Duty free: The truth about shopping in Airports

Expat life
20 May 2024
7 mins read
Written by Team Instarem

Ah, duty-free shopping – the only thing more exciting than catching a plane. When travelling abroad, you get to experience exotic new cultures and experiences… not to mention your friends giving you a never-ending list of ‘must-buys’ from the airport.


However, while those gleaming shop windows look promising, in many cases they don’t actually equal a great deal. So it pays (literally) to do your research before splurging on duty-free shopping!


Here are 5 reality checks of duty-free shopping. So that wherever you fly, there’s really no need to cry. 

What is duty free shopping?

Basically, it allows people to purchase products while avoiding payment of certain taxes and duties usually imposed by countries. These taxes and duties can vary greatly, with goods often being subject to very high rates.

Duty-free is not always cheaper

When one thinks about duty-free shopping, the first thing that pops into mind is a humongous pile of savings.


We can all imagine ourselves happily rifling through numerous shops, looking for that perfect item to take home with us and feeling fortunate to be exempt from any taxes at checkout. But don’t forget that even though the price tag may say duty-free, it doesn’t always mean a good deal!


Why? Because those seductive sirens of savings offer some markup on the regular MSRP (Merchandise Suggested Retail Price).


Take a look at shopping in European airports – it is a lot less appealing!


In June 1999, intra-EU duty-free shopping was abolished, frustrating staunch supporters of the tax-free sector who felt it created job opportunities and barely reduced their own country’s value-added and excise tax revenue.


Unfortunately for those of us looking to add a few designer items to our travel wardrobe with minimal expense, the taxes are still there in duty free – so what we thought was going to be cheap ended up being anything but! Ah well – you can’t win them all!


So don’t fall for their song and dance aka tourist traps.

Check for the compatibility of electronic goods

Shopping for electronics duty-free can be a great way to save a few bucks and make you feel like you’ve made the ultimate score.


However, what most shoppers don’t realize is that many of the product warranties for electronics will not cover items purchased abroad, meaning it may end up being a costly purchase if something goes wrong. Not to mention the fact that returning any items can be nearly impossible if something doesn’t work out as intended.


At worst, you might get home and realize that your expensive new purchases aren’t compatible with your power socket.


So, while purchasing Nintendo Switch or Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer in duty free might seem tempting, it’s important to remember that they may end up leaving you with an expensive paperweight.

Import limits do exist…you know

Knowing every duty-free store’s rules is essential – especially when you consider the fact that in some countries, even if it was duty-free there, you still have to pay a fee when coming back!


For instance, India has a customs duty of 36% over Rs. 45,000 and you can’t split the exemption limit between two people – so if you thought that buying a pricey TV with your spouse would get around it, think again!


Similarly, in the USA you can bring up to $800 without paying taxes – but then there’s an awful 3% tax charged on anything extra over the limit. Better brush up on those duty regulations first!

Keep your receipts with you!

And don’t forget to collect all of your duty-free bills! After all, it’s not just about the souvenir knickknacks or cheesy T-shirts…you may actually need the receipts to prove that you bought the items outside of your country because no one wants to deal with a customs officer on their way back home.


If that wasn’t bad enough, you might need to open up your suitcase for inspection or potentially even answer intrusive questions – so, be sure to keep all those sales slips in check and help yourself avoid any travel headaches related to customs.


Snoop out transit vouchers and squeeze benefits out of your air miles.


Who said you can’t get anything for free these days? Well, clearly the airport did not get the memo because they’re practically handing out vouchers like candy!


When travelling frequently through airports, it pays (literally!) to use your miles and transit vouchers wisely.


Next time you’re stuck at Singapore Changi Airport in transit, your pocket won’t feel so empty anymore with all those vouchers for duty-free goodies. Or if you are at Dubai Airport, forget about having to choose between a burrito or a burger – because you can have both! So make sure to keep your eyes peeled and collect those precious vouchers before they fly away.

Always pay in the local currency

PS, this should no longer be a secret but there’s an even bigger saving available. Paying in the local currency when shopping duty free can save you a lot of money.


Not only will the prices look better when expressed in local terms, but you are also able to avoid high overseas fees. So next time you’re hitting the duty-free shop on your travels, make sure you pay in the local currency and reap the savings!

And don’t forget about fitting your shopping into your bags…

Duty-free shopping is often seen as the mecca of cheap goods, but in reality, it rarely lives up to its lofty hype. Unless you are after a few litres of perfume or a box of chocolates, duty free prices are largely the same as those found at other regular retailers.



The only thing that might be taken away from your duty free experience is the dangerous thrill one experiences in trying to guess their weight on luggage scales. This feeling is eloquently encapsulated by one seasoned traveller who remarked “You’re never sure whether you’ll breeze through security or if they’ll ask you to remove cords and plugs from your electronic devices”.


As amusing as this all may sound, it’s best practice to avoid buying anything you aren’t able to neatly pack within your bags before departure!

Before you go…

Before you even think about walking into those duty free stores at the airport, make sure to check out Instarem and see just how much more you can save WITHOUT having to leave your home.


Whether you’re an expat who is travelling or a Singaporean looking to travel overseas, Instarem can help you save both time and money.


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*Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only. All details are accurate at the time of publishing. Instarem has no affiliation or relationship with products or vendors mentioned.

About Instarem

Instarem stands at the forefront of international money transfer services, facilitating fast and secure transactions for both individuals and businesses. Our platform offers competitive exchange rates for popular currency pairs like USD to INR, SGD to INR, and AUD to INR. If you're looking to send money to India or transfer funds to any of 60+ global destinations, Instarem makes it easy for you. We are dedicated to simplifying cross-border payments, providing cutting-edge technology that support individuals and businesses alike in overcoming traditional fiscal barriers normally associated with banks. As a trusted and regulated brand under the umbrella of the Fintech Unicorn Nium Pte. Ltd., and its international subsidiaries, Instarem is your go-to for reliable global financial exchanges. Learn more about Instarem.