Airport duty-free pricing is a mystery to most travelers. Here at TPG, we’re all about finding the best deal, so we embarked on a monthslong research project to help our readers get the best values in duty free — as well as warn you about those airports where you should keep your wallet firmly shut.
To guide our research, we chose a sampling of 13 popular duty-free items spanning a range of categories from liquor to fragrances. Then we asked our team of reporters and editors to stop by airport duty-free shops across the world to collect the current prices in our representative market basket. We ignored limited-time sales and promotions and made sure to convert all foreign currencies to U.S. dollars. For items that weren’t sold in the duty-free stores we visited, we used relative averages to impute a range of assumed selling prices.
In the end, we collected data from 50 airports across six continents. We even visited some airports multiple times to confirm that prices hadn’t changed. What follows is our comprehensive guide to airport duty-free shopping.
5 tips for airport duty-free shopping
- Duty free isn’t necessarily a good deal. Use Google and a currency converter to compare prices in your area.
- In general, buy alcohol in the Caribbean, cosmetics and fragrances in Europe and tobacco in Asia.
- You can pack liquor larger than 3.4 ounces in your carry-on bag when coming back to the U.S. — even if you have a connecting flight. Just be sure to keep your receipt and have your purchases sealed in a tamper-proof plastic bag.
- Pay with the right credit card. Always purchase in the local currency and use a card with no foreign transaction fees.
- Compare duty-free prices in different terminals at the same airport. You may find that prices vary depending on which store you visit.
Which airports have the cheapest duty-free stores?
We sampled quite a few European airports and saw an astounding variance in liquor prices. For instance, we got a great deal on alcohol in the duty-free store at Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD): A 1-liter bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey sold for $26.72. In London, the price for the exact same bottle of Jack Daniel’s was a whopping 30% more. In addition to Madrid, we found the best deals on liquor in Kiev and Grand Cayman.
You should shop for cosmetics in London, Dubai or Vienna, and head to Madrid, Porto or London for the most affordable fragrances.
For the best prices on tobacco, stock up in Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Rather unsurprisingly, the largest variance in prices came from cigarettes. In some countries, tobacco is heavily taxed, so purchasing cigarettes at the airport duty-free store can often be one of the best deals in the game (just be sure to check your country’s duty-free import allowance).
Which airports have the most expensive duty-free stores?
You may want to wait until you leave the airport to buy booze for your Greek vacation. Aside from Accra, Ghana, many Greek airports like Santorini and Athens turned out to be the most expensive places to buy liquor — even Thessaloniki’s airport (SKG) came in fourth. A quick call to an Athens liquor store confirmed they were selling 1 liter of Bacardi rum for about 7% less than the airport duty free.
Although we often find great flight deals to Bangkok, this Southeast Asian metropolis isn’t the place to buy your cosmetics and fragrances. We found that prices for both were 20% to 25% above the average prices in our rankings. Also, make sure to avoid buying overpriced duty-free cosmetics and fragrances in Madrid, Zurich and Vienna.
You should think twice about buying tobacco in Australia or Europe. Nine out of the 10 most expensive tobacco duty-free stores were there. The sole outlier was No. 8, Mexico City (MEX).
Do duty-free prices change across U.S. airports?
Though no U.S. airports made the list as either the cheapest or most expensive in a given category, we did see duty-free pricing trends across the 50 states. We sampled 14 U.S. airports and found that the overall cheapest U.S. airport for duty-free was Honolulu (HNL) and most expensive was Seattle (SEA).
When we broke it down by category, we found the following rankings:
Duty-free prices even varied significantly within a state. In Florida, we sampled three airports: Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Miami (MIA) and Tampa (TPA). Duty-free alcohol was cheapest in Miami by 14%, while fragrances and tobacco were cheapest in Fort Lauderdale by 3% each.
We called several local liquor stores in Atlanta and Miami to see how the prices compared to those at the airports. We found that liquor prices for the spirits we selected were around 30% to 40% higher than those in the airports.
Of all the U.S. airports we surveyed, Tampa’s airport had the most expensive duty-free liquor. But we also found that liquor stores close to Tampa International had prices similar to those in the airport’s expensive duty-free stores. Considering that you’d need to pay tax on purchases outside the airport, it may still make sense to purchase from duty free, even though the prices in Tampa are higher than those in other U.S. cities.
When should you buy duty-free items?
Imagine you’re flying from Tokyo Narita (NRT) to London Heathrow (LHR) aboard ANA’s recently reconfigured 77W (one can wish!). In Tokyo, you’ll want to pick up liquor and tobacco, where it’s 20% and a whopping 82% cheaper than in London, respectively. Then, when you land in London, head to the duty-free store to buy your cosmetics and fragrances, where they’re 20% and 18% cheaper than they were in Tokyo.
If you’re got multiple flight connections or stops on an itinerary, it pays to be strategic about the airport in which you buy your duty-free items. Say you’re going to Paris (CDG) and Zurich (ZRH) on a trip. In Paris, the 60-milliliter size of La Mer’s Crème de la Mer costs $277, while it costs $370 in Zurich. You’d save roughly $100 by buying it in Paris.
A similar story holds true for liquor. If you’re looking to pick up a 1-liter bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, you’ll save roughly $30 by buying it in Zurich, where the price was $256.04, compared to $282.50 in Paris.
So, make sure to thoroughly research the duty-free offerings in airports that you’ll be visiting.
Are duty-free prices the same in a particular airport?
It depends. In some cases, you may see different prices based on what airline you’re flying. We went to every single duty-free store in New York-JFK and Newark Liberty (EWR) and found different prices for the exact same products in different terminals.
Overall, we found Terminal 7 to be the cheapest at JFK, followed by terminals 4, 8, 5 and 1.
At JFK, the price of a 1-liter bottle of Bacardi Gold rum varied from $14 to $23. If you’re flying with British Airways, expect to pay $14 for that bottle in the Terminal 7 stores. But if you’re flying with Lufthansa from Terminal 1, you’ll be paying 48% more.
Such astronomical price differences weren’t limited to liquor. If you’re looking to buy a 100-milliliter bottle of Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair, you’ll pay $139.50 if you’re flying, say, JetBlue from Terminal 5. Compare that to $108 if you’re popping into the shop while flying LOT from Terminal 7.
Even though Newark has fewer duty-free stores, there were similar price differences there. A 100-milliliter bottle of Acqua di Gio was selling for $82 in Terminal B and $93 in Terminal C — a 13% difference. Across the board, the prices in Terminal B were 10% cheaper than the shops in Terminal C.
In other airports, such as Brussels (BRU), Denver (DEN) and Tokyo Haneda (HND), the duty-free prices were the same throughout the different terminals.
The varying prices among the terminals at JFK and Newark can probably be attributed to the fact that different companies manage the duty-free stores in each terminal. In JFK, International Shoppes operates the duty-free stores in terminals 1, 5 and 8. DFS manages the store in Terminal 4, while Duty Free Americas runs the store in Terminal 7. At Newark, the duty-free stores in terminals A and B are operated by EJE Travel Retail, while the stores in Terminal C are operated by Dufry.
So, is duty free worth it?
In certain airports, yes! Through our research, we found that there are some airports where duty-free shopping makes sense and others where it doesn’t. Unfortunately, there is no single airport that’s got the best duty-free store.
Looking for cheap duty-free liquor? Head to the Caribbean and select European airports. For duty-free cosmetics and fragrances, stock up in London, Madrid and Dubai. And if you’re searching for cheap duty-free tobacco products, your wallet will fare well in Asia.
As we’ve demonstrated, duty-free prices vary significantly across the world, the U.S. and even the airport terminal you’re flying from. The bottom line: Always do your research — you may just end up scoring a deal.
Graphics by Orli Friedman/The Points Guy.
Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.