Best Airports for Duty-Free Shopping
The sun had not yet come up, and Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport was practically empty at 6:30 a.m. on a chilly day last January, but the Hermès boutique in Terminal 2E was open and the saleslady was more than happy to show me the putty-colored Jypsière bag advertised in the window for 4,600 euros. Did I mention it was 6:30 in the morning? I hadn’t even had a café crème yet and the bank where I hoped to change a pocketful of euros back into pathetic dollars was still not staffed. But there I was, already clocking 12 percent discounts at Hermès, Yves Saint Laurent, and Prada. Once limited to tax-free cigarettes, vodka, and the occasional box of chocolate, the $37 billion global duty-free shopping business has taken on a whole new look since the concept made its debut in Ireland’s Shannon Airport in 1947.
“If you walk through any airport you would think the world was run by ten brands,” says Paris-based Italian designer Giambattista Valli, referring to the plethora of Dior, Chanel, Prada, and Gucci boutiques popping up alongside every runway. One of Valli’s discoveries on a recent trip to Asia was a trove of Pañpuri beauty products at the Bangkok airport. Of course, fragrances and beauty products have long been a staple of most duty-free shops. I remember stocking up on such hard-to-find French pharmacy products as Embryolisse and Avène at Orly airport in the mid 1990’s. But these days, those quaint pharmacies and organic beauty shops are often overshadowed by the more glamorous luxury brands. Much of the growth in duty-free shopping in the past 10 years can be attributed to security measures that force travelers to arrive earlier and therefore spend more time at airports. Once they’ve cleared security—potentially enduring the dreaded pat-down—fliers now find themselves in a virtual luxury mall where the doors open at dawn and often don’t close until almost midnight.
My friend Michela Ratti, a fragrance executive based in Geneva, clued me in to the bargains and services now available when she regaled me with stories about tracking down a pair of “sold-out” Gucci boots at Milan’s Malpensa airport, shopping at the Valentino boutique in Rome’s Fiumicino Terminal 3, or calling ahead to her Chanel salesperson at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 to make sure they had a certain dress in her size.
“It’s my obsession. If I could be anywhere in the world, I’d like to be in Terminal 5 at Heathrow,” she says, laughing. That’s where she finds Smythson diary refills, Boots chemist vitamins, and a great Elemis spa. Ratti regularly flies in and out of Geneva, Zurich, Venice, Milan’s Malpensa, JFK, and Heathrow, and often does her Christmas shopping at Venice’s Marco Polo airport. “In Zurich there’s a whole side of duty-free that’s open until ten p.m. seven days a week, which is a real convenience,” she says. “If you arrive late from a trip you can still buy food to take home.”
The best duty-free shopping really does depend on the destination. Madrid’s Barajas Airport has a great selection of wines, Zurich has a branch of the Swiss chocolatier Sprüngli, and Charles de Gaulle has Hédiard, where Ratti has been known to buy a cheese plate, “if I’m feeling brave and can sit with it on my lap on the plane!” The ne plus ultra of duty-free shopping can be found in Hong Kong—“like New York’s Fifth Avenue in an airport”—that Ratti says is worth the detour. Even in Nairobi, on the way home from a safari, Ratti discovered a store selling beautiful locally produced children’s pajamas and caftans.
In my latest early-morning spree at Charles de Gaulle I caressed piles of brightly colored cashmere sweaters at Ralph Lauren, ogled Cartier’s white-gold Ballon Bleu watch, and even tried on Van Cleef & Arpels’s long Alhambra necklace. The Prada shop had a black-and-white-checked floor just like the one in its Galleria Vittorio Emanuele shop in Milan, a detail that seemed to make a black nylon trolley for $1,631 all the more alluring. I considered buying a few chic Prada pouches in rich shades of fuchsia and tangerine as last-minute gifts. And I even wandered into a kids’ store selling Burberry and Bonpoint. Seven in the morning still seemed awfully early. Instead I settled on a Hello Kitty T-shirt for my daughter.
