress.

While my husband peruses the alcohol aisle, I make a beeline for the cosmetics and fashion sections. My eyes are on the hunt for a great designer piece at an unbelievable price. Alas, after much experimentation, I've come to admit that "duty free" does not always mean "deal."

I've also recently discovered the Holy Grail of duty-free shopping: dutyfreeaddict.com. The website lists prices for everything from Bacardi Superior Rum (cheapest at the Germany airport; US$11, compared to US$23 in the UK) to Prada brushed-leather wedges (cheapest in Canada; US$2187 compared to US$3269 in India).

Heathrow’s Duty Free may not have the best prices on alcohol. Flickr photo by Mark Goebel

As you can see, prices can vary drastically. While some items are absolutely worth buying at duty free, others are likely the same price that you'd find at stores around your own city (and you don't have to lug them around in your carry-on).

We've done some research and discovered what you should pick up and what you should leave behind the next time you're killing time at the airport.

Shopping in the grandiose Dubai International Airport. Flickr photo by Shahid Ahmed Siddiqi

Before you read on, remember that the best way to score a bargain is through research. Upload a currency-converter app to your smartphone ahead of time so you can make calculations abroad without using data (although some airports offer free Wi-Fi). Get prices at local stores before your trip or use your smartphone to research prices back home so you can really gauge whether something is a deal.

A List of What to Buy or Skip at Duty Free

Alcohol - Buy

Alcohol is almost always a great buy. Flickr photo by Eric Lefevre-Ardant

Alcohol is almost always a great deal at duty free. If you want to be sure you're getting the best price, visit LCBO.com to compare. Also, the only exception to this is national liquor brands in places like Mexico or Cuba are often the same price in the grocery store as they are in the airport, so it may make sense to buy ahead and pack them away in your luggage.

Jewellery / Sunglasses - Research

Branded sunglasses and jewellery are easy to research online, so it's definitely worth doing the legwork before deciding whether to purchase. However, non-branded jewellery, like a pair of silver earrings or a gold bracelet, is unlikely to be a real deal. Visit local jewellery markets or look for sales at your local jewellers instead. The only exception is if you see a piece of unique jewellery that you fall in love with and may not be able to find elsewhere. In that case, it will be up to you to gauge whether you can walk away.

Cigars and Tobacco - Buy

Cigarette Aisle at the Schipol Airport. Flickr Photo by Aaron C

These are normally heavily taxed, so buying them duty-free is a great way to go.

Electronics - Skip

You can almost always find better deals at the local big box stores, especially when those stores have sales. Also, if you're like me, and like to try out your electronics, duty free is not for you. Those headphones that are advertised as the greatest can sometimes be a disappointment and if you bought them at duty free, good luck trying to return them.

Designer Fashion - Research

Duty-free fashions at the Okinawa airport. Flickr photo by Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi

Designer fashions may be cheaper in duty-free shops, but do your research ahead of time to compare. Also bear in mind that if an item is worth more than your exemption allows, you will have to pay taxes on anything above your exemption allowance. For example, if you've only been abroad for less than 48 hours, you are only allowed a $200 exemption. If a purse costs $1000, you'll have to pay taxes on the $800.

Beauty Products - Research

Selection of beauty brands at Narita International Airport, Japan. Flickr Photo by slayer

Fragrances are often discounted in duty-free shops, but it's definitely worth doing your research. The same applies to makeup. Many department and specialty beauty stores have online sites, so it's very easy to know right away if you're getting a bargain.

Candy and Snacks - Skip

Airports are well aware that you may get peckish while waiting for your flight, so food prices are almost always more expensive when compared to supermarket prices. The only items worth purchasing are boxes of chocolates or candy that come in souvenir or novelty containers. They can make great last-minute gifts, but you should know you likely overpaid for them.

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