Shopping before a flight: how to get discounts at duty free

Duty Free – what every tourist should know about it.

Probably every tourist, at least once, who has been abroad, went to duty-free. Shopping in Duty Free is a special ritual before departure, the culmination of vacation program. Duty-free is present practically in all international airports – Vnukovo, Domodedovo, Pulkovo, Heathrow, Shangi… Walking through duty-free reduces the waiting time before departure and the amount of money you have to buy.


Duty-free shop window.

What Duty Free means.

Duty Free means “duty free.” That is, duty-free stores sell goods free of excise, taxes and duties.

In several countries (South Korea, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, Bahamas) duty-free stores are located in shopping malls and are not connected with air ports or train stations.

Other countries and cities are open-air duty-free zones – Andorra, Zamnahun in Switzerland, Livigno in Italy and Corozal in Belize.


Andorra – a duty-free zone

But usually Duty Free are located in air hubs. They are easy to find – just after passing through passport control you can see many showcases with a variety of goods. Congratulations, you are in the shopping Mecca of all tourists. You can buy products if you show your boarding pass, confirming that you are about to leave the country.

However, the authorities in Argentina, Malaysia, Hungary and Canada (several airports) allow visitors to visit duty free stores on arrival after passing through passport control.

History of Duty Free

As far back as the late seventeenth century, the concept of duty-free trade emerged, but the first duty-free opened in 1947 in Ireland.

In the post-war era, life was gradually returning to normal, people began to return to business as usual, including travel. Many U.S. citizens rushed to Europe. The flight was long, with all planes landing for refueling in the small Irish town of Shannon.

Airport Shannon

Shannon Airport in Ireland

Refueling is a slow process and passengers were desperately bored: they hung around the airport, tried to sleep, made small talk. There was not a single store in the airport, where one could buy the now commonplace travel essentials – water, food, a book or a magazine. Finally entrepreneur Brendan O’Regan decided to remedy this situation. He came up with the idea of opening a retail shop at Shannon Airport, where people waiting for their flight could buy the goods they needed.

Of course, the businessman at the time was not thinking about duties, excise and taxes, he just wanted to open a store that would bring him profit. However, in the process of opening it turned out that the shop was formally located outside of Ireland and any other country on neutral territory, therefore, the goods sold in the store could not be taxed. Brendan O’Regan then decided to sell those products that are subject to the highest excise taxes – cigars, alcoholic beverages and perfumes. This allowed the businessman to set a record low price for the products. The store was a success, with passengers literally sweeping everything off the shelves.

Duty free at Shannon airport

The world’s first duty-free store at Shannon airport

Of course, other merchants also picked up O’Regan’s idea. In the 1960s, American entrepreneurs Charles Feeney and Robert Miller opened duty-free shops in Hong Kong, and then all over Europe.

Already in 1966, the International Association of Duty Free stores was created, which includes more than 400 companies. The largest of them is Dufry chain, which has more than 1500 stores in 58 countries around the world.

Nowadays in Duty Free shops besides liquor, tobacco and perfume you can buy:

watches and jewelry;

THIS IS INTERESTING. The very first duty-free store is still in operation and hasn’t lost its popularity. Planes still arrive at Shannon Air Hub for refueling, and passengers go to the duty-free shop to pass the time while waiting for their flight.

The first duty-free store appeared in the homeland of Ryanair, the world’s cheapest airline.

Is it always cheaper in duty-free shops

Duty-free shops are located on neutral territory, so some of the taxation requirements lose their relevance. For example, import tax simply has no one to pay. After all, you’ve technically already left the territory of one country, and you haven’t reached the other yet. Therefore, both countries are not interested in paying this tax.

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Does this mean that all the goods in the store cost mere pennies and you should quickly buy up everything you see, leaving the last money at the cash register? No.

Quite often the products in the duty free stores are even more expensive than in the usual supermarket in the city.

The price of renting space in airports is much higher than on ordinary city streets. It is expensive to keep duty-free stores, so shopkeepers raise the prices of their goods without any remorse.

