What to buy at duty-free—and what to leave

Richard Mellor

Airport duty-free shops: land of the bargains, right? Not always, actually—for while some items are uniquely affordable, others are a right rip-off…

Do your research

If you’ve got specific, pre-conceived aspirations towards duty-free items—vodka, perhaps, or a pretty new pair of Ray Bans—then first establish how cheaply you can get them for at home. That will allow you to put airport price into greater clarity.

Another necessary tool here is a currency converter app. Available for free on all formats, XE’s version is the most trustworthy, up-to-date and comprehensive.

Finally, check your airport and destination’s restrictions on goods, including the amount of carry-on litres permitted. Nothing sucks more than immediately having to surrender your exciting new purchase.

 

Buy: Alcohol

Other than national Central and South American liquors, alcohol is almost always a steal at duty-free. The removal of taxes can render prices up to 50 per cent those of domestic ones.

If you’re travelling to a far-flung country, the costs for premium import spirits may be extortionate at your chosen hotel or beach resort—so consider picking up some bottles after landing, and dodging that costly bullet.

 

Maybe buy: Perfumes and cosmetics

The value on offer for that Chanel scent or Clinique lipstick varies tremendously from airport to airport, and plane to plane.

Beware that product sizes at both are often sold at slightly different volumes than in normal stores, which can make price comparisons harder.

Again, it pays to do research, and have a price-per-unit in mind.

 

Leave: Sunglasses

Sunnies are rarely cheaper in the airport, partly as they fall into the “desperation buy” category—items that may have forgotten, lost or broken, and decidedly need, meaning a reduced likelihood of travellers being stingy around price.

Ultimately, sunglasses are a retail area in which it’s hard to argue against buying online—once you’re certain about the pair you want.

 

Leave: Souvenirs

AKA: Tat. Sure, they might make great gifts, but those branded mugs, local-team sports shirts or Eiffel Tower-shaped earrings are probably poorly made. They’ll also be three times as expensive as they should be.

If you want an authentic, affordable craft item synonymous with the destination you’ve visited, get it during the holiday, not at its conclusion.

 

Leave: Sweets

Put that giant Toblerone down! Aware that travellers are a) generally peckish and b) often hurriedly seeking a last-minute present before flying home, airports flaunt their huge Lindt bars and bags of Baci Baci near every till.

But their prices are usually higher than equivalent items at home, or simply the same when sizes are compared. You’re better off visiting Waitrose on the way home.

 

Leave: Electronics

Move along! According to one expert, smartphone power-banks, Beats by Dre headphones and any other electronic items purchased at airports cost an average 34 per cent more than online.

Not only that, but there’s no capacity for refunds here if the items are faulty— terminal-bought adaptor plugs are always suspiciously temporary, don’t you find?

 

Direct help

It only covers 13 countries, but the Duty Free Addict website is still an excellent resource, comparing the prices of everything from Patron tequila to Prada wedges at different airports.