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Are the Duty-Free discounts as good as they seem, or can you do better on the high street?

I quite enjoy a mooch around Duty-Free at the airport. Not only is it the only time I ever drink whiskey in the morning (it’s only a tiny free sample), but it’s a chance to save some money on some booze. Or at least it appears so.

With some very competitive prices in the supermarket, I wanted to find out whether you really can save money at Duty-Free. So on my recent trip to the States I took some photos of a few items both at Gatwick and Orlando airports so I could compare them with deals open to everyone.

What is Duty-Free?

First of all though, what exactly is Duty-Free? Well it’s shopping exempt from VAT – which is currently 20% for most items. But you only get this if you leave the EU.

So you’ll see different prices once you’re in the shops past airport security. f you’re flying within the EU there’s one price, and if you’re flying further afield there’s another. Actually you won’t see two prices on the same item. Instead there are different products for each. The lowest prices are usually for outside the EU. Obviously this could all change once / if Brexit is agreed.

So really the “tax-free shopping” signs you see displayed won’t be for everything on sale. There are also limits to what you can buy – at least for spirits and cigarettes – before you do have to pay tax.

Right, here’s how a handful of items compare against supermarkets and the high street.

Duty-Free Alcohol vs the supermarkets

I looked at a couple of big brands – a gin and a whiskey.

Bombay Sapphire Gin (1 litre) – Available for flights outside the EU only

This cost £23.99 at Gatwick (£2.40 per 100ml). A deal to buy two bottles was £36.29, making it £18.15 a bottle.

At Orlando’s international airport it cost $27. In current money that’s roughly £20.50. There was an offer to save 15% if you bought two bottles, which would drop it down to £17.50ish.

In Morrisons you can get it for £22, though it was £27.50 at most of the others.

Winner: Duty-Free

Bombay Sapphire Gin (700ml) – Available for all flights

This bottle was £18.99 at Gatwick, yet it’s on offer for £15 at Asda. That’s £2.14 per 100ml, so cheaper than the bigger bottle.

This size wasn’t available in Orlando.

Winner: Supermarkets

Jack Daniels (1 litre) – Flights outside the EU only

The Gatwick price was £26.19, though a double pack would cut that to £24.70.  You’ll pay $31 in Orlando, which is £23.60.

The best supermarket price though is currently in Sainsbury’s at £23.

Winner: Supermarkets

Jack Daniels (700ml) – Available for all flights

This bottle sells for £24.99 in Gatwick, and you can’t buy it in this size in Orlando airport.

Asda is currently selling this bottle for £15 – that’s £2.14 per 100ml, better than the larger 1 litre bottle from Sainsbury’s mentioned above.

Winner: Supermarkets

Duty-free tech vs the high street

iPhone Xs (64GB)

Dixon’s at Gatwick was selling the brand new iPhone Xs for £979. Yep it’s a saving, but only £20. For the larger memory capacity versions the saving was £30.

Now these are better than nothing, but if you are flying to the US then you’d get a much bigger saving buying the phone at your destination.

Winner: Duty-free (just)

Duty-Free choc vs the supermarkets

Toblerone (360g)

The classic last-minute airport purchase when you forgot to buy work some local treats! These are normally a right rip-off, but I saw at Gatwick the £4 bars were also in a three for £10 deal. Which isn’t bad at all.

But the UK supermarkets can match or beat this, with Asda selling them at £3.

Winner: Supermarkets

Lindt Lindor

Wow, this was a mega rip-off at £13 for 400g tubes. This isn’t the standard weight box, but the prices is well off the mark!

A 337g box from the supermarkets is slightly smaller, but way cheaper. You’ll pay £5.50 at the moment in Sainsbury’s.

Winner: Supermarkets

Duty-Free fragrance & cosmetics vs the high street

Chanel No 5 Eau De Toilette Spray (50ml)

This costs £61.50 at Gatwick, but it’s only £54.50 at John Lewis or The Fragrance Shop.

I didn’t find this at Orlando’s Duty-Free shop.

Winner: High street

Does Duty-Free save you money?

Based on my research, most of the time the answer is no. It doesn’t mean the prices aren’t low at the airport – it’s just you can often beat them on the high street. Of course, some of those lower prices, especially at supermarkets, are from special offers which won’t run all year, or might not be at a supermarket you have access to, making Duty-Free more appealing.

And it obviously depends where you are flying. If you go to the EU the chances are very low you’ll get the best saving, at least going out of London. But you might save on local spirits on your way back, even in Europe. US prices are generally lower on the whole. And when I went to Cuba a fair few years back bottles of Havana Club were about 25% of the price back home.

How to find a Duty-Free bargain

Look for exclusives

Duty-Free locations can often sell larger sizes and special flavours. For example. in Gatwick there was a “Bottled in the Bond” litre bottle of Jack Daniels. It cost £32.49 and it tasted good. Really good. And you can’t get it anywhere else at the moment.

Sometimes these exclusives aren’t premium options, just different flavours or takes on a brand at the same prices as the standard offering.

Double up

Some of the lowest prices were from multipacks or discounts when you purchased more than one bottle. So these are good opportunities to bring down the price you pay.

Check if it’s a deal

If you’ve got data you can use overseas, or are connected to wi-fi, you can check prices at home via the app MySupermarket.

As it happens, there’s also now a World Duty Free website where you can see prices in advance! So you can research before you fly what deals you can get.

Know what the currency conversion really is

I use an app called XE which lets me enter the price in any currency and instantly converts it to pounds. It has the most recent rate depending on when you were last online, so it makes sense to load it up before you leave the hotel wi-fi if you can’t use mobile data.

You know this already, but make sure you use a fee-free card such as Halifax’s Clarity card or a Starling current account.

Buy local

You will save more money if you buy something made in spades nearby. So rum from the Caribbean or tequila from Mexico. The same goes for cosmetics and clothes. L’occitane, for example, would be cheaper in France than elsewhere in the world as that’s where it’s produced.

Shop at the supermarket while you’re away

You might even be able to beat Duty-Free while you’re at your destination by shopping in a local supermarket, department store or liquor store and packing it all in your luggage. Just make sure it’s not carry on if you buy any liquids.

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