Answering the call of the airport duty free
Bargains are not guaranteed at airport duty frees, but it's easy to check prices online
If you've ever wondered whether that bottle of Bushmills Black Bush Irish whiskey you're inspecting in the lavishly appointed 'duty-free' store in the departure lounge of your holiday destination airport is really the bargain its made out to be, you'd be right to hesitate before whipping out your credit or debit card.
The Sunday Independent has compared the prices of a number of popular purchases in duty-free or "tax-free" stores in airports around the world - both in and outside the EU - with those of duty-free stores in Ireland as well as the cheapest online and high-street prices here.
But first, a reminder of a boring but important point of information: if you're travelling within the EU there is no such thing as duty-free because the sale of duty-free items was abolished in 1999. So passengers can only avail of duty-free bargains on heavily taxed items like alcohol or cigarettes if they are travelling outside the EU.
However, our survey shows that even the assumption that alcohol sold under the "duty-free" banner in a non-EU country is usefully cheaper than elsewhere is not always true, so it pays to take whatever opportunity you can to compare prices online and plan duty-free purchases accordingly.
Take the aforementioned (1-litre) bottle of Bushmills Black Bush whiskey. Comparing prices at duty-free stores in Dublin, London, Frankfurt, Dubai and Sydney airports, the cheapest price we found was in Frankfurt at €27.90 - even though Germany is in the EU - followed by Sydney (€29.70) and Dubai (€30.73).
Dublin and London were considerably pricier at €38 and €41.52 respectively.
However, the ranking of cheapest to most expensive was almost reversed in the case of a 75cl bottle of Moet and Chandon Brut Imperial Rose champagne. Retailing at Dublin airport duty free at €41, this beat Frankfurt at €42.50 and London at €46.45. Despite being proper 'duty-free' destinations, Dubai and Sydney were the priciest for this heavily taxed item, at €48.18 and €55.50 respectively.
Besides alcohol, cosmetics are among the most popular purchases at airport duty-free stores. Our survey showed that there is definitely value to be had there compared to the high street or online at home.
For instance, a 100ml bottle of Calvin Klein Eternity for Women EDP spray retails at €69.50 in TheLoop.ie (the online shop of Dublin, Shannon and Cork Airport duty-frees) and for €86 at Boots. Sydney's duty-free was the cheapest at €61, followed by London Heathrow at €66.88, even though prices there generally are less competitive because of the strength of sterling. Dublin's duty-free came third at €69.50, with Frankfurt and Dubai trailing the rear with €74 and €76.30 respectively. But still cheaper than Boots.
You could probably find it cheaper still online, but consumers have been warned about the potential for fakes and scams with items like perfume or sunglasses.
What our survey suggests is that just because duty-free stores don't have to pay customs tax, they don't necessarily have to pass savings on to customers. They may also be factoring in high cost of rent and other overheads for the privilege of retail space at the airport.
Duty-free shopping around
Dermott Jewell, policy advisor at the Consumers' Association of Ireland, said: "In general terms, unless you are travelling across international borders there is little or no saving to be made unless it is on alcohol or certain cosmetic items.
"Indeed, in light of the need for footfall in difficult times, there may often be occasional bargains in local stores at prices that are only slightly dearer."
However, the normal caveat about shopping around when it comes to duty-free is easier said than done, he said.
"I do think that there are two issues here. The first being that consumers purchase these products so infrequently that they are not really aware of the prices at home and assume that there is a bargain to be had.
"Secondly, they are caught up in the occasion of travelling on what may be a very rare opportunity and, again, also believe that they 'must' be getting a bargain."
It's well known that Ireland pioneered duty-free shopping with the opening in 1947 of the world's first duty-free shop at Shannon Airport.
Besides spreading worldwide this simple idea of opening shops behind passport control lines so that its products could be exempt from customs duties and other local taxes, not a whole lot has changed in the world of duty-free.
However, the product range has expanded a little beyond the usual alcohol, tobacco and beauty products to include technology, jewellery, leather and clothing items.
Our survey found that some duty-frees are very competitive on the technology front.
For instance, a set of BOSE QC25 headphones were on offer for €269.62 at Dublin duty free. They generally retail elsewhere for €299.
Sydney duty-free came out tops for a Canon 700D DSLR with a standard 18-55mm lens at just under €600, followed by €638.47 at Dublin duty free. Dubai and London also undercut the cheapest price we found from an online store at €679.
The issue with gadgets, of course, is that unless you get a substantial discount, the risk of buying them overseas is the hassle of returning them if a fault develops. So if you do buy an electronic item, check if there are other branches of the retailer nearer to home where goods may be returned.
The Heathrow Shopper Promise at Heathrow Airport, for instance, offers a 60-day return service on behalf of all the retailers at the airport if you change your mind, although you will have to fork out for the postage yourself unless it turns out there is a fault with it.
Prompted by the growth and convenience of online shopping, another small development in the duty-free sector has been the introduction of 'pre-order and collect' facilities, whereby you can reserve and pay for an item online and then collect it on your way back through the airport - to save you lugging it around during your holiday.
But the websites of duty-free stores also allow you to compare prices if you've already a good idea of what you want to get, or have a list of requests from friends and family.
Limits and restrictions
But besides comparing prices, duty-free shoppers will also need to check the quantities of items they are allowed to bring back home, particularly if it's alcohol or cigarettes. Failing to check this out could mean having to leave items at the security checkout, pay a customs tax or pay a fine for overweight baggage.
If you're travelling back from a non-EU country, including the Canary Islands, you can only bring back one litre of spirits (whiskey, gin or vodka) or two litres of an 'intermediate' product like champers, sherry or port. Beer fans are permitted to haul 16 litres of their favourite beverage, while the wine buffs can transport up to four litres.
For other items like perfume, clothing and gifts you can bring as much as you want as long as the combined value doesn't exceed €430 per person (€215 for a child under 15).
It's worth noting that you'll be screwed for the full import duty if the value is found to be over this amount - not just the portion of the value that exceeds the limit.
Limits aren't as strict if you're travelling from another EU country, but if you're planning to stock up on wine, you'll need to satisfy customs agents that it's for your own personal use. The main limits here per person are 800 cigarettes, 10 litres of spirits, 20 litres of intermediate, 90 litres of wine, and 110 litres of beer.
Make sure that you don't exceed your standard baggage weight restrictions, too.
Mr Jewell confirms that many travellers still get caught out by these restrictions, but adds that retail staff at duty-free desks always ask about your final destination, as they can advise you if you are over the limit and if your stuff is likely to be confiscated at any stage of your journey.
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