‘Duty-free’ shopping: Bargain or scam?

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

At many international airports these days, your path from security to gate requires a trek through a retail bazaar touting “duty-free” prices. As I noted a few years ago, if you were suddenly transported to the international departure area of Heathrow or De Gaulle, you’d think you were in a shopping mall rather than in an airport. No surprise: Duty-free merchandising is a cash cow for the airport. But is it a discount wonderland for you? On some products, yes; on others, you’re better off at Wal-Mart.

Lots of travelers aren’t quite sure exactly what “duty free” means, but the answer is straightforward:

“Duty free” and “tax free” don’t refer to what you can bring into the U.S. at all. Instead they mean that the stuff on sale does not carry locally imposed value-added, excise or other sales taxes, nor does it include the taxes that those items incur for sale in the U.S. As long as you stay within the very generous allowances, you won’t pay any U.S.-imposed duty or tax at all.

But absence of locally imposed tax doesn’t mean that the duty-free stores give you the full benefit of the tax breaks. Instead, most airport shops add additional markup to make their prices almost as high as prevailing local retail (or “high street” in British terminology) prices — with just enough of a cut to appeal to penny- or euro-pinching travelers.

I’ve been covering duty-free shopping for more than two decades now, and my current conclusion is the same as it was back on my first look: The items on which you can get the best deals are those that are heavily taxed in the U.S., primarily, alcohol and tobacco. Also, some products that carry high markups in the U.S. can be good deals, including high-end cosmetics and, for some reason, sunglasses. Finally, locally produced items such as Swiss chocolate are often good deals at airports in their country.

Liquor retains its perennial top spot for U.S. travelers returning from foreign trips. The prices can be great, but keep in mind that on return from most countries, you’re limited to one liter; allowances vary for travelers returning from the Caribbean and the American Virgin Islands. Probably the best price reductions are on cigarettes and cigars, subject to limits of 200 cigarettes or 100 cigars, but those are less popular than earlier because so many Americans have given up smoking.

TSA has recently made it easier for U.S. travelers to take advantage of duty-free liquor prices. If your return home requires a domestic connection, you no longer have to put liquor in your checked baggage for your domestic connection. Instead, TSA rules now allow you to buy duty-free alcohol at your departure airport and carry it on a domestic connection if it is (1) in a secure, tamper-evident bag and (2) in a clear glass bottle or another transparent container.

I don’t get the popularity of cameras, watches and tech items, which — in my unofficial observations — are almost always better buys in the U.S., to say nothing about future problems with warranties and service.

As always, the prime rule of duty-free shopping is to know U.S. prices on anything you’re likely to buy before you leave home so you can compare what you see overseas with those known benchmarks. If you think you’d be tempted to buy liquor, electronics, fashion products, cigarettes or whatever, get prices at your local Costco, Wal-Mart or wherever else you shop, before you leave or go online. Then you can tell right away which tax-free goods are a good deal and which are scams.

And you can also check prices at some of the big hub airports from which you will be returning. DutyFree Addict and WorldDutyFree compile duty-free prices for the most popular items from the world’s largest gateway airports, or just Google “duty free at (airport).”

Send email to Ed Perkins at Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at

Tribune Content Agency — Dec. 20, 2016


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