Like Kramer in Seinfeld, many people expect huge savings when they hit the duty-free store at the airport. But other shoppers, like George Costanza, are skeptical. “Duty free is the biggest sucker deal in the history of retail,” he sniffed in one episode.
Just because something is sold tax-free doesn’t mean it’s a bargain. “Sin tax” items like liquor and tobacco are usually cheaper, but electronics and cosmetics aren’t always a good deal.
What’s worth it and what isn’t? The Toronto Star asked Trae Bodge, a senior lifestyle editor at RetailMeNot.com, and Lois Pasternak, editor of the trade newsletter Travel Markets Insider.
Alcohol is in general a very good buy at the duty-free store, Pasternak said. A comparison of the prices of Crown Royal whiskey at duty-free shops and the LCBO suggests she’s right.
A one-litre bottle of Crown Royal is $23 at Ambassador Duty Free in Windsor or $29 on an Air Canada flight. At the LCBO, a 1.14L bottle is $40.95.
Even if the duty-free store is cheaper, Pasternak warned that customers may find even better discounts at their destination. (If you have a connecting flight, make sure you have room to store your alcohol in your bags before re-checking them.)
Like alcohol, tobacco is heavily taxed, so it’s usually a steal at the duty-free store. In Ontario, the tax on a pack of 20 cigarettes is $2.80, and it’s $27.95 for a carton of 200.
“The vast majority of the prices of tobacco are taxes and duties,” Pasternak said. “When you’re not paying those you could be paying as little as a quarter of the price.”
“Some brands you can do really well with, because some are never discounted in the local market,” Pasternak said. “I’m talking about the Chanels and the Lancômes.”
A 50 mL bottle of Lancôme Advanced Génifique “youth activating” serum goes for $115 at Air Canada’s gift shop and $129 plus tax at Hudson’s Bay.
Before buying anything, Bodge recommends using a price comparison, barcode-scanner app like Red Laser or Price Grabber to check how much it costs at nearby stores.
Shoppers should be wary of buying electronics at the duty-free store, Pasternak warned. Many duty-free shops don’t carry the latest devices, especially when it comes to more expensive items such as cameras.
You probably won’t find a better discount on gadgets at the duty-free story than you would on the Internet, Pasternak said.
When buying expensive electronics at duty free, it’s important to be mindful of the limits on duty-free shopping. For Canadians, they are $200 for 24- to 48-hour trips and $800 after that.
As for headphones, “you’re definitely going to be stuck paying more, just because those can be priced at a premium at the airport,” Bodge said.
Sometimes imported sweets and cookies are well-priced at duty free, Bodge said. That includes Swiss chocolates and digestive biscuits from the U.K.
And there are some goodies that are only available at duty-free stores, such as chocolate gift boxes, Pasternak said.
Prices aren’t the same at all duty-free shops, however. The Godiva Canadian souvenir box of 15 chocolates is $15 at Ambassador Duty Free and $29 at Air Canada’s duty free.