20 Things to Buy Duty-Free at the Airport
It's nearly impossible to board an international flight without passing by the duty-free shops at the airport. You can find some good deals if you know what to keep an eye out for.
What is duty-free?
If you’ve ever flown internationally (or passed through an international terminal), you’ve likely seen the brightly-lit consumer paradise of a duty-free shop.
But what is a duty-free shop? These are stores that sell all kinds of products for which a “duty” (a local import tax or fee placed on goods by government entities) is not included. Normally, buying products in a duty-free shop allows travelers to save money on liquor, tobacco, fragrances, cosmetics, luxury items, candy, and more.
Note: When traveling internationally and shopping duty-free (a great thing to do on your airport layover), the cashier at the register is going to ask to see your boarding pass to verify travel out of the country. Travelers leaving the United States for at least 48 hours may shop duty-free.
How much can I save when I buy duty-free at the airport?
How much you will save when buying duty-free at the airport depends on the country, currency exchange rate, and the products you buy. In Europe, the duty-free shops are not only duty-free but tax-free as well. This can save you up to 25 percent on your duty-free purchases! Make sure you:
- Use a currency converter to make sure you are actually getting a good deal
- Use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees
- If given the choice, always opt to pay in the local currency (you will likely get a better currency exchange rate through your own credit card company than you will through the duty-free shop)
Both Alexis Kelly, a travel editor at Fodors, and Paul Eisenberg of TravelingDad.com agree that Cadbury chocolates are a prime duty-free shopping target when traveling internationally, because they’re:
- Not available in the U.S.
- More delicious than American chocolate
Cadbury in the United States has been different from the United Kingdom version since 2015, so passing up the chance to bring some home would qualify as a travel mistake you should avoid.
Kelly doesn’t just line up at duty-free for her Cadbury sweets! When traveling home from Paris a few years ago, she spotted a sweet duty-free deal on Longchamp bags at Charles de Gaulle airport. The savings were significant enough that the Fodors editor bought three bags from the French-owned company because:
- Abundance of buying options in France
- Cheaper at the source
If you have a taste for fine liquor, head for the many shelves of duty-free liquor when flying internationally. Connoisseurs of scotch, for example, will likely come away with a bottle or two at far cheaper prices than back at home.
- Often on sale at duty free
- Wide range of choices
TSA says you aren’t allowed to unscrew your duty-free drinks in the air, but if you’re a nervous flier, don’t miss these 6 facts to help you stay calm while flying.
Another great use of duty-free shopping at airports is scooping up last-minute gifts from your destinations. Whether you are buying ornate snow globes for kids or fancy hand-painted fans for your partner, the trinkets and souvenirs at a duty-free shop allow you to make sure you show everyone back home you were thinking of them while you were away—even if you actually forgot to buy gifts while on your affordable beach vacation!
Things not available at home
Just like Cadbury cannot be sourced in its European form in the United States, there are other things sold in airport duty-free shops that are not available back at home. Specifically, the foreign candy aisle of duty-free, which includes:
- Crunchie bars
- Strange flavor varieties of familiar candy
- Curious shapes and packaging sizes like the massive Tic Tac box filled with dozens of miniature Tic Tac boxes.
You should gleefully fill up every corner of your carry-on bag with duty-free treasures on your way back from fun European spring breaks and vacations.
Sometimes, your vacation destination will dictate the type of duty-free purchases you want to make the most. In South America or in the Caribbean, the coffee is:
- More aromatic
- More delicious
- Not as expensive as at home
Plus, coffee makes a great gift for a family member, friend, or boss. Before you start to brew your locally-sourced coffee from duty-free, make sure you read through all these tips for making the perfect cup of coffee.
Thanks to pricing that may be lower than at home, shopping duty-free while coming home from vacation gives you the unique opportunity to buy better chocolate than you usually devour. Swiss chocolate from duty-free shops in Geneva or Zurich can be a great purchase because:
- When bought anywhere outside Switzerland, Swiss chocolates are typically taxed
- Buying it through duty-free may be a sweeter deal price-wise
Chocolate will surely delight a young child on a plane but here are more secrets to flying with kids.
According to Duty-Free Addict, a free travel club helping duty-free shoppers find the best deals on all kinds of products from liquor to jewelry, Grey Goose is:
- Cheaper in Japan than Australia
- More expensive in the Singapore Changi Airport duty-free than at the Dubai Airport duty-free
Country-specific beauty products
Buying foreign beauty products from duty-free can be both fun and affordable. Travel & Leisure writer Maya Kachroo-Levine likes to spend the last of her foreign currency on a single country-specific beauty product, like:
- French micellar water
- Fijian coconut oil
- A sample of a perfume not available at home
Next, learn how to get free stuff almost anywhere.
