It’s a familiar sight for travellers everywhere – en route to the airport terminal, you stumble across an acre’s worth of bright lights and perfumed air between a sea of chocolate bars. It’s where mark-downs and low prices grow on trees. Yes, we’re talking the ‘duty-free zone’ AKA every retail-savvy traveller’s personal heaven.
Simply put, duty-free goods are those that aren’t stamped with the normal VAT countries impose, which often means they’re sold for slashed prices. But research shows, however, that this isn’t always true. Sometimes, you’re better off picking up these goods from your local supermarket or even online.
The trick is to go into the game not assuming you’re necessarily getting the best deals – duty-free shopping zones might seem like the land of impulse buys, but smart travellers know that getting the the best deals requires a little bit of planning.
The question is, how exactly do you know you’re finding the best deal? Never fear – we’ve wrangled up some expert tips to help you decide when to snag the best duty-free bargains, and when to say bon voyage.
Know your prices
It’s easy to get excited at the idea of finding some great steals at airport shopping centres. No VAT equals inherently lower prices, right? Not necessarily. Secret airport shopping studies have shown that sometimes specific items are actually cheaper elsewhere, and to purchase them at duty-free shopping zones is effectively just taking up room in your bag where extra sun cream could go.
First things first, it’s important to know your product and compare prices beforehand. Many airports have websites with pages designated to their shopping centres, so you can see how much your chosen item will cost without tax. Otherwise, the airports will have phone numbers where you can give the shopping centres a ring. Don’t be shy – we’re talking bargains here. From there, you can put airport prices side-by-side with other outlets to ensure you really are getting the best price.
You’ll be happy to know that in general, higher-ticket items are often where you’ll find the greatest deals in duty-free shopping. Electronics and large bottles of perfume can see significant price drops. This is excluding designer handbags, as these rarely see mark-downs anywhere in the first place, and can actually be more expensive at the airport than designer shops.
More often than not, smaller items like bulk bars of chocolate are cheaper to purchase at your local supermarket than at the airport. After all, there’s only so much you can save on a four-pack of Toblerone.
Know your airport
Just as prices on the same item vary across stores, they also do across airports. It’s not safe to necessarily assume that a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey in New York will cost the same as it does in Tel Aviv. Prices largely depend on the airport itself, as well as the brand and currency exchange rate.
Here’s where that airport website comes in handy again – you can check how prices at your departure airport compare to your arrival one from the comfort of your own home. It’s also a good idea to know beforehand what kind of selection your airport has – in general, little souvenirs are cheaper at the stands in town, but duty-free shopping can be great for picking up last-minute treats for the friends and family you left at home.
Though the idea behind duty-free shopping is that you’re buying just as you go, so the products won’t spend much time in the country, some airports like those in Malaysia have duty-free shopping in both halves. This means if you’re on the fence about a certain product you won’t have to make any snap decisions.
Expert tip – know your country
This one might be a no-brainer in other circumstances, but the same idea goes for duty-free shopping as well – countries are not one size fits all, including their laws on duty-free items.
Depending on where you go, different countries will have different laws on how much you can spend on duty-free items, as well as how much you can bring in. The United States, for example, has very specific laws on duty-free goods. US citizens that spend more than $800 on duty-free products and attempt to bring them back into the US will have to pay taxes on those specific items. Similarly, the United States only allows one litre of alcohol and one carton of cigarettes per person for those trying to enter the country.
Knowing these rules in advance can help ensure you aren’t left in the duty-free lurch. Because, no matter how many incredible steals you pick up in duty-free shopping zones, it will all be for nothing if you have to ditch them at the airport.