Even if you consider that there is no import tax, other fees have not been canceled. For example, profit tax or accruals on the salaries of employees.


Duty-free counters.

In addition, most of the Duty Free stores are owned by the owners of a single company, they are monopolists and can set any price. A hungry tourist will buy a chocolate bar for 1000 rubles if he has no alternative.

THIS IS INTERESTING. The most budget duty-free is on board the plane. The price of goods does not include import tax, the cost of rent, staff salaries, utilities and more.

What you can buy in duty-free shops, and what it is better to refrain from

However, some products in duty-free stores are a little cheaper than in supermarkets, and this fact can not but rejoice. A little tip – before the trip don’t be lazy to find out which products are taxed the most in the country where you’re flying. They are the cheapest in Duty Free.

Duty Free Alcohol

Duty Free liquor cabinet

So, what we advise you to buy in Duty Free:

Alcohol. In most countries, the highest tax is on alcoholic beverages. Therefore, buying alcohol in the duty-free store you can easily save a significant amount. But remember that it is more profitable to buy it in the producing country, not in the exporting country.

Tobacco products. And here the question is not even about the price (although it’s usually lower in Duty Free than in a regular stall). Every smoker knows that the most important thing in tobacco is its quality. Goods delivered to stores in airports are strictly tested and it’s hard to come across a fake.

Cosmetic and perfume products. In the homeland of perfume – France, at the airport Charles de Gaulle, any perfume product will cost several times cheaper than in the streets of Paris. In duty-free shops they sell convenient travel kits with a lot of samples of companies. You can try new items without paying a large sum for a full bottle.

Jewelry. It is best to buy them in the air harbors of the Middle East. The purchase will be cheaper by at least 15%.

A list of items that are not recommended to buy in duty-free shops:

Souvenirs. Any products with symbols of the country will be more expensive, because they are designed for forgetful tourists. Forgot to buy a magnet to a colleague or a beloved relative? Pay double price.

Children’s toys. Savvy store owners know that parents are willing to buy their children anything they ask for, just to have a little rest while waiting for the flight. Therefore, the prices for children’s products are higher.

Travel essentials. Suitcases, sleep mask, headphones, pillow – all these things will be more expensive. Buy things that are so necessary in the trip, after passing through passport control you can only in Duty Free, which means be prepared to overpay for it.

THIS IS INTERESTING. In many duty-free stores, you can pre-order on the official website and pick it up at the cash register. For this you get a 10% discount. This way of shopping suits thrifty travelers and those who come to the airport just an hour before departure, but want to buy in Duty Free. The disadvantages are that you can not touch / smell / see the goods.

The best Duty Free in the world

The largest Duty Free in Dubai is located in three terminals. In addition to the standard shopping it offers to take part in lotteries and raffles. Buy a ticket at Millennium Millionaire and you can win 1 million dirhams. And in the Finest Surprise Draw, cars are raffled off.

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However, big does not mean the best. According to the reviews of tourists and publications Travel Pulse and Skytrax World Airport Awards in 2020 the most popular duty-free in London, Hong Kong, Qatar and Seoul. But the world’s largest duty-free shop in Dubai is the 10th on the list.

Duty Free Shopping at Dubai Airport

The largest duty-free shop at Dubai International Airport

The leader is London’s Heathrow. Its shopping areas are located in 5 terminals at once and occupy almost 50000 m². Here you can buy absolutely everything – from the small souvenirs for a few pounds to the goods of a premium class, the price of which is more like a year’s budget of a poor African country.

For the entertainment of travelers, there are free beauty salons in the duty-free area. Men can easily miss their flight by strolling through the World of Whiskies, a retail shop that sells 350 varieties of whiskey, including exclusive whiskeys. Fans of Chanel perfumes can shop in terminals 3 and 5 for a rare fragrance at a low price.

 World of Whiskies

World of Whiskies at Heathrow Airport.

