Duty-free shopping has come a long way since the early days of commercial air travel, when airport shops offered basics like attractively priced liquor, tobacco, and a smattering of perfumes. The first such shop opened in Shannon, Ireland, in 1947, back when airliners stopped to refuel en route between North America and Europe. Today, duty-free sales total over $27 billion a year, and the roster of items has grown to an overwhelming array that tempts travelers.
Over half of all duty-free purchases are at airport outlets. Many now resemble small department stores, with sections dedicated to various luxury brands, cosmetics counters, and gourmet foods. And when it comes to duty-free, Europe dominates: the continent has six of the world’s 10 busiest airport duty-free stores and accounts for 42 percent of all duty-free purchases.
Worldwide, duty-free customers spend the most on perfumes and cosmetics, followed closely by "luxury goods" (duty-free speak for electronics, jewelry, and watches). Since savings are, of course, due to lack of taxes and duties, some of the best deals are on these expensive items, as well as others, like alcohol and tobacco, that are often taxed at higher rates.
So what’s the best way to save?Do your homework and price items you’re considering buying before you travel—that Toblerone may be cheaper at your local grocery store. This is particularly true if you’re shopping for electronics: selection at any particular duty-free store will be limited, so research retail prices for a number of models that you like and beware that some stores sell last year’s models. And though some luxury goods are almost always sure bargains, the price of everything from chocolate to perfume varies widely from one airport to another. To help get you started, we scoured airports around Europe to price three items—Toblerone, Tanqueray gin, and Chanel No. 5—and we compare them to what you’d pay on board, at Newark Airport’s duty-free stores, and in the shops of New York City.