Duty Free: To Shop Or Not

Duty Free: To Shop Or Not
Representative Image: Should you be shopping at Duty Free?, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Here’s how to avoid paying more at airport duty-free stores

Uttara Gangopadhyay
February 13 , 2020
04 Min Read

Unless you are someone who likes to bury your nose in a book while waiting at the airport until the time to board your airplane, you will not be able to turn your gaze away from the glitzy duty-free shops that surround you at most airports. The chance to pick up something at a cheaper price is difficult to resist.

According to veteran travellers, the most common reasons people end up spending at duty-free shops at airports (or international ferry terminals and border crossings) are boredom from having to wait for your flight, especially a delayed one, spending any leftover local currency, buying last-minute gifts and souvenirs, or simply because you believe it will cost less than what you would pay in your country for the same (but imported) product.

But now many travel experts have begun to question if buying at duty-free is really cheaper than the price you would have paid otherwise. The proliferation of online shopping has added fuel to the thought. Are you sure the price you are paying at duty-free is lower than what you would have got otherwise? Surveys have revealed that the same product may be priced differently at different airports. There have also been complaints that sometimes cost of a product may vary across outlets in the same airport.

Also, the shops are under no obligation to pass on the benefits accrued through the exemptions allowed to them by the government. And what with the rents and other charges they have to pay for the space, the shops are more concerned about their profit margins than the discount they allow to buyers.

However, if you follow a few rules, there are chances that you may not end up paying more than what you should.

You are more likely to shop at Duty Free if your flight is delayed

For example, it is prudent to know if the products you intend to buy are available in your home country and at what price – you can always check online. Use an online currency converter for quick calculations. If you are paying with a credit card, check if the card is exempted from foreign transaction fees or you may end up paying for in fees than the discount you have earned. If the same product is available at other stores in the airport, compare the prices.

If you are travelling through several airports, do a little homework before leaving home. There are some airports where a particular range of product or brand may be cheaper than at other airports. Websites such as The Points Guy or Duty Free Addict are good reference points.

Last year, The Points Guy surveyed 50 airports across six continents to check prices of what they said were ’13 popular duty-free items’.  According to their study, overall, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Singapore and Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands) were the airports with the cheapest duty-free stores while Santorini (Greece), Sydney (Australia) and Zurich (Switzerland) were the most expensive. According to the website, if you are looking for cosmetics, then London, Vienna and Dubai are your best bet while Madrid, Porto and London are the places to buy perfumes. 

It was surprising to find that duty-free shops at Bangkok airport (BKK) ranked among the most expensive place to buy cosmetics and fragrances. Their study across 14 US airports revealed that the overall cheapest US airport for duty-free was Honolulu and most expensive was Seattle. The study even pointed out that prices at duty-free stores in airports within a state in the US could vary; for example, among Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Miami (MIA) and Tampa (TPA) in the state of Florida, duty-free alcohol was cheapest in Miami by 14%, while fragrances and tobacco were cheapest in Fort Lauderdale by 3% each.

Shops at New Delhi Airport

It is also important to study the rules of your home country and the country (countries) you are visiting regarding how much stuff you are allowed to carry into the country, duty free. Talking to a leading media network, Andrew Schrange, co-founder of personal finance community site Money Crashers, advised that passengers will benefit by familiarising themselves with the rules regarding duty-free shopping in the country they will be traveling to. If you happen to carry more than the exemption limit, then you are liable to pay duty. Remember, the duty exemption is applicable for the airport of the country where you bought the goods. Your home country or other countries may have a different rule for personal exemption limits. Check on the exemptions allowed on products such as cigarettes or cigars and liquor.

Sometimes luxury goods, such as clothing, may be more expensive at duty-free shops compared to what is available at superstores and online. Also, avoid the compulsion to buy souvenirs at airport duty-free stores, advise veteran travellers. Souvenirs are best bought beforehand in city shops because you have the option of browsing through many shops and may even get a chance to haggle the price. None of that is possible in the airport shops.

That said, it does not mean that you will avoid duty-free shops at airports the next time you travel. Go shopping by all means. But ensure that you are a gainer in the long run.


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