Travelers joke that all of Hong Kong can easily be called one big Duty Free, but it’s formally located at Cheeklapkok Airport. There seems to be no product in the world that can’t be found in Hong Kong’s Duty Free, which occupies just a huge area of Terminal 1. Chinese food, drinks, handmade souvenirs, elite tobacco and alcohol, famous brand clothing, electronics and baby products are just a few of the things you can find on the store shelves at Hong Kong airport.

Duty Free Hong Kong

Duty Free Shop at Hong Kong Airport

The duty-free store at Hamad Air Harbor in Qatar covers an area of over 40,000 m². The range of goods is more than diverse – clothes, alcohol, jewelry, cosmetics, shoes… But we recommend to pay special attention to the shelves with sweets in Marmalade Market. You will not find such delicious Qatari desserts anywhere else.

Duty Free Qatar

Duty Free Shopping at Qatar Hama International Airport

IT’S INCREDIBLE. Qatar Airways customers can enjoy bonuses and discounts at Qatar Duty Free.

The huge duty-free zone at Seoul’s Incheon Airport is second only to stores in Dubai’s air harbor and Britain’s Heathrow. The duty-free zone has more than 90 outlets. In essence, it is a full-fledged shopping center in the airline hub.

The best place to buy electronics and appliances. But alcohol and tobacco products are more expensive than in the supermarkets of the city.

Restrictions in Duty Free

According to statistics the most spontaneous and often useless purchases are made in Duty Free. The glitter of shop windows and beautifully packaged goods at a low price just whisper “buy me”, and when the time left before the flight is running out there is no time to think – you want to buy everything and more. Title Carriage of Duty Free Liquor in Transparent Bags.

Duty Free Liquor

Transportation of duty-free alcohol in transparent bags

However, it is useful to know the rules and restrictions that apply in duty-free stores, so that you do not get into unpleasant situations:

The policy of most duty-free stores prohibits buying more than 10 items of the same brand.

Usually airport staff do not allow you to unpack purchased items before boarding the plane (e.g. liquids over 100 milliliters). It is recommended that you keep your receipt until the end of your flight.

The purchase amount is also often restricted. For example, in the U.S. the allowed limit is $400. When you pack more goods for a larger amount, they are subject to all the taxes and fees of the country, just like in a regular supermarket.

Duty-free purchases are made only on presentation of a ticket and passport.

It is also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the customs regulations and limits of the country you are going to enter before making purchases. Each state has its own rules, and if you violate them, you will be required to pay duty or have your purchases confiscated.

Shopping at Duty Free: all you need to know

Did you know that the prices in Duty Free are not always lower than in the city? And there are some goods that are not reasonable to buy in duty-free stores. But on some of them you can save a lot of money. We answer the most popular questions and share our airport shopping tips.

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duty free Zurich

Duty-free – what is it?

First, let’s find out what Duty Free is. In short, it’s stores, where they sell goods, the price of which does not include various excise taxes, duties and VAT. An important condition: the purchases must be taken out of the country. Most sales points are located at crossing points (airports, train stations, land state borders).

Where are the Duty Free stores?

The best duty free stores are always located in the departure area (you can also use them in transit). This is the place you get to after passing through passport control. Some airports have small Duty Free shops in the check-in halls and in the arrivals area. But the assortment is more modest.

Duty-free before security check: mistakes of tourists

If you buy water or alcohol in the duty-free store before going through security, it will still be taken away from you. For example, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport there is a duty-free shop both before and after personal inspection. Tourists in a hurry with purchases have to leave bottles on the control tape.

It is forbidden to bring liquids larger than 100 ml into the boarding area. This rule works even if you have just bought it and kept the receipt. So be careful with liquids. In your hand luggage you can take only what is purchased in the departure area. So it is always advised to choose shopping in these duty-free zones – it is better by all parameters.

Is shopping in Duty Free profitable?

We are disappointed at once: the prices of many goods in duty-free shops do not differ from the city ones. Moreover, sometimes they are overpriced. Why is it so?

