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How to be a Savvy Shopper at Duty-Free Stores

Duty-free stores are alluring. They’re stocked full of top-shelf liquor, name-brand cigarettes, and designer perfumes, among many other goodies. It’s tempting to walk in – even just to browse – whether or not you’re flying internationally. While casual shoppers may be lured in by the attractive selection of products available, the real draw for many is the ability to purchase high-end items tax-free. But is it really worth shopping at these stores? If so, when? Surprisingly, there are many situations when you should indulge, and that includes instances when you might not save much money.

What is duty-free shopping?

You can find these stores in the international sections of airports and seaports, at some overland border crossings, and even onboard international flights. The price tag on the items at these retail shops is the price you pay – customers are not charged import duties or sales tax.

Will I always get a good deal at the retail shops?

The number one thing to know is that you won’t always find a bargain, so you need to be a savvy shopper and try to avoid impulse purchases. When shopping at duty-free stores, it’s best to go in with a plan. Say you’re flying internationally and you know you want to buy Chanel perfume or Ray-Ban sunglasses. You shouldn’t just expect it to be sold cheaper than at a local store or even an online retailer – and it might not be. Do a quick price search either before you go or while you’re at a duty-free shop so you can compare final prices.

When should I make purchases at duty-free stores?

It’s definitely worth your time to shop at a duty-free store when you’re in the market for a high-end product. You may find big savings, but you might also find none at all. Even when duty-free shops don’t offer better prices than you’d see at home, there are still many reasons to shop there. Here are some you may not have considered:

You can spend money on alcohol now to save money later. If your destination imposes a high tax on alcohol, then drinking a beer or cocktail there will not be cheap. To save a little money, grab a bottle at the duty-free store so you can have a drink at your hotel before going out for the night.

Likewise, you might find that alcohol generally isn’t expensive in the country you’re traveling to, but your favorite brand may be because it’s imported. Duty-free stores offer the opportunity to buy what you like so you don’t need to worry about tracking down a decently priced bottle during your vacation.

You can buy local products without leaving the airport. For example, if you fly Turkish Airlines and your final destination isn’t Turkey, you’ll have a layover in Istanbul. The duty-free shop at Istanbul Atatürk Airport sells products like Turkish delight, olives, tea, and local wares. You don’t even need to go to the bazaar to bring home Turkish goods.

You can spend local currency you have remaining from your trip. This is an excellent opportunity to spend coins or low-domination bills you didn’t use during your vacation, as most currency exchange counters don’t accept coins and will offer a low rate for small bills. You’re better off spending the cash, even if the duty-free store doesn’t offer monumental savings.

You can get something you forgot to pick up during your trip. Even if locally made cheese or that Amsterdam t-shirt you wanted is overpriced at the airport, you can still purchase it at the last minute without paying taxes on it.

You can save big on cigarettes. Excise taxes vary by state, and some are way higher than others. New Yorkers who smoke, for example, will definitely save money by maxing out their duty-free allowance (more on that below). Again, be savvy by knowing what you’d spend at home so you can compare it when you’re at the store.

Can I buy as much as I want?

There are restrictions, and you should always read up on the most recent duty-free allowances before making a purchase. For example, U.S. citizens are granted an allowance of 200 cigarettes, 100 cigars, and one liter (33.8 fl. oz.) of alcohol. If you exceed your allowances, U.S. Customs has the authority to impose a duty and internal revenue tax on the surplus or may even confiscate the item(s) depending on what it is and the amount.

How will anyone know if I’ve gone over my allowances?

Well, you should be declaring your purchases when returning home. You’ll need to write on the Customs declaration form what you bought at the duty-free store with the items’ respective values. You can test your luck, but it’s best not to take chances with the law. It’s still possible that you could be questioned or searched even if you do declare everything you acquired abroad and are taking home with you.

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