Kate Betts is the author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style (Clarkson Potter; $35).
Schiphol, Amsterdam Between Terminals E & F
What You’ll Find: Missoni, Ugg, and dozens of tulip shops.
Insider Tip: The Rijksmuseum has an airport outpost showing works by Dutch Golden Age masters, along with a gift shop downstairs for that last-minute Delft-school poster or packet of note-cards.
Heathrow, London Terminal 5
What You’ll Find: Harrods, Thomas Pink, Ted Baker, Smythson, Mulberry, Links of London—if the designer speaks with a British accent, it’s here.
Insider Tip: Pop into Paul Smith Globe for smartly tailored clothing and travel games, or browse rare books in the reading room.
Charles de Gaulle, Paris Terminal 2
What You’ll Find: Finally, a place to buy those jewel-like Ladurée macarons outside the city. There’s also Beauty Unlimited for upscale European products, and the innovative kids’ shop Quand le Chat n’est pas là.
Insider Tip: Get last-minute gifts at the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, including pieces inspired by artworks from French museums such as the Louvre and Versailles.
Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino, Rome Terminal 3, Area C
What You’ll Find: Prada, Gucci, Armani, Valentino, Etro, and almost any other luxury brand ending in a vowel.
Insider Tip: For men: there’s one of the world’s only airport Ferrari boutiques, with leather jackets, T-shirts, and more emblazoned with the automaker’s logo (sorry, the car’s not for sale).
Incheon, Seoul Main Terminal
What You’ll Find: A beauty addict’s treasure trove of only-in-Korea cosmetics brands: The Face Shop, Skin Food, Etude House, VOV. And soon to open: the world’s first (and so far, only) Louis Vuitton duty-free outlet.
Insider Tip: Hit the Museum of Korean Culture on concourse 4F for artifacts and art from the country, including an actual pagoda, and terrific handmade souvenirs.
Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong Terminal 1
What You’ll Find: A male-skewing hoard of designer brands: Vertu cell phones, Bose electronics, Links of London cuff links, and watches from Tissot, Piaget, and IWC Schaffhausen.
Insider Tip: Duck into MUJI to GO, a travel-heavy outlet for the Japanese minimalist brand, which sells everything from slippers to TSA-approved mini toiletry bottles.
Chhatrapati Shivaji, Mumbai Terminal 2
What You’ll Find: Local crafts, jewels, and fabrics at last-minute duty-free prices at Krishna Pearls & Jewellers, Crystal Mirage, Casa Pashma, and Little India.
Insider Tip: Prep for that brutal long-haul jaunt with a foot work-over at the My Foot Reflexology spa.
Kingsford Smith, Sydney Terminal 1
What You’ll Find: Coach, Burberry, French Connection, Pandora, R. M. Williams, and even Victoria’s Secret.
Insider Tip: Lonely Planet has its only travel store in the world at this terminal, selling not only its vast back catalogue of guidebooks but maps, travel accessories, and funky gadgets too.
Haneda, Tokyo International Terminal
What You’ll Find: The name of the Edo Marketplace is a tip-off—Edo is the old word for Tokyo. In this concourse, decked out with bamboo and red lanterns, find throwbackish retail, from a traditional cosmetics shop to outlets selling Furoshiki linens and ikebana floral arrangements.
Insider Tip: Don’t miss the giant Hello Kitty store here, a temple to the icon of kawaii (cuteness).
Dubai International Airport, Dubai Terminal 3
What You’ll Find: The largest duty-free set-up in the world—almost 60,000 square feet—selling more than $1 billion in goodies every year, 5 percent of the entire global DF total. Expect any splurge-worthy brand, from Waterford to Swarovski, and even Casa del Habano cigars.
Insider Tip: Budget time enough to stop for a chat with the six wine advisors and two spirits gurus selling ultra-luxe tipples at Le Clos—a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 is nearly $28,000.