Online Duty Free Information – is it worth the bother and where’s the best place to find it? What do you need to know?
Most travelers in Europe and North America are completely unaware that you can buy your duty free on arrival in 70+ countries as well as from the more conventional departure shops. If you are visiting London, Lagos or Luanda, the dutyfreeonarrival shopping guide will take you to the outlets, giving you links to the stores and also to the Customs Exemptions, Allowances or Limits that you are permitted.
Travellers will soon see many more offers for Duty Free Home delivery on their purchases, this is is especially prevalent throughout European Union Countries, where there is the supposed “free movement of goods”.
Airports are starting to go online by launching what is known as their own “retail eco-systems or omni-channel”. Basically this means that they are selling online, just like the other big players, or any another other domestic online retailer.
This is a cautionary tale for consumers looking for bargains on their travels and it is wise to check before you fly as to the actual deal you are getting.
Starting with European Union countries, you might now be offered the convenience of Duty Free Home Delivery when you travel abroad, but Duty Free Shopping for those travelling within the EU hasn’t existed for more than 10 years now. It was abolished, for the preference of “free movement of goods”, but with the Tax and Excise Duty paid on all these free-moving goods.
What this means is that nothing you buy for travel between EU Member States is “duty free” at all and anyway, even if you fly to somewhere outside the EU, the goods you buy, must be exported by hand and removed from the country where you bought them, for you to get the full tax discount benefit.
This is why you need lug all those plastic bags full of bottles with you on your flights.
So, for anything you buy from an EU based airline or airport Duty Free Shop, for delivery to your home, it is not really “Duty Free” at all. (It is another convenient marketing way of saying discounted). Just the same, the Tax, (such as Value Added Tax VAT/IVA/MWst), has actually been paid for you by the retailers, so to allow them to deliver to you and circumvent the Customs rules.
They might make offers on alcohol and certainly Perfumes or Cosmetics, but you will not likely see any deals on tobaccos… because the (Excise) Duty taxation on these products is too high to be subsidised for domestic deliveries.
Fine, who cares? As long as you get the products and the prices you want, what’s the difference? Well, there isn’t any, because thank you very much a retailer just paid your Tax for you, so to get your business.
But, the trick here maybe is to make sure you “haggle the price” to get a better deal or to check that you cannot just get the same products as cheap in a normal store just round the corner. Why, because maybe airport or airline retailers have more margin to spare on goods sold online, because their rent might be lower. And also, the airport deal might encourage your local store to discount more on the price. Print out the offer and show it to them… nothing ventured!
The other trick is to check if you really need to travel at all to actually get these airport discounts? Maybe you can just buy and have the goods delivered to you? (Each site will have different rules though).
One pitfall to look out for is the mixing your products, because they will deliver some products to you, but not others, like cigarettes. And, it is almost certain that they will not wish to deliver to a non-EU Country, if that’s where you live.
It is all about understanding the Duty Free Shopping rules in advance, to make sure what you want is what you get and how you can take advantage of the best deals.
Your Product and the Price is King, if you can wade yourself through the different regulations, you are ahead of the game, but forewarned is always best policy!
Most of our travel point duty free information pages will give you the rules and regulations to help you make up your mind. But the rule of thumb is make sure that you check before you fly for all the rules, on our global shopping guide.
In 2015 and ongoing, there was a huge scandal in Britain about Boarding Passes Airport Shopping and Duty Free stores. The discussion surrounded how some airport stores were allegedly using your airline route data to recover the tax on your purchases, but to keep it for themselves and not pass it on.
The story went viral, even reaching South America, because for all travelers, the airport shopping concept is supposed to save us money.
Being clear, this was a UK related story and one specifically referring to British airports, but what it did was open a Pandora’s Box as to whether airport Duty Free or Tax Free Shopping was good value or not.
And, whether we, the public, were just being seen as targets to be ripped-off. The massive press coverage and even bigger social media comment spoke for itself. There didn’t seem to be many travelers out there who had much love for airports and their retail policies.
Duty Free on Arrival is not here to defend airports, we are independent and do not work for them, nor for their retail Concessionaires.
But, much of this problem is because few really understand the rules properly, not least the difference between Duty Free and Tax-Free shopping in Britain.
The problem also came about because British airports and their Retail Partners had “muddied the waters” in relation to airport shopping, Duty Free and Tax Free. This happened when duty free shopping was abolished within the EU over 10 years ago as an initiative to keep their business going.
In effect, they introduced one price on many products so that intra-EU travelers continued buying, but by doing so completely confused everybody as to what was really Duty Free or not. But, they could only do this by absorbing some of the sales tax (VAT) on the goods they sold.
Since then many Airports, their Retailers, the Media and much of the Public still use the description “duty-free” as a euphemism for discount shopping. The problem occurs when these perceived discounts don’t happen or people are confused by the descriptions.
This is what happened when the scandal broke and much of the Media were more interested in making a good story than properly understanding and explaining the Rules. Few, properly described the situation at the first attempt.
