Is Duty Free Ever a Good Deal?

International travelers, you know the drill: You can bring in up to one liter of booze without paying the duty on it. And if they have a special name for it (“the duty!”), that must be a lot of cash, right? Hence the existence of duty free shops in every international airport on earth.

But how much is the duty on wine and spirits anyway?

This took some research to uncover and I finally dug it up: Not much. About $2 to $3 per liter for most alcoholic products, after your first liter (which is automatically duty free).

Duty free shops promise to take the duty and any taxes out of the price for you, making your shopping theoretically cheaper. The catch, though, is that if you overshoot your one-liter limit, you still have to pay the duty yourself when you arrive home.

The bigger issue, though, isn’t the duty, it’s the prices. Just because a shop is duty free, doesn’t mean it will be cheap, and anyone who’s bought a hamburger at the airport knows how pricey everything can get. Duty free is no exception, and during my recent overseas jaunt I spot-checked several airports looking for deals. I found literally no wine or spirits on sale anywhere that were cheaper than I knew I could get them back home, even after taxes. And I’d have to lug a bottle halfway around the world. In some cases, the prices were much higher (like 50 euros (about $62) for a 1-liter bottle of Ron Zacapa 23 (about $40 for 750ml in the states, or $53 pre-tax for a liter).

Bottom line: Browse those Duty Free aisles to your heart’s content, but you’re probably better off shopping locally once you return home.

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10 Responses to Is Duty Free Ever a Good Deal?

  1. Sorry to say this…I love your commentary and often check your reviews before checking anything new….but this time you are dead wrong. The problem is that you probably were looking at Duty Free Shops in Europe, if you go to South/Central America you will find deals galore – the best of which is Mexico. can you say Appleton 12 for $18 – that’s pretty awesome; as are the tequila, gin and vodka prices.

  2. True JasonK, and excellent point – these comments apply strictly to Europe. In other parts of the world you might find a better deal.

    That said, and I forgot to add this in the post, you’ll also do better by simply buying at a grocery store while you’re overseas. I grabbed a bottle of Havana Club 7 Years Old for 23 euros on the trip.

  3. I typically only shop duty-free for whisky I can’t get at home, such as Yoichi and the Hibiki blends. At that price point I’m not really looking for a deal, just anxious to get my hands on it! For anything else it’s not worth the trouble of stowing it on the plane and hauling it through security.

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  5. The other problem is that if you have to switch from an international terminal to a domestic terminal on your trip home, you have to leave and re-enter the secured area. Then you can’t carry the bottle on with you and have to surrender it at the security checkpoint (http://harryshearer.com/news/le_show/player/?id=743&start=10:33). If you have time you can check the bottle, but then you need to pack it in something and most likely pay the airline fee for an additional checked-in item.

  6. Well, I have a totally different point of view.
    I´m guessing most readers around here live in the US where you can find some awesome deals and a good selection of spirits.
    In my case duty free can represent an almost 30 – 50% off on my liquor since import taxes are so high around here (Brazil).
    Not to mention the selection as SSteve said.

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  8. I can speak from experience that I have found incredible deals on booze on islands such as St. Martin.

  9. I agree totally- in Europe the only value of duty free is finding items you can’t get in the US, like Havana Club, and some limited edition whiskies.

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