  1. Yes, Duty Free – a duty-free stores, but the sellers are not exempt from all taxes. They pay income tax, transport tax, deductions for employee salaries, etc.
  2. Each seller pays rent for the premises. Prices in duty-free shops depend on this as well. That’s why shopping in Turkish airports is more profitable than, for example, in Italy.
  3. The reduction in the overall tax rate is not proportional to the reduction in prices of goods. If the seller was exempted from, for example, a 12% duty, he is not obliged to reduce the price by the same 12%.

However, with a sensible approach shopping in duty-free shops can be really profitable. The main thing is to know what to buy and what is better to refuse.

What is profitable to buy in duty free?

Not all tourists know that the prices for goods in the airports strongly depend on geography. For example, the same bottle of perfume made in France will cost a notional $100 when ordering from the official brand website. Add to that cashback, which on average returns about 5% on perfume purchases (hopefully you use it).

In town, the price for the same perfume will range from $110-130 (depending on store class, promotions, discounts, etc.). In duty-free in airports in France you will buy it for $90-95, in the UAE – already for $130, and in Thailand – all 150. It can be like this with any product.

Here are a few smart tips for competent shopping in Duty Free:

  • Tech and electronics are more profitable to buy at airports in Southeast Asia (especially South Korea and China) and the U.S;
  • the best prices for branded perfumes and cosmetics in Duty Free in Eastern Europe, a little higher – in Western Europe;
  • clothes and accessories of luxury are always cheaper in the native countries: in other words, the best prices for goods of the world fashion houses are in Europe (a pleasant bonus for shopaholics: in the airports there are always things from the latest collections of brands);
  • the best jewelry shopping is at Arabian airports;
  • bargains to buy alcohol and cigarettes in almost all airports (the exception – the Muslim countries, where prices for alcohol are traditionally high).

Prices for alcohol in duty-free shops are almost always 20-30% lower than in the city. In addition, duty-free stores often have special offers.

duty free shopping

What is not profitable to buy in Duty Free?

There are several categories of goods that are better to buy domestically, rather than in duty-free stores. Much depends on geography as well, and on the pricing policy of the brand.

Profession: traveler. About our site and team

What you overpay for in duty-free shops:

  1. Souvenirs . Goods with the symbols of the country and traditional souvenirs in Duty Free are always more expensive than inside the country. It is understandable: if you did not have time to think about gifts in advance, you have to pay. Prices for certain categories of goods sometimes go up to 30-50%, and sometimes even higher.
  2. Groceries. Prices for branded products in duty-free shops, as a rule, are always higher than in the city by 5-10%. Sometimes even higher. The price policy for local products is based on the souvenir principle: if you don’t buy in town, you pay. For example, the traditional durian chips in a supermarket in Phuket will cost 120 baht, in duty-free package of the same volume will cost 180 baht. Or, say, a set of canned sauerkraut and sausages in Munich – 5-6 euros, and at the airport – 10 euros.
  3. Goods for the road . Comfortable pillow, plaid, sleep mask … It’s better to take care of it in advance. Branded or not, and they in duty-free stores these things are always expensive. Suitcases, by the way, too.
  4. Toys . Savvy salespeople know that parents rarely say no to children. That’s why toys in duty-free shops are always more expensive than in cities.
  5. Local products . Even if something is difficult to call a souvenir, but the product is made within the country from which you are flying, it will usually cost more than in the city. The exception is brands.

Let us explain by example. Let’s compare two products.

The first is the eau de toilette from the French manufacturer Lancome. It is branded and sold in almost all the airports in the world. The best way to buy it is in the French Duty Free shops. It will cost cheaper there than in the stores of European cities.

The second product is eau de toilette from Egyptian Chabrawichi Nefertiti. This brand is popular in Egypt, but not so much outside of Egypt. You will not find this product on the shelves of the world’s duty-free shops. This means that the product can be classified as “local. It means the price will be lower inside the country, not at the airport.

There are, of course, exceptions to these rules. However, more often than not, duty-free stores operate according to these principles.

What goods are sold only in duty-free shops?

Duty free stores should be loved not so much for their prices, but for the range of products. You can find unique products in almost every category.

  1. Cosmetics and perfumes:
  • Limited-edition collections that are hard to find within most countries;
  • Sets of miniatures of the best brand products (5 fragrances of perfume, 3 bestselling lipsticks, etc.);
  • Gift sets (perfume + deodorant with the same scent, a set of products + cosmetic bag, etc.)
  • bottles of perfume of increased volume, expanded cosmetic palettes;
  • products in bottles suitable for airplane transportation.
  1. Products:
  • limited-edition flavors;
  • unusual packaging (for holidays, in the form of toys);
  • very large packages (5 kg of candy, a canister of olive oil, etc.)
  • extended ranges of alcohol (unusual products of some alcoholic brands are difficult to find in regular stores, while they are usually available in duty-free shops).
  1. Clothing, accessories:
  • Limited and new collections;
  • Accessory kits (glasses + case, earrings + bracelet);
  • Lines of different “luxury” brands in one store.

We think the idea is clear. Shopping in duty-free stores in airports, though not always profitable, but interesting. In duty-free shops you can always find excellent gifts for your nearest and dearest.

duty free items

Myths and secrets of Duty Free.

We discussed the prices and the range of goods. Now let’s dispel a few myths about shopping in duty-free shops.

  1. The quality of goods at Duty Free is better than in the city.
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In fact, it often happens that goods from production are taken first to city stores and from there to airport duty-free stores. That is, the supplier and the transport company are often one and the same.

But in Duty Free it is certain that there are no forgeries. But it is possible to find them in off-grid stores and markets in some cities.

And again no. Very often in Duty Free work salesmen who simply live near the airport. Or those who could not make a career in the official stores of certain brands. Do you know how high requirements to the appearance and qualification of the same Armani representatives in the city boutiques? At the airports it is not so strict. By the way, the salaries of duty-free shop assistants are unenviable and they don’t have a regular clientele – there is no reason for them to try so hard.

  1. If the goods are foreign, they came from the country of origin.

As we have said, the goods in the duty-free shop may not be different from the goods in the city. Do you think it would be more reasonable to unload the cargo from Italy at the airport and then move it further? Maybe so, but in fact the scenario is different.

For example, the company Dior has sent goods to Russia. They don’t leave it in the duty-free zone, they send it to customs. Then the official distributor of the company will pick up the products. And then will distribute the goods to the stores in the city and duty-free stores. Accordingly, the cost of the goods will not be “from the manufacturer”. The price will be formed in Russia. And in the duty-free shops, our standard VAT will be deducted from it. This once again explains why many products in duty-free stores are expensive.

  1. It’s always better to pay in Duty Free in the national currency of the country

If you’re flying from a country with a ban on the export of local currency, pay for purchases in euros or dollars. The ruble conversion is always the most unprofitable. You may also have to pay a commission fee.

  1. And one more little tip: use the duty free shopping sites.

Almost every airport takes care of it. So you can think ahead about shopping and compare the prices of goods in duty-free stores with the city.

Is there a limit on shopping at the airport?

If you see a favorite product at an attractive price, don’t rush to stuff your suitcase. There are several restrictions on duty-free shopping:

  • customs regulations of the country you are arriving to (pay special attention to the limits for importing alcohol);
  • number of purchases of one brand (as a rule, it is forbidden to buy more than 10 items of one product category – check on the spot);
  • the amount of purchase (some airports have such a limit – for excess you have to pay the standard VAT of the country).

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Shopping at specialized stores

Shopping at the airport is not just about duty-free shopping. As a rule, almost every airport has stores (or at least a shop) with goods specific to the country and city in which it is located.

For example, in major tourist cities of Russia they always sell matreshkas, khokhloma and ushankas – all for foreigners. But there are also some twists and turns. In St. Petersburg, for example, these are the stores of FC Zenit and HC SKA; in other cities they would be out of place. And so in every country and every city.

Is it profitable to shop in such shops? It all depends on airport policy and the stores themselves. But there are two options: the prices will either be as in town or much higher. So it is advised not to put off shopping for souvenirs and specific goods until the airport.

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