Getting the best price on duty free: survival of the cheapest

Best buys ... there are many factors to consider when looking at duty-free purchases.
Best buys ... there are many factors to consider when looking at duty-free purchases. Photo: Louie Douvis

Does duty-free shopping guarantee the best price? Jane E. Fraser finds out.

Duty-free shopping was once considered one of the greatest perks of international travel. Airline crew and frequent travellers were besieged by requests from friends and colleagues, while holidaymakers would splurge on cheap alcohol, perfumes and cigarettes.

Then along came the GST and the phasing out of the taxes and import duties that had made duty-free shopping such a bargain.

And along came internet and bargain-basement retailers, bringing down everyday prices on luxury goods.

Savvy travellers began to question the value of duty free and whether they would be better off shopping around for the best price.

Yet airports are still filled with duty-free shops and travellers have the added ability to order their goods online.

Does duty-free shopping still offer a great deal or are we too much in love with the concept to let it go?

Christopher Zinn, spokesman for consumer group Choice, says duty-free shopping can still be good value but it is not a guarantee.

"It's a case of certain items, certain places, certain times," he says.

There are many factors to take into account when looking at duty-free purchases.

The most important is exchange rates; you will only get value for money when the exchange rate is favourable.

And as exchange rates are constantly changing, so are duty-free prices; the internet has made it easy for retailers to monitor others' prices and change their own accordingly.

If you want to compare duty-free prices, the best resource is thedutyfreepriceguide.com, a website that compares duty-free prices from around the globe.

The site collates prices from airport shops and airlines, and can provide them in several different currencies.

A search on the site for a one-litre bottle of Gordon's Dry gin found duty-free prices ranging from $14.64 to $36.61, while a search of standard Australian retailers came up with prices ranging from $29.99 to $38.95 for just 700 millilitres and $46.99 for a litre.

Travellers, in this instance, are not only saving the tax but getting a discount as well.

Best of all, the price at Australian airports ($19.04) was only beaten by an obscure overseas airport, indicating prices may be as good at home as anywhere.

The ability for Australian travellers to make or collect duty-free purchases on their way back into Australia is no doubt a big factor in duty-free shopping's enduring popularity.

You can order online before you leave and not have to worry about the goods until you are about to clear customs back in Australia.

A more complicated area of duty-free shopping is electronic goods.

You no longer have to buy such goods in a dedicated duty-free store and keep them sealed until after departure, as was once the case.

It is now possible to buy the goods from any retailer in Australia and claim back the GST at the airport on departure.

The last time I bought a camera, I compared prices from a range of sources and secured the best deal bypassing the duty-free stores.

The CommSec iPod index recently named Australia as the cheapest place in the world to buy an Apple iPod, due to our falling currency.

With this presumably applying to other electronic products, you can save yourself a lot of hunting by buying goods at the best price at home and claiming back the GST on departure.

You could also save yourself the nightmare of buying something overseas and not having a suitable warranty or comeback if the product is faulty.

Zinn says warranties and the ability to try electronic goods before buying are among the biggest issues with duty-free shopping.

He believes many travellers are caught up in the lure and pressure of duty-free shopping.

"Limited time, high desirability of items, very professional sales staff and bingo, you end up buying something you could have got cheaper back here," he says.

DRINKING PROBLEMS

Alcohol is well known to cause headaches and it can prove to be the case before you even open the bottle.

Since the introduction of limits on liquids in carry-on luggage, many travellers have been stopped by security staff for carrying bottles of alcohol or perfume - even though they were bought in the secure confines of the airport.

In Australia, anything you buy after passing security screening can be carried onto the plane but go carefully in other countries, where different rules can apply.

I have seen several travellers have their goods confiscated at the time of boarding, when the plane is about to depart and there is no time to go back for a refund.

USEFUL WEBSITES

· dutyfree.com.au

· customs.gov.au

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