Cigarettes and cigars
During a recent domestic trip, the duty-free shop in Charlotte was advertising a buy two cartons, get one free deal on all of the popular brands of cigarettes. Keep in mind there are limits to how many smokes you can bring into America, a maximum of either:
- 1,000 cigarettes, or
- 100 cigars from most foreign countries
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Local honey and sea salt
Chicago-based travel writer Vera Holyrod of Passports and Spice makes frequent international trips to Slovenia. On her return flight home, she never manages to get through duty-free at the airport without buying some local honey and sea salt because:
- The prices are fair
- The quality is top-notch
You might regret skipping the chance to buy local foods, herbs, and oils before flying home, but it won’t be one of the biggest travel mistakes of your life!
Brand name cosmetics and fragrances
The best value in duty-free shopping at airports can usually be found in the cosmetics and fragrances aisles. In Terminal 8 of JFK, for example, there are fully stocked duty-free stores for:
- Estée Lauder
So find your favorite scents, smells, and looks before flying home, and save a few dollars (or euros) on your makeup and perfume.
Tiny bottles of wine
While I was flying home from Reykjavik this summer, the airport duty-free was running a too-good-to-pass-up Buy 4, Get 1 Free sale on 200ml bottles of wine. Smaller bottles:
- Pack up easier
- Cost less
- Let you try new varieties with less financial risk
Bath and Body Works soaps and sanitizers
If you are addicted to the creamy luxe hand soaps from Bath and Body Works but balk at the sticker price at your local mall, save some room in your carry-on bag for the duty-free deals on authentic Bath and Body Works soaps, sanitizers, and more. Not every duty-free sells these products, but if they do, they will likely be on sale—but won’t have of the varieties or scents of a regular store.
Exclusive products and sizes
One of the pleasures of buying duty-free at the airport is not only finding good deals but also finding unusual packaging of familiar products. Nadine Heubel, CEO of Heinemann Americas (a company with duty-free shops in 74 airports across 28 countries), suggests travelers seek out:
- Larger than usual, duty-free-exclusive versions of products
- Unique packaging that you have never seen sold at a store near home
- Travel exclusives of popular brands
It’s okay if you forget to shop duty-free during your international trip, but these are the 16 things you should never forget when traveling overseas.
Whether you’re on a cruise ship or passing through a brightly lit duty-free shop in an airport, the shiny metal of designer watches may lure you in for a closer look. However, before you buy, make sure to:
- Check online for the prices at stores back at home
- Check the prices of online discount retailers
- Consult a currency converter to double-check the duty-free “deal”
Consumer electronics aren’t standard duty-free fare, but there may come a time when you’re eyeing a new set of Bluetooth earbuds before a transatlantic flight. Before you make your purchase, check the price of similar items:
- In your destination
- At home (it is hard to beat Amazon or Best Buy’s prices on consumer electronics)
Electronics are one of the things most consumer advocates would advise not to buy at the airport, but the prospect of a long flight with no headphones or an iPad with a dead battery can be hard to fathom for some.
The glint in your eyes isn’t only being caused by the watches in duty-free. There’s usually a solid selection of jewelry from the likes of Swarovski to tempt travelers before boarding their flights. That bracelet or necklace might look nice during a fancy dinner, but keep in mind that better deals might be available:
- In a port like Nassau, Bahamas
- From an online retailer
Versace and Michael Kors are just two of the famous luxury brands you can find while shopping duty-free in transit. If you have forgotten your own sunglasses or just want to splurge, there’s a duty-free shop ready to sell you a pair of fancy sunglasses. But as with watches, electronics, and jewelry, be sure you:
- Check the currency converter to make sure you are seeing the true prices
- Give a quick Google to see if you can get something similar at a better price in a store at your final destination
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Flying can be hard on your skin, so why not pick up some luxurious lotions while shopping at the duty-free store? Products from trusted skincare brands like L’Occitane may even be available in duty-free, allowing you to pick up travel or full-size versions (since you are already through security checkpoints) of your favorite:
- Face scrubs
- Body lotions
- Anti-aging serums
- Shower oils
Duty-free shops are still an option, but find out the things you won’t see in airports anymore.