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Sky-high prices at duty free

Is duty-free always cheaper?

There’s a window shopper in all of us. And so it’s no surprise we’re enticed by duty-free as a prime shopping opportunity especially during long, international layovers.

But is buying duty-free the most financially savvy decision? Our Finder researchers set out to learn the answer by analyzing 27 products across nine categories.

In short: What you save on taxes might not make up for the up to 163% markup.

What’s cheaper duty-free?

Finder analyzed cigarettes, spirits, wine, skincare, makeup, perfume, chocolate, sunglasses and watches. Our findings suggest that tempting your taste buds with a duty-free bottle of your favorite spirit is the best deal, offering an average savings of 18% compared to the average amount of its sale-free, non-duty-free counterpart.

Frequent flyers with a thirst for Absolut Vodka Blue 1L 80P can sail three sheets to the wind with duty-free savings of up to 29% at Atlanta (ATL) or Chicago (ORD) airports — a savings of $7 per liter — over matching retail products you’d buy that aren’t duty-free.

Travelers who calm their nerves with a smoke may be in luck. Cigarettes are an average 17.4% cheaper at duty-free than buying at a traditional retail store. If you’re into Marlboro Reds or Golds 100s, you can score a carton for about $49.00 at duty-free — a 16% savings compared with $58.03 retail. Or save even more with Camel Crush Menthols, which are about 21% less than retail at $44 a carton.

If punctuality is your pleasure and you’re departing from Atlanta, you could potentially save a whopping 40% for a Fossil Virginia Stainless Steel Watch for $105 at Duty Free Americas compared to the $175 retail price.

What’s more expensive duty-free?

Unfortunately, savings are a rarity when it comes to duty-free shopping in the US: Six of the nine categories we analyzed cost more at US airports than at the traditional retailers we compared. Perfume is the worst-smelling deal at prices that can be 90% more than retail.

For instance, a 100mL bottle of Calvin Klein Obsessed Eau de Parfum Spray for Women is sold duty-free for about $86.75, reflecting a 160% markup on the $33.31 you’ll pay at your average retail store. This was by far the worst value item at duty-free compared to traditional retail options. (Personally, we’d put that extra $53.44 toward a bottle of Absolut Blue!)

Airport chocolate comes in second for the worst deal at a 42% average markup. For instance, you can score a Snickers Mini Pouch 500g for $5.69 at Target or take up the unsavory price tag of $14.50 at duty-free — a wild 163% markup.

Average markups for skincare vary widely from 8% to 58%. But how much more you’ll pay over retail depends on your product preferences. Travelers pay a whopping 29% more on average when buying skincare products on a layover. Clarins Blue Orchid Face Treatment Oil takes the lead with a 58% markup at duty-free, which may dampen that glow you’re going for.

Though skincare products may be better deals, none are great. Lancôme Galateis Douceur Gentle Softening Cleansing Fluid will run you 22% more retail, and L’Occitane Shea Butter Hand Cream will cost you 8% more.

Not-so-great duty-free “deals”

Rounding out what not to buy duty-free is wine and champagne, which can cost you 23% more than retail, and makeup at 4% more.

If you love imbibing the bubbly, you could pay up to 24% more than retail for both Moët & Chandon’s Brut Imperial and Dom Perignon Champagne Brut if you buy it duty-free. By opting for the Moët & Chandon at an average price of $52.00, you’d forfeit the $13.01 you’d save if you bought the bottle at retail for $38.99. If a jubilee is in order, your Dom Perignon is best bought locally for an average $149.98, compared with $185.50 duty-free.

Our data found that if you gotta wear shades you’ll pay the same whether you buy them duty-free or at full retail price.

Makeup markups aren’t as steep. For example, Lancôme products averaged about 4% more than retail overall. The three products we analyzed differed by one solitary dollar between duty-free and retail:

  • Lancôme L’Absolu Rouge 114 Amuse-Bouche 4.2mL — $33 at duty-free, $32 retail
  • Lancôme Grandiôse Liner 01 1.4mL — $33 at duty-free, $32 retail
  • Lancôme Matte Shaker 379 Yummy Pink Liquid Lipstick 6.5mL — $23 at duty-free, $22 retail

Bottom line

Depending on your preferences, duty-free shopping can make or break your bank. If you’re already planning your next big adventure, find a deal on travel.

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For all media inquiries, please contact:

Richard Laycock, Insights editor and senior content marketing manager


/in/richardlaycock/ /aleksvee/

Chelsea Gregori's headshot
Public Relations Specialist

Chelsea Gregori was a PR Specialist at Finder, where she enjoyed the ebb and flow of data storytelling, relationship building and link building. Chelsea is passionate about creating content that provides valuable resources to empower the people around her to make the most informed personal finance decisions. Prior to Finder, Chelsea managed the musical duo Well Worn Soles, booking venues and festivals across the Southeast. She also managed her personal homesteading blog, Grow Where You Sow, creating content to guide individuals looking for a slower, more financially savvy lifestyle. When she isn’t diving into the world of digital and traditional PR, she’s hang drying laundry, milking goats, growing gardens, humanely raising happy livestock, making mayonnaise and contributing to a 50-acre subsistence agricultural farm and community. See full bio

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