Is duty free cheaper than shopping on the high street or online?

The truth behind duty free prices and how to bag a true bargain when your next shopping at the airport

Woman shopping for duty free wine
(Image credit: Getty images)

With a dazzling array of deals and discounts it’s easy to think you’re snapping up a bargain, but is shopping duty free cheaper? or could you be paying a higher price? The truth might surprise you.

With any deals and discounts, it’s usually always a case of checking the small print and it’s the same with those duty free savings.  

Buying duty free means you can legitimately avoid paying any tax usually charged on the product as you’re buying it as you leave the country.   

But tax rules vary around the world which can mean you could get better deals if you wait to stock up in duty free abroad before coming home, rather than splurging before leaving the UK.

We checked the price of Marc Jacobs Daisy Dream perfume (100ml) and found the airport price, on special offer at £64, instead of £80.  While most high street stores couldn’t beat this price – we did make a saving buying online for £59.95.

But when it came to a bottle of Gordons Pink Gin (1 litre)  -  the duty free price was £12.39 which was a saving of over £7 compared with the best online deal we found from Sainsbury’s at £20.

Big bars of Toblerone are often a familiar sight on the duty free shelves but buying a white chocolate bar of Toblerone at World Duty Free costs £6.50 (360g) compared with nearly half the price, at just £3.50 for the same size in Asda or Tesco.   

So, why isn’t shopping duty free always cheaper?

The truth behind duty free prices

Duty free stores at UK airports are usually run by a firm called World Duty Free, it claims you can make duty free savings of  50% on alcohol and up to 40% on selected fragrances.

But price comparison site PriceSpy has found three in four items sold in duty free are actually cheaper online after it matched the prices of more than 300 items in UK airport duty free stores and found prices were on average 14% cheaper online.

World Duty Free says it checks high street prices four times a year and bases its savings on the average high street price.  It admits its price checks don’t take into account online prices.

If you want to get a step ahead  - you can check UK airport prices in advance before leaving home as well as checking price comparison sites like PriceRunner.  

And if you think duty free offers the best price – you can reserve items up to 30 days before travel and collect and pay in store on the day of your departure.

And, according to Head of The Points Guy UK Nicky Kelvin,  sweets and chocolates are often overpriced in duty free - so best avoided. 

Where is the cheapest country to buy duty free?

There’s no one single country to snap up the best duty free deals as any promotions can vary around the world, as well as any tax saving.

But, according to research from the Points Guy, which checked out 13 products from spirits to fragrances across 50 airports around the world – it was Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Singapore and the Cayman Islands that come out cheapest overall for duty free.  

It found Dubai is one of the cheapest airports for cosmetics and Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok for cigarettes.  

When it comes to the most expensive airports for duty free, Sydney, Zurich and Santorini were top of the list. 

In some cases you may be able to check duty free prices abroad ahead of your trip if you search for the relevant airport duty free. Dubai for example has an online duty free website where you can check products and prices.

How much duty free can you bring back to the UK?

When coming back to the UK it’s HM Revenue & Customs who set the rules on what you can bring back before paying any extra tax or duty. 

 It’s worth checking its website for the exact limits at the time you travel - but as a general rule you can bring in the following:

  • 42 litres of beer
  • 18 litres of still wine 
  • 4 litres of spirits or 9 litres of sparkling wine 
  • 200 cigarettes 
  • £390 of other goods like electronics.

If you bring in more than this allowance, you must declare it by going through the red channel on arrival and paying any extra tax. 

Worth knowing that it’s your responsibility to check the rules – and if you’re caught going through the green channel with more than you should – items can be confiscated.

Sue Hayward

Sue Hayward is a personal finance and consumer journalist, broadcaster and author who regularly chats on TV and Radio on ways to get more power for your pound.  Sue’s written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, i Paper, Good Housekeeping, Lovemoney and My Weekly. Cats, cheese and travel are Sue’s passions away from her desk!