At Duty-Free Airport Stores, Buyer Beware

When traveling overseas, you may find yourself tempted to buy from the myriad duty-free shops that populate most major airports. Think twice: one comparison-shopping report showed that discounts from duty-free shops are often minimal, and may not be worth the hassle.

If you’re traveling overseas, you may find yourself tempted to browse through one of the airport shops that advertise tax-free or duty-free merchandise. In many airports, you can’t even get to where you board your flight without running a gauntlet of such stores. According to a recent comparison-shopping report, however, any discount you get there may be minimal.

The “tax-free” designation refers to the value-added tax, or VAT, which is common throughout Europe and averages about 17 percent. If goods in the airport stores were truly tax-free, according to the report, discounts would average about 17 percent, but instead they are, on average, just 6 percent below local retail prices. In many cases, you could get a better deal shopping on the Internet or in local stores.

One example is liquor, a favorite purchase of bargain hunters at duty-free airport stores. Comparison shoppers found, however, that prices at retailers in the U.S. were often lower than those hawked by the airport shops. Travel consultants also caution that, although you can put liquor in your carry-on luggage for your flight back to the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration will make you put it in with your checked baggage if you have a domestic connecting flight to your home.

The best way to find out if the duty-free purchase is a bargain worth the hassle is to comparison shop beforehand. If you’re thinking about buying specific items on your European trip, check out the prices online or at your local retailers. Then, when you’re browsing through a duty-free shop at Heathrow in London or Charles de Gaulle in Paris, you’ll be able to tell at a glance whether the merchandise is a bargain.