The 8 Worst and Best Airport Buys
Your defenses are down when you enter the airport. You've got money to burn, time to waste and you're in a state of euphoria because you'll be on a tropical beach in less than five hours. But, beware, ye of many impulses: Airport buys can make you broke if you're not careful. (See also: 25 Secrets From the World's Most Frugal Frequent Travelers)
So here's a list of what to watch out for at the airport (hint: most things), along with a couple items that are OK to dive into.
Worst Airport Buys
Plan ahead and you can avoid most of these pricey concourse purchases.
1. Personal snacks and drinks. David Bakke, travel expert at Money Crashers, implores you to avoid bottled water at all costs when you're at the airport. "You'll pay about triple the price that you do in a grocery store."
While you should avoid bottled water altogether -- it's bad for the environment and tap water is free, ya know -- I understand that sometimes you need it. To avoid this impulse buy, add a water bottle to your packing list and keep it in your carry-on so you can fill it from the fountain when you're past security. If you forget your water bottle, remember this tip from Aaron Deutsch, founder of TellThem.co.
"If you need a bottle of water at the airport, my tip is to buy it from McDonald's, not the news shops" he says. "McDonald's typically charges $1.50 to $2 while the news stores charge $2.50 to 3.50. Small savings but nice!"
"Healthy food is hard to find at the airport, and usually I bring what I need for the kids," adds Sandra Magura, author of the children's book HippoDuck -- Trouble at the Airport. "But on those unexpected delayed flights sometimes you run short. When I did, I was forced to get something from one of the convenience stores. I ended up buying a granola bar for my two-year-old. He loves them and so do I. What I don't love is the $4 price tag that went along with it. I can buy a box of six at Walmart for $2. They got me that time, but I will be sure to pack extras on the next trip."
2. Wi-Fi. Airports are increasingly jumping on the free Wi-Fi bandwagon or offering personal tablets for free use when you're in the terminal, but there are still hubs that require you to pay for Internet service if you want to get online while you're at the terminal. Most of us can use our phone networks to do what we need to do, but if you need more capability or a bigger screen that can only operate with Wi-Fi, do some detective work before purchasing.
Bakke offers a great hack. "If you need to access the Internet, see if the airport has a Starbucks -- where it's free -- rather than paying for Wi-Fi," he says.
Starbucks (SBUX) might not be the only place that offers free Wi-Fi, by the way. Pop into a few bars and restaurants to see if they offer it, if there are no Starbucks in the vicinity.
3. Headphones. Bakke warns to avoid headphones and other electronics from those newfangled vending machines that are popping up at airports. You've probably seen the Best Buy-branded models if you've traveled recently.
"I recently looked at these [headphones] with my son during a recent trip; he claimed he absolutely had to have them," Bakke recalls. "I made a bet with him that I could find them for half of what the machine was charging. Sure enough, we checked Amazon and found them for about that much cheaper."
You also can ask your airline's attendants if the flight offers headphones. Instead of buying a $200 pair of Beats just because they're pretty and you're on vacation and you think you deserve it, step back, take a breath, and find out if there are pairs for available on your flight, which usually only cost about $2.
"There is no reason that a set of headphones cannot have a permanent home in the side pocket of your carry on bag," adds John Z. Wetmore, producer for Perils for Pedestrians television. "It takes very little planning to avoid overpriced last-minute purchases. Packing checklists are your friend if you have a tendency to leave things at home when you pack at the last minute."
4. Neck pillows. You want to guess how many neck pillows are in my closet? Three! It seems like my husband buys a new pillow every time he flies, and those three aren't even counting the ones he's lost over the years. That's hundreds of dollars worth of neck pillows.
I've never purchased a neck pillow in my life; it's always seemed like a huge waste of money to look so silly on an airplane to me. Instead, I bring my own travel-worn bed pillow from home (it's flat, so it's easy to travel with), or I ask for a blanket/pillow on the flight so I can cuddle up on the window or rest my head on the tray table. Much better than sleeping straight up with an inner tube around your neck, in my opinion.
5. Currency exchange. The last time I traveled someplace where I needed to exchange currency, the dollar was worth half what it was at home -- and that didn't include the fees that the service charged. That's a tough blow to take when you've saved for so long for something.
This is obviously an example from Europe, but you can apply the same principles in the United States when you're preparing for travel abroad.
With so much else to sort out before you go away, it's tempting simply to purchase your foreign currency at the last minute in the airport departure lounge. But doing that means you'll pay significantly more than you need to, as airport bureaux de change offer some of the worst possible deals to walk-up customers.
"The alternatives? Pre-order currency. Earlier this week, buying €500 on the spot at a Gatwick Moneycorp bureau would have cost you £440.88. Had you ordered the €500 online on www.moneycorp.com to pick up at the airport, the cost would have been £404.17.
6. Parking. Sometimes you have no other choice but to drive yourself to the airport and park. And you'll pay dearly for it. If you can help it, ask a friend or family member to give you a ride -- slip 'em some cash for helping you save some -- or use public transportation where available and convenient.
Best Airport Buys
OK, not everything at the airport is a total ripoff.
1. Local food/beverage souvenir items. I'm not much for tangible souvenirs -- just one more piece of junk I have to put out at the yard sale next year -- so I prefer to preserve my trips' memories with photos that I can frame and local food items that I can consume when I'm home. For instance, I've purchased beignet dry mix from New Orleans and BBQ sauce from Memphis that bring back fond memories of each trip when I use them.
Liz Dahl, founder of Boomer Travel Patrol, agrees that this is a best practice, especially on liquids.
"For me, the best buys are local products from the city the airport is located, especially the liquid items," she says. "This is the place to buy those souvenirs, because you can take them on the plane with you at that point."
The latter is a good point to remember if you're only traveling with a carry-on bag. You won't be happy if you have to give up a liquid item because you overlooked the rules while you were shopping.
2. Duty-free. If you're in the market for cigarettes or alcohol, you can score great deals at the duty-free shops. All other items, especially electronics and beauty products, aren't a very wise purchase as you usually can find them cheaper at home or online.
Consider, however, that you're allowed to bring mini bottles of liquor onto your flight. That's right -- according to the TSA Blog, "Travelers may carry as many 3.4 ounce bottles of liquid (mini bottles of liquor are 1.7 ounces) that fit comfortably in one, quart sized, clear plastic, zip-top bag. Comfortable means that the bag will seal without busting at the seams. One bag is permitted per passenger."
That's pretty much an invitation to load up on the mini bottles at the duty-free shop.
Of course, there's this stipulation: FAA regulations state that "No person may drink any alcoholic beverage aboard an aircraft unless the certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage."
But if you're savvy, you'll figure out how to make it work.
Do you have other suggestions for best/worse airport buys? Let us know in the comments below.