So, the global Boarding Pass firestorm occurred and yet nobody is much the wiser.
Today, almost 12 months on, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported how many airport retailers will now adapt a fairer policy. Apparently, a more detailed explanation is soon to follow.
At the end of the day it is all about the price you pay and whether this is a bargain or not.
The best discounts are on tobaccos, followed by liquors and by the time you move down the scale through Perfumes, Cosmetics, electronics, chocolates and gifts you will be moving towards paying more than normal on The High Street. Certainly for a soft drink, water, snacks or a sandwich.
Let’s try and explain, so that you know the reality…..
– In British airports, certain stores are designated by Customs as a tax-exempt warehouse or “Export Shop”, such as those giant walk-through shops selling alcohol or tobacco, perfumes, cosmetics or gifts. This is what we all know and understand as a real “Duty Free Shop”.
– These Export Shops are technically split into (Excise) Duty Free supplies for liquors and tobaccos and all the other goods, which only have VAT (Sales tax) levied on them. They usually (or used to) show the description “Tax Free Shops”.
– And these designated stores claim that they have to report and account their sales to Customs for everything they sell. This is why they say they need to log your Boarding Pass at airport stores, check the details and scan it. The ambiguity is that there is no additional “Excise Duty” on Perfume or Chocolates.
– The above stores have such a mass of different products with or without Excise Duty that there is some credence to why they need to log your travel details and account for all this to the Customs authorities. (For example they sell liquors to both EU and non-EU passengers from the same shop).
– But, for other airport shops, like convenience stores, who might sell you cigarettes, newspapers or other outlets like fashion or electronic stores, they are really no different to shops you would find outside of the airport and Downtown. In an airport they can be defined as Tax-Free shops with permission. In reality, they are “discounted stores”, (or maybe not-so discounted stores), but for major Brands and their marketing, the use of the word discount is on a par with heresy. Hence why the marketing waters are muddied.
– Some of these “Tax Free” stores can re-claim the sales tax (VAT) on the goods you buy, because you will be leaving the European Union on your trip. But they are not allowed to re-claim the Excise Duty on any cigarettes or liquor they may sell, regardless where you are going to. They are not allowed to re-claim the VAT for intra-EU travellers however, which is another reason why they want your flight details.
The core issue is whether these “Tax Free” stores or convenience, pharmacies or gift shops are giving you back what you deserve. But most, if not all of them have one price, regardless of your destination.
And so, who is actually getting the best of this one-price policy, the EU or the non-EU traveler?
They would claim we are, because of the one price policy, whereas many travelers would see it that they are, because the shops are (or were) allegedly keeping the cream.
If the price of a hamburger in an airport is anything to go by, I know where our vote goes!
“Let the buyer beware” couldn’t be more appropriate than to those flying abroad and we hope that our extensive articles and explanations help you to be forewarned.
Finally, don’t get confused with the Downtown shopping system, also called Tax-Free with Claim Booths at the airport.
This is completely different to the airport stores and is simply a refund scheme where certain visitors can claim back the VAT before they leave the Country. But this applies to shops outside the airport on what you buy Downtown and is another complex issue, which we will deal with another day.
The airport "Tax-Free"* issue is really all about what is known as "price positioning" by the various Stores in the airports.They can either sell everything to all, at the lower price, with the VAT refunds they get included in this lower price, or they can position prices at the higher tax-included price across the board.It seems highly likely that prices were positioned somewhere near the higher (taxi-included) level, so to give the impression of a bargain and a discount all round to all passengers.More than likely, prices were averaged, firstly to attract EU shoppers, where they still have to include the VAT and then the tax that retailers' recovered, is then used to offset any losses on this average price.
The simple answer would be dual-pricing, EU and non-EU, which is exactly what the genuine (Duty Free) "Export Stores" do on Liquors. The problem is they do not seem to be doing this for other products like Perfumes.
Some of the other "Tax-Free" airport stores seem to be pricing as they see fit for the market and basing their airport prices on what is known as "the recommended retail price". i.e Find the highest price in a normal store in the local High Street, then discount back so to claim and look cheaper in the airport. Then your tax-saving price in the airport is described as a discounted price benefit to passengers.
*"Duty Free" sales are slightly more complex, due to the additional (Excise) Tax levied on Liquors & Tobaccos. But, the actual (Excise) Duty reduction, or "drawback" as it was once known, on products like cigarettes or alcohol, could often be greater than the discount given to you in the stores.
*In effect this means that all the (Excise) Duty Tax may not been discounted to the full either.
**So, it is reasonable to assume that you are probably not getting back the full tax refund on your Marlboro or Absolut either. Just compare tobacco prices at London Heathrow, with Dubai or Istanbul Duty Free to see the difference.
The Official British Government Tax Notices can be found here. It is unlikely that many travelers would want to go though all the fine print, but if you do, here is it.Excise (Duty Free) Goods Alcohol or tobaccos in Export Shops
Other goods sold in Tax-Free Airport Shops (selling or recovering Value Added Tax)
Many people from outside Europe assume that because this train crosses Borders, duty free shopping must be available. Sorry, but there are no duty free shops at either end, nor on the train, because within The EU this is not allowed. The same applies to the stations, just as the other fast EU trains, Thalys, TGV, AVE or others have no duty free shopping facilities.
There are stores discounting goods, some call themselves “Tax Free”, but this really means that any goods sold may have the local sales tax discounted so to attract customers. But they are not real Duty Free Shops.
That said, the prices can often be competitive, especially for tobaccos or liquors and if you travelling into the UK, you’ll probably find the prices for these products are more expensive when you get there.
The Channel Tunnel Terminals for motorists also have large discount shopping areas on departure, but again, these stores are not allowed to sell duty free. Prices might still work for you and it might be convenient, but the large savings have now gone since duty free shopping was abolished by The European Commission.
So where can you buy Duty Free on a train or at the station?
Hong Kong, for one, has a multitude of stores in its Terminal serving passenger trains to the Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen and some of these stores are indeed Duty Free.
You could then travel on to Shanghai or Beijing from there, it’s a long journey, but the Chinese State has embraced the sale of Tax Free luxury goods.
They now have a number of Domestic Malls where you can buy goods inland and Tax Free.
Passengers must change trains at this point and in-between you will find a Duty Free store selling liquors, tobaccos and a range of other goods.
Then there is Russia, a vast country with the famous Siberian railway which passes through various countries on its way to China.
At the different Border Crossings there are stores and vendors, what exactly is duty free or not is debatable, but for sure you can buy at good prices.
Just the same as Russian trains run into Finland, where you will find Duty Free Border Stores. If you can get off and back on is another matter, but the stores are there. Just the same applies to the Ukraine, but in view of some recent turmoil, what duty free is actually available at these Borders is unclear.
Duty Free shopping in North, Central or South America?
Trains are not really such a major form of transport in these continents compared to Europe or Asia, so duty free on a train or at the stations is not searched so often. Bus, car, van or coach travel is more common, so cross-border shopping is the major question for these places.
People expect bargains on their travels, Tax Free shopping in airports or on airlines has always conjured up images of super cheap prices in the mind of passengers. Today, airports are lined with Duty Free stores, airlines with the seat-back catalogue and now that touch screen video. All designed to make you spend when travelling.
But, for the travelling shopper there is a confusing array of rules, regulations, terms and prices to negotiate on the way to those bargains. Not to mention the Security or Customs hurdles that have to be overcome.
Cigarettes, tobaccos or cigars and alcohol like duty free whisky or wine, are all sold in Duty Free Shops without the inclusion of the normal Duties (Taxes) which are levied on these products in the local market. Originally these special taxes were known as “Excise Duties”. In high Taxation areas, such as Scandinavian countries, these products cost a fortune in their respective domestic markets due to these local (Excise) taxes and generally speaking, tobacco prices are just going up and up all around the world.
So, when you fly, these products can often be bought much cheaper, because these special local taxes (Excise Duties) are discounted from the price for international travellers. Hence the name (Excise) Duty Free shop.
Add to that the relevant local sales taxes such as the Value Added Tax (IVA, VAT, Gst), then the savings are substantial in the airports because both taxes are deducted for you.
In some countries the different taxes added to the price of your Marlboro cigarettes, Absolut vodka or Johnnie Walker whisky can account for up to 70% of the local domestic price. Now you know why you can find a carton of Dunhill cigarettes for +/- US$20 in Dubai Duty Free, compared to a much higher domestic price elsewhere.
And then there is what many airport stores describe as “Tax Free” prices and it is often a clear distinction, such as in the United Kingdom where stores used to be split in two between the Tax Free and Duty Free product sections.
Of course, this depends on where you are and in which airport arrivals or departure lounge you are in, because every country has their own local rules. But, the simple rule of thumb is that Tax Free free really means only less the local sales tax, value added tax or gst as it is often known in Asia.
These sales taxes are usually nowhere near as high as those Excise Duties levied on liquors or tobacco and more often than not, just a percentage of the local sales price. Perhaps between 5% and 20% of the net price.
So, products like clothing, fashion goods, perfumes, watches, cosmetics, food, chocolates and really anything else you see in an airport store, (apart from tobacco or alcohol), only has the local sales tax deducted. Hence the different description of “Tax Free”.
What does this mean?
It means that the savings on goods described as “Tax Free” in airports or on airlines, may not be as great as you think. Often, such products can be bought locally at your destination at the same prices or cheaper. Why, because many destinations have lower local sales taxes and lower prices and/or their currency is weaker too. All these factors bring the prices down compared to your home airport.
Of course, much depends on where you live, your local tax rate, your currency value and where you travel to.
Which is why we advise travelling shoppers to use our global airport shopping guide and to compare the prices, products, rules and regulations at all their travel points, before they fly.
And this is the service we provide. So, if you wish to pre-plan your holiday shopping, you can check and compare best duty free prices with our search portal.
Just choose your language by clicking your flag, enter your destination in your own language and “go”!