Why The Airport Is Actually A Great Place To Shop

A brand new year is right around the corner, and that means 12 months filled with opportunities to take a trip — even better, an international one. Because as much as we love supporting the home team (U-S-A! U-S-A!), it’s refreshing to get out and experience other cultures, gorge on fabulous cuisines, and enjoy one of our favorite pastimes — shopping — on the road.
If you're flying internationally, you can get a jump-start on your roving retail therapy even before catching your flight. The airports you’ll be flying out of, connecting through, and arriving at all have shops filled with duty-free treasures — beyond alcohol and cigarettes — from It bags and designer clothes to foie gras and hard-to-find beauty products. These specific spending opportunities require shopping smart. So, read through our airport primer before planning your next jaunt; it might even influence your itinerary.
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Understand what duty-free actually means.
Duty-free shopping means you can purchase items without being charged government- or state-levied taxes or import tariffs, because you’ll be toting your new goods out of the country of purchase. That's why international airports, cruise ships, and port cities tend to offer a bonanza of duty-free shopping. But, you need to prove you’re going somewhere. In the U.S. you must be headed out of the country for a minimum of 48 hours to enjoy the privilege, which is why sales associates at these shops will ask to see your boarding pass and passport upon checkout.
If you are able to buy at a U.S. duty-free store, you're in for big savings; local and state sales taxes can be a killer. New York's rate is 8.875% and in Illinois it's 9.25% (jeez, Chicago). So, while you might not necessarily find lower-priced products at duty-free, you may still be saving on your bottom line.
Warning: It's not the same as tax-free.
Technically, yes, a duty is a tax, but when you see shops touted as “tax-free” — mostly in Europe — this refers to Value Added Tax or VAT. If you’re a non-E.U. citizen and you shop at a participating “tax-free” store (within or outside the airport), you pay the VAT with your purchase, but can reclaim the amount at the airport customs office before flying home. Not all stores offer this option, so confirm with the sales associate and ask for the VAT-back forms to fill in at the register.
Here's what you'll find.
First off, there are loads of beauty products and fragrances to be found in duty-free emporiums — according to Frommer’s, this category accounts for 30% of all duty-free sales — from Chanel to Kiehl’s to cult-favorite Korean brands you can’t find stateside.
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The luxury boutiques at international airports (Charles de Gaulle in Paris, London Heathrow, and Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong, to name a few great ones) can rival Fifth Avenue, with clothes, leather goods, and accessories from the likes of Dior, Hermès, Mulberry, and Gucci. There are high-street favorites, too, depending on the country, from Zara to Kurt Geiger to Hong Kong's G2000. The stores tend to stock bestselling pieces similar to what you’d see in non-airport boutiques plus easy-to-try-on clothing geared toward on-the-go frequent fliers, road-weary travelers, and spendthrifty impulse shoppers.
Of course, not everything at the airport is duty-free; newsstands, local shops, and bookstores tend to operate as usual. Check for signage at the entrance or register. When in doubt, just ask.
And, where to find it.
“The most expensive of the shops and the highest concentration of luxury labels will invariably be found after security (a.k.a. ‘airside’) in international departures,” says Cynthia Drescher, editor of the travel site Jaunted.com. “Domestic departures will have more accessible fashion boutiques, outnumbered by Hudson News-style general travel stores.”
The frequent flier cites Tokyo-Haneda’s International Terminal as an outstanding example of airport retail layouts, offering actual “shopping districts.” The ticketing area has last-minute stuff you need, like cell phone dealers and convenience stores; pre-security boasts an old timey Tokyo-themed motif with local foods and goods (Hello Kitty!); and airside's stocked with luxury goodness, like Tiffany, Chanel, and Hermès.
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How to know if it's actually a deal.
As for that Lady Dior or Gucci horsebit boot you’ve been eyeing, take a moment before pulling out your credit card. You won’t necessarily find designer goods any less expensive at the airport, because luxury brands tend to maintain consistent pricing across locations. Kevin Rozario of Duty Free News International told Frommer's that brands like Chanel and Dior not only keep similar price points in all their retail locations, they’ll rarely if ever offer markdowns. Sometimes, you might even find that an item is more expensive at the airport — Frommer's also scouted a Bottega Veneta bag for $2,000 online that was priced at $2,153 in a duty-free to shop. On the other hand, a 50 ml bottle of My Burberry eau de parfum costs $95 at Macy’s, but can be found duty-free at U.K. international airports for £52 or $82. If you have a wish list of items, make note of the prices back home or utilize that free airport Wi-Fi and do a quick search on-the-go.
Drescher suggests taking the tax rate of your destination country into account, too, in order to calculate any possible savings between the duty-free airport price or buying at a local store. For instance, Hong Kong only charges tax on alcohol and cigarettes, so you have your pick of luxury, tax-free options outside the airport (and can peruse those precious sale racks). Plus, there are exchange rates to consider. The Huffington Post recommends making your duty-free purchases in countries with weaker currency than that of your home country or destination.
There are other upsides, too.
There are other enticing reasons beyond the tax break to shop for beauty products at duty-free stores. “Shopping incentives include special-edition travel versions of a favorite product and free gifts with purchase,” says Drescher. Shoppers should also look out for exclusive sizes or multi-packs of popular items — like a made-for-travel version of Elizabeth Arden’s beloved Eight-Hour Cream (£29.60 or $47) or a set of six mini nail polishes by OPI (£15.90 or $25) — plus hard-to-find products you can’t get at home. (These make fantastic last-minute gifts if you've got family or friends to treat at your destination.)
Know your limits.
“It's not prices or deals you should be worried about,” Drescher warns, “but the future implications of such purchases, such as going over allowances.” Big caveat: Wherever you’re landing — be it your international destination or back in the U.S. — you’ll have to fill out a customs declaration form detailing the value of what you bought abroad, including goods you grabbed in the airport. United States residents are allowed to bring back $800 worth of purchased merch (for personal use or gifts) per person. The first $1,000 over the exemption will be taxed at 3%. If you went through with the Lady Dior buy, it just totally blew your exemption. Although, a 3% customs fee compared to, say, a 9.5% tax for Chicagoans is still a savings.
Each country has its own customs allowances rules for entering. For example, Canada allows up to $800 if you’re visiting for two days or more, the U.K. allows £390 (or roughly $612) in if you’re flying, the E.U. allows 430 euros (approximately $533) and Thailand is quite generous with an 80,000 baht or $2,438 limit. Do note that the allowances for alcohol and cigarette duty-free purchases could be strict enough to deserve their own tutorial. Google away if that's what you're planning to load up on.
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Declaring? Honesty is the best policy.
As a rule of thumb, tell the truth. “It's not a good idea to lie because they can easily send you for a customs inspection,” Drescher says. “If you're holding a duty-free bag, you absolutely cannot lie. I advise answering [if you bought duty-free] confidently and succinctly, such as replying with ‘Yes, but only $75 worth of perfume,’ or the like. Just make sure your customs form echoes this.”
Will the customs officer at arrivals really notice if, say, you rip the tags off your new item, stash it at the bottom of your carry-on and neglect to declare it? “Heck, most of the items sold in luxury airport boutiques already flout that limit and airport officials turn a blind eye,” Drescher admits.
Know the rules, or lose your bounty.
There are restrictions all over the place, and wherever you're going you're best off putting new purchases in your checked luggage to keep them safe (from scrutiny, among other things). Carry-on rules will likely impact purchases involving liquids, aerosols, or weapons, so these should be stowed away for sure.
Antiques or artwork can be stopped at the airport, too. “It may actually be culturally significant — think artifacts, older artwork, etc. — and it may require an export permit,” Drescher advises. For instance, if you want to take any image of the revered Buddha (larger than 12 centimeters in size) out of Thailand, you need either written legal permission or an export permit from the country’s Fine Arts Department. “Another example is returning from Africa with ivory,” Drescher says. “Travelers must have documentation proving the ivory — no matter how small the piece — is antique and over 100 years old.” This is to help prevent poaching, a practice of which you probably want no part anyway.
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Take a beat before picking out the perfect salad tongs carved from Amazonian rainforest wood. “A friend had his purchase of two carved-wood serving spoons confiscated because such items may harbor invasive insects,” she says. “And, he also surrendered a vacuum-sealed bag of Balinese Kopi Luwak coffee.” Before you risk treating an airport security agent to all your vacation scores, be sure you're up on the various rules of where you'll be traveling — and your final destination.
If you’re returning to the U.S., you’ll face a whole list of banned items, including absinthe, Khmer sculptures from Cambodia, Haitian animal hide drums (something about anthrax), and anything made out of endangered species (and cat and dog fur).
European countries will confiscate your porn. You likely won’t be buying any of that at a duty-free luxury store at the airport, but it can’t hurt to do a quick online check specific to your travel destinations. London Heathrow’s site actually offers a helpful list of all countries’ customs allowances and restrictions.
Be ready to go through secondary security.
You packed your new bottle of Parisian perfume in your checked luggage and you're good to go. Until you hit duty-free. Grab some much-needed shampoo or conditioner on your way to the gate and — confiscated. Who knew there could be security after security? (I’m still bitter about that time a Zurich Airport guard impounded my just-purchased Clarins sunscreen.) This can happen when you’re connecting flights abroad and at airports with U.S. immigration pre-clearance. “Dublin has it, Aruba has it, and there's a whole list of other airports with pre-clearance,” says Drescher. Consider yourself warned.
Get these airports on your itinerary.
Tokyo-Haneda, Seoul-Incheon, Hong Kong International, Frankfurt, and all the Scandinavian capital airports top Drescher’s must-shop lists — especially Seoul. “Sometimes flying from Korea to Japan to purchase an item duty-free saves more money than walking to the mall and buying it flat-out,” Drescher says. While stateside, she has only one pick: JFK’s JetBlue Terminal 5. “Hard to compete with airports in Asia,” she admits.
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Travel + Leisure cites Amsterdam Airport Schiphol for the option to peruse Missoni goods and tulips (although, the latter live plant probably won’t make it past customs in most countries), London Heathrow for the best of British chic (Mulberry to Links of London) and Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai for gems and textiles.
The part of the strategy that's totally up to you? Figuring out how to not blow your entire vacation budget before setting foot on foreign soil.
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