What to Buy and What to Skip at Duty Free

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Many people think that you can get the the best deals at duty free shops, and some travelers even schedule a stop at duty free into their vacation. The siren song of deep savings is certainly a hard one to ignore, but have we been talked into believing a bad bill of goods?
According to duty free shopping expert Yngve Bia, it depends. "It's not always a great deal -- exchange rates can also play a huge role," says Bia, who founded Generation Research, a company dedicated to duty free research. Even so, we seem to be addicted to it. Bia reports that travelers will spend up to $37 billion on duty free shopping in 2010.

But don't go in blindly or you may actually wind up spending more. But using our handy dandy guide-and doing a little research of your own before you travel-could help you save more.


Buying duty free liquor can net you some deep discounts, since the tax alone can be staggering on some brands. The Caribbean in particular is fantastic for alcohol savings, where you can get island-made spirits like rum for just $15, while their stateside price can be $30 or more for the same bottle. That said, do your research before you buy. In destinations where the cultural norm is to bargain (Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia), you may be able to score cheaper bottles in small retail stores.

Much like alcohol, tobacco is deeply taxed and can carry hefty fees, especially on items like imported cigars. And the deal you get on cigarettes depends on where you live. In New York City, for instance, packs of smokes cost around $11, with roughly $4.50 of that going to tax. That means buying a carton of cigarettes at duty free can save you over $75 in tax. "If you come from country with high taxation on liquor and tobacco, the duty free shops in those countries can offer savings up to 50 percent," Bia notes. But remember that, like alcohol, you are limited in how much you can bring across the border without being dinged.

This one's a tricky one. "Bottles of fragrances are sold in-flight in different sizes than domestically, hence it's difficult to compare prices," warns Bia. However, you can get "duty free exclusives" that aren't available in stores or only sold in limited edition. The savings tend to be small, but worth it if you're looking for something unique.

Luxury Goods
Again, another one where you have to know what you're looking for. It's true that you can get some great sales on luxury goods at home. However, retailers have to stick to recommended prices, but duty free shops are granted more flexibility. Which means not only can you get some posh designer pieces-sometimes limited edition-for a decent cost, your sleuthing can net you huge savings. For example? Singapore duty free shopping can help you save 30 percent or more on brand-name watches, the United Arab Emirates is known for having incredible prices on gold jewelry, and Kuala Lumpur has luxury goods for up to 50 percent off retail.

Local Goods
Though it's often best to get your souvenirs from street vendors or local stores, sometimes duty free can have great treats in store for you. Bangkok's airport is a great place to get locally designed silk, Venice's offers gorgeous glass, Japan's airport duty free has great prices on Hello Kitty merchandise that you can't find Stateside, and at London's Heathrow, you can pick up mementos from the British Museum without having to pay big V.A.T.



It can be highly tempting to nab what seems to be a great deal on a laptop, but you're best to steer clear. More often than not, most duty free stores don't have the latest and greatest in electronics, so you wind up paying close to top dollar for an outdated unit.
Unless you are looking at locally made pieces only sold at that location, it's not worth picking up clothing at duty free. The price is often discounted from a manufacturer's suggested retail price, meaning your discount is coming on top of an already inflated dollar amount. It's best to wait for sales at home.

You're better off to save your beauty shopping for your next trip to the mall. That said, every once in a while you can find a great deal. (some lines of Clinique creams can be sometimes bought at up to a $10 discount at duty free) , but the savings are so few and far between. One exception: Australian duty free shops tend to consistently have good deals on cosmetics.

Souvenirs and Candy
These can often be the most expensive and marked-up duty free buys. Why? Because even though they're known for being discount heaven, duty free stores need to make a profit, too. And they're banking on the fact that you're looking for that last-minute commemorative spoon for Aunt Margaret or a box of local sugary treats for the kids. "Some bags of sweets are sometimes bought more cheaply in the shop around the corner at home," says Bia. "Although the kids do not always wish to wait."

Nothing passes a long flight quite like a good book, some tunes or your favorite film, but you're better off packing enough for the whole trip before you leave home. The difference is often as little as a few cents-and that's if you're not hunting out sales and discounted options at places like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Tell us: What's the craziest purchase you've ever made while shopping duty free? Send an email to TravelSubmit@aol.com and let us know!

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