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When the Airport Duty Free Stores Make Sense

Duty free purchases can be a good way to save money on items you may already be interested in buying.

Duty free shop inside Hamad International Airport (Photo: Shutterstock)

I was recently in Qatar for a couple of days right before Valentine’s Day. This unexpected trip messed up my plans to wait until the last minute to buy a Valentine’s Day present for my wife. She had very casually mentioned wanting a new necklace a few weeks prior which I took to be a hint.  My plan was