Does Buying Duty-Free Actually Save You Money? Experienced Shoppers Weigh In

How to buy smarter and maximize savings at international airports.

An airport duty-free shop with modern curvy design and counters selling beauty products

Not all deals are created equal at the airport duty-free shop.

Photo by Tanya Keisha/Shutterstock

With their neat stacks of Toblerone and boxes of whiskey lying in wait, duty-free shops are a common sight in international airports—and nearly impossible to avoid. The size of the duty-free market was estimated to be $38.95 billion in 2023, bigger than the GDP of many small countries, or the equivalent of every air traveler in the world spending at least $4 in the airport shops last year. But what exactly is duty-free shopping? And does it actually save you money?

Duty-free stores at airports sell products without certain taxes and duties typically imposed by a country on imported goods.

Although the tax-free benefit sounds appealing, not every duty-free item is a good deal. The general consensus is that heavily taxed items such as cigarettes and alcohol bring the highest level of savings. The airport can also be a great place to buy luxury items and designer goods.

Jen Nisan, a professional shopper and personal stylist of the fashion sourcing concierge Front Row Live, recommends buying clothing, shoes, and bags at the airport because the VAT is removed and prices are often better for name brands. One section she skips? The fragrance counters, as travelers can typically find the same perfumes in different countries.

“I like to save my time and focus on getting things that I can’t normally find in my local stores when I’m shopping at an airport,” says Nisan. “My favorite airports to shop in are the Paris CDG airport and the London Heathrow airport. They always have a wide variety of stores to shop from, and they are big airports, so it’s fun to walk around while waiting for your flight.”

Although not a professional shopper, Linda Lau is a New York–based frequent traveler who often takes advantage of duty-free shopping for better deals. Lau says she flies through Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport about twice annually, along with multiple other international trips and airports.

A Dolce and Gabbana airport store with marble tile floors and displays showing bags, sunglasses, and clothing

One of the best ways to find a bargain at the airport is to shop for luxury goods made in that country, such as Dolce & Gabbana in Italy.

Photo by Tupungato/Shutterstock

“In general, it’s best to buy from brands made in that country due to the cost of import,” Lau says. “For example, brands like Hermès, Polène, and Longchamp are less expensive in Paris prior to the VAT refund.”

Not only can you find better deals at the airport, but Nisan has also found certain rare luxury items.

“Sometimes you can score a rare item at an airport because the stores are smaller, and you can get lucky with one or two items that they keep in the back,” Nisan says, recalling a time she found Saint Laurent earrings at the CDG airport in Paris. “I happened to see a pair of earrings I was searching for everywhere. Apparently, the only pair left in the company was at that airport.”

Before you start stocking up on cigarettes and luxury bags at the airport, it’s important to note that there’s a limit to how many duty-free items you can bring into the United States based on the country you’re coming from. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, personal duty-free exemptions vary between $200–$1,600 depending on the country. When you arrive in the United States, you’ll need to declare what you’ve bought and the value of each item. How long you’ve been abroad and the number of times you’ve been abroad in the past 30 days can also factor into the equation.

Lesson learned: Skip the perfumes and the giant Toblerone. Instead? Buy that luxury bag you’ve been eyeing.

Iona Brannon is a travel writer captivated by the connection between physical space and the sense of belonging. She is still searching for her “forever home.”
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