Do Your Homework
All the advice you see about Duty Free shopping tells you to do some research before you travel. However, nobody tells you what to research, how to do it, or how time consuming or difficult it might be. It’s not rocket science, but it’s also not obvious.
Whether or not Duty Free is a good deal for you depends on your frame of reference – where you live, where you generally shop, what you want to buy, and where you’re going. So doing your homework is important.
Establish Your Benchmarks
If you’re planning to do any Duty Free shopping, you should establish your benchmarks beforehand. Clearly, if you intend to buy something that you’re unfamiliar with, you should check out prices before leaving home. If it’s something you are familiar with, so much the better. That’ll help you judge whether you’re getting a good deal – either Duty Free shopping or locally at your destination.
In Which Direction Do You Want to Buy – Leaving or Returning Home?
Do you have any preferences in which direction to buy, or do you just want to get the best deal possible?
Except in countries where domestic prices are very low, airport and airlines generally set their Duty Free prices in relation to their home markets. However, that’s not always how people buy. I remember research showing that smokers tended to buy cigarettes leaving home while spirits were bought on the way back for home consumption. Fragrances, on the other hand, were split 50/50. And, by definition, high ticket items on which you want to get the VAT back have to be bought outside your home country.
If you buy leaving home, you’re likely (but not always) to make some sort of savings compared to what you’d pay at home. However, if you plan to buy on the way back, your savings – if any – could vary significantly vs. your home benchmarks. So you’d be well advised to research Duty Free prices at your destination and on your return itinerary.
Research Duty Free Prices
What Duty Free Prices Can You Actually Access?
Most Duty Free players (airports, retailers, and airlines) put their merchandise offer online, but they often make it pretty hard to find.
Airports generally feature their main retailers who show the core Duty Free offer of alcohol, fragrances /cosmetics, and confectionery. While tobacco is part of that offer, you see less and less of it online. These retailers may also carry some of the more popular specialist categories. Things like electronics, cameras, leather goods, and fashion watches and, to a lesser extent, fashion jewellery, clothing, and accessories. Lotte Duty Free at Seoul is a good example.
You won’t see the free-standing specialist retailers online very often, and hardly anybody shows the luxury/designer offer.
Airlines generally show their full range of merchandise online, often in catalogs over 100 pages long.
While airlines carry a broad range, their depth of stock is very thin except for a few core items. So unless you pre-order (if it’s possible or convenient), you can never be sure that you’ll get what you want.
What to Research?
Have a look at the online Duty Free offers on your itinerary to check availability and prices in advance
If you want to get the best deal possible, this is clearly the best option, but it’s a bit time consuming and easier said than done. I mentioned earlier, it may be difficult to find the online retail offer at all the airports or airlines you’ll be using. So I’ll help you with that in the Find Duty Free Online section. And don’t forget your transfer airport if you’re connecting somewhere.
Duty Free price comparison websites
You won’t find many websites which compare Duty Free prices in a comprehensive and timely manner. You can see for yourself by searching “Duty Free price comparison.” The only site I thought was worth visiting – Duty Free Buzz – seems to have gone out of business. Both its website and Facebook page are down. Otherwise, check out the Find Duty Free Online section. You’ll find direct links to the retail offers of more than 90 airports and 60 airlines so you can do your own research directly.
Do it the old fashioned way
If you can’t find any online retail offers or don’t feel like looking, there’s always the old fashioned pre-internet way. If you know what you want and have your benchmarks, you can decide at each point what’s a good deal.
Visit the arrival Duty Free shops (if any) at either end
If you’re leaving from or travelling to an airport which has arrival Duty Free shops, but which aren’t online, it’d be worth checking prices at those arrival shops on your outward trip. You can then compare prices online and at your destination to decide if it’s worthwhile to buy on your return. In this case, you may also be able to see the prices on everything that’s available, including the specialist and luxury/designer ranges, not just the standard offer.
Have a look here to see which countries permit arrival Duty Free.
I just want to browse to see what grabs me
You can always compare prices on your smartphone when you’re in the store. Brick and mortar retailers are very sensitive about this, so you should probably be discreet. On your flight, the increasing availability of on-board wifi makes it easy to compare Duty Free prices from your seat.
It might actually be a better deal to buy in the domestic market of your destination
If you’re travelling to a low tax/low cost country, you might find it cheaper to buy certain items on the local market. However, that may not always be easy or practical for a visitor. But I’ll give you some links to local prices in the Destination Prices section so you can decide for yourself.