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From the moment you step into an international terminal to the time you clear customs, duty-free shopping is everywhere — even in-flight. To help you find the best bang for your buck, TPG Contributor Lane Nieset shares some of the best duty-free buys around the globe.
I once looked at duty free as a last-minute souvenir spot where I could snag that wine I forgot to pick up for friends, or find gifts for family that I didn’t have time to purchase in town — but recently, airports seems to have stepped up their duty-free game. Most already have duty-free shopping strategically placed post-security, so the only way to enter the terminal is by weaving your way through aisles packed with beauty products and booze — and those that don’t yet have this setup are starting to change their tune. For example, just last year, my own home airport, Nice Côte d’Azur (NCE), announced that in correlation with 2014’s TAXFREE event (the anniversary of duty-free shopping), it would undergo a major remodel in order to double duty-free shopping space and create the “most unforgettable retail experience of any European airport.”
While you can usually stumble on great savings at an airport duty-free shop, it takes some insider intel to navigate the overall do’s and don’ts of duty free, especially when you add currency conversions to the mix. Big spenders should remember that when returning to the US from countries other than the Caribbean, you’ll only have an $800 duty-free exemption — and you’ll have to pay 3% on the next $1,000. You’re also limited on the quantity of alcohol and tobacco products you can bring back duty-free. With these limit in mind, here are a few choice items to look out for while traveling.
Perfume & Fashion
In Europe, one of the main advantage for Americans is saving on tax, or VAT, that can be anywhere from 5 to 25 percent — and with the current euro-exchange rate, you’ll be saving even more. So, if you’ve been waiting to buy a new perfume or restock your makeup bag, now’s the time.
In Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), for instance, perfumes are one of the best deals (Chanel, Hermès, you name it), and you won’t have to worry about the 3.4-ounce liquid limitation on carry-ons. The more splurge-y French items like Diptyque candles (known for its Baies scent), Longchamp tote bags and Kusmi Tea are some of the best deals you’ll find at CDG. While the medium-sized Le Pliage nylon Longchamp tote retails for around $115 in the States, it starts at 62 euros ($66) at duty-free, and often includes patterns and styles you can’t find back home.
When it comes to cosmetics, the beauty world flocks to Asia to get their fix of serums, moisturizers and masks made of everything from sea kelp to snail slime extract. Incheon International Airport (ICN), the main hub for travel to Seoul, South Korea, is a goldmine of beauty. You’ll find all of those sought-after masks by Korean brands like innisfree, TonyMoly and Skin Food sitting in Lotte duty-free with specials on packs and free gifts with larger sales. Innisfree’s green tea skin masks, a personal favorite, go for $15 for a 20-pack, while individual masks in stores are $1.20 each.
The world’s largest single airport retailer (with sales of more than $1.9 billion in 2014 alone), Dubai Duty Free at Dubai International Airport (DXB) sells almost everything imaginable, from Rolex watches to Porsche Design luggage and international cigars. Not only do they have an over-the-top selection of products for sale, they also have Bentleys and BMWs as prizes for their many raffles and lotteries. If that wasn’t enough to make this duty-free mecca stand out from those in other airports, its “City of Gold” offers deals like those you’d find in Dubai’s popular souks. If you’re in the market for gold chains by the meter while waiting for your flight, you’ll find a number of deals on 18, 22 and 24K gold at price-points that are much more reasonable than those you’ll find in the States. (Note that while there’s no VAT, you may have to pay tax if you’re over the duty-free exemption). After getting your gold fix, stop by the perfume counter for traditional oil-based fragrances like Arabian Oud.
In the Caribbean, you’re practically in the land of spirits, and duty-free can be one of the best ways to bring home a bottle (or three) to savor after your trip. You may even find duty-free post-customs in some of these destinations, getting a head-start on the shopping process.
While in Montego Bay, Jamaica‘s Sangster International Airport (MBJ), pick up local favorites like Wallenford Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee and Tortuga Rum Cake, sample Tesseron Cognac and Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky from The Xtra Ordinary Store, or opt for a bottle of local Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum.
While passing through large Mexican airports like Cancun’s CUN, you’ll find that tequila is a real hot-ticket item, with specials on two bottles or more. The Caribbean’s usual duty-free limit is two liters, but you can bring back up to five bottles from the US Virgin Islands, just as long as one is a product of the USVI, Guam or American Samoa.
If you have some time to spare, be sure to do your research before you hand over a credit card. That’s when airport Wi-Fi or cheap international data comes in handy (from T-Mobile, Verizon or Google’s Project Fi). If you have your eye on something in particular, spend a moment to search for the item at retailers back home — you might find that an amazing duty-free sale isn’t such a good deal, after all.
And speaking of credit cards, be sure to choose ones that don’t charge foreign transaction fees, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and the Citi ThankYou Premier — which are ideal to use while purchasing duty-free items abroad. To see more cards without these fees, check out Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.
What are some of your favorite duty-free shopping tips and tricks? Share with us in the comments below! Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.