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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.