Your ultimate guide to duty free airport shopping

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What is duty free airport shopping?

Duty free airport shops are a ubiquitous fixture worldwide. The allure of tax-free shopping for cosmetics, fragrances, top-shelf liquor and chocolate is a potential wonderland for shoppers (and travelers), or is it?

Why not shop like you search for flights – by keeping it simple with an eye for finding the best price?

Duty free stores are making it easier than ever to snap up bargains before boarding. Whether passengers order online for pick up at their gate, leisurely stroll the stores during layovers, or peruse the offerings in flight, it seems like duty free is part of every international excursion.

So how can you be a savvy shopper and save big the next time you go abroad? Before you book your next flight (which you found on Cheapflights.com, of course), check out our ultimate guide to duty free airport shopping and learn how to bag bargains. Here are some frequently asked questions to get you started:

What is a duty free shop?
How does duty free shopping work?
Where are the best duty free shops?
How much can I buy when shopping duty free?
How much can I save shopping duty free?
What are the best duty free items to buy?
What items should I not buy duty free?
How can I bring my duty free purchases on the airplane?

What is a duty free shop?

Hideyuki KAMON, Duty Free Shop
Stop by duty free shops while sprinting through the airport. (Image: Hideyuki KAMON, Duty Free Shop @ OKA/ROAH via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Duty free shops, most often found in international airport terminals, but also at border crossing and cruise ship terminals, are shops that sell products for which duty (a.k.a. local import tax or fees placed on goods by government entities) is not included. Duty free shopping allows travelers who are leaving the country where the goods are purchased the chance to save money on items like liquor, tobacco, fragrances, cosmetics and luxury goods. When travelers go to pay for the goods, the cashier will typically ask to see a boarding pass to verify travel.

How does duty free shopping work?


Prices at duty free shops may be less than what consumers would pay in their home countries, but in some cases, items could cost more. The prices of goods are based on geography (where the store is located) and currency exchange rates. Merchants who sell duty free goods to consumers that are leaving the country are not charged duty, and the products are sold without a local import tax or fee, which adds to the potential savings.

Where are the best duty free shops?

Duty Free Malta
There are hundreds of duty free around the world. (Image: Mark Hillary, Duty Free at MLA via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Not all duty free shops carry the same brands and items. While travelers may find the same or similar duty free alcohol, cigarettes and candy offerings, the selection of cosmetics, fragrances, watches and sunglasses may differ. Some of the most popular duty free chains are Dufry, Duty Free Americas, DFS, World Duty Free Group, DFASS, The Nuance Group, Flemingo International, Gebr Heinemann, LS Travel Retail (Aelia Group), Aer Rianta International, DFS Group, Lotte Duty free, The Shilla Duty Free, King Power International (Thailand), Sunrise Duty Free, Ever Rich Group, China Duty Free Group, King Power Group (Hong Kong), Sky Connection Limited (Free Duty), Japan Airport Terminal Co., Dubai Duty Free, JR/Duty Free, EGYPTAIR Duty Free (EADFS), DFS (Abu Dhabi Duty Free) and Saudi Duty Free.

Whether or not one duty free shop is better than another depends on the traveler’s interest, which country the traveler is from, where the traveler is going and which products the traveler wishes to purchase.

For American travelers, heading to countries where the currency exchange rate favors the U.S. dollar can increase savings. In Europe, the duty free shops are not only duty free but tax-free as well, meaning that V.A.T. (value added tax) has not been added to the goods. This can mean a savings of five percent to 25 percent, depending on the country.

Larger airports tend to have larger duty free shops. Passengers flying through multiple airports should research the prices for the goods they wish to purchase ahead of time in order to comparison shop. Many duty free shops list the prices for duty free goods on their websites, making it easier for travelers to compare prices and order ahead if they think they’ll be short on time at the airport.

How much can I buy when shopping duty free? 


US Customs and Border Protection sets limits on the amount of alcohol (one liter), cigarettes (200 cigarettes) and other products that Americans can bring back to the country duty free. Travelers bringing in more than their personal exemption will have to pay duty on it; duty free exemptions can be $200, $800, or – if you return directly or indirectly from a U.S. insular possession like U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, or Guam – $1,600. Some items like fine art and furniture are duty free. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s CanIBringIt.com website offers lists and guidelines for what can and cannot be brought into the U.S.

How much can I save shopping duty free?

Rafeeq Hariri Duty Free shops
Be a smart shopper. (Image: البصراوي, Rafeeq Hariri Duty Free shops via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Prices depend on currency exchange rates and the location of the duty free store. Buying in countries with a weaker currency than your home country is better than countries with a higher exchange rate.

To know how much you are truly saving, research prices at home ahead of time or connect to Wi-Fi on your phone at the airport to quickly search for prices. Websites like Duty Free Addict also offer price comparisons.

If you have extra currency leftover, but not enough to make it worth paying the conversion fees at airport currency exchange counters, duty free shops are a great place to use up leftover currency and grab extra goodies at the same time.

Before travelers get too excited at the prospect of shopping ‘til they drop, consider that bringing back more than the allowed personal exemption can mean incurring duty because an item is only duty free in the country where it was purchased. Custom Duty Rate is a percentage that is determined by the total purchased value of the goods. Virtually every item a person could bring into the country has a duty rate that is outlined in the Harmonized Tariff System. Families traveling together who live in the same household can combine their exemptions; even infants have the same exemptions as adults (except for exemptions on alcohol and tobacco).

What are the best duty free items to buy?

Duty free alcohol at Fung Kuei Duty Free, Port Vila
Stock up and save. (Image: Thomas Williams, Duty free alcohol at Fung Kuei Duty Free, Port Vila, December 2014 via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Among the best bargain items to purchase duty free are those labeled “tax-free,” which are typically heavily-taxed items like alcohol and cigarettes. Swiss chocolate, if purchased anywhere outside Switzerland, is typically taxed, so buying it through duty free is also a great deal.

What items should I not buy duty free?


Souvenirs tend to be more expensive at the airport than the city, so skip these at duty free. Luxury goods like handbags, sunglasses and watches can vary in price, and sometimes the prices for these are more expensive at the airport than they would be at home. Researching what the typical price is outside of the airport will make for more savvy savings.

How can I bring my duty free purchases on the airplane?


Travelers shouldn’t have problems bringing chocolate, cosmetics and fragrances on the plane, however, it’s always best to check with the airline. If travelers purchase alcohol in a duty free shop, they can generally take it with them on the plane – but that doesn’t mean it can travel in a carry-on the entire way home. If travelers have connecting flights and need to pass through a TSA security checkpoint, their bags are subject to the Transportation Security Administration 3-1-1 carry-on restrictions, which means anything over the 3.4 ounce limit needs to go into checked baggage. This can be especially frustrating to learn during a layover, as travelers may not have access to their checked bags to check alcohol (though travelers will likely have to claim their baggage and re-check it if they’re re-entering the U.S. and then have a connecting domestic flight). To be safe, travelers should be sure to purchase duty free alcohol at the last airport before arriving at their final destination to avoid losing it at a security checkpoint. Check out more dos and don’ts for bringing alcohol on a plane.

Planning a trip? Search for flights, and spend the money you save on duty free goodies. Happy travels (and shopping)!

Your ultimate guide to duty free airport shopping was last modified: January 13th, 2017 by Lauren Mack
Author: Lauren Mack (306 posts)

Lauren Mack has traveled to 40 countries on five continents, including Cuba, New Zealand, Peru and Tanzania. For many years, she called China, and then Taiwan, home. Countries at the beginning of the alphabet, particularly Antarctica, Argentina and Australia are on her travel bucket list. Lauren is a multimedia travel and food journalist and explorer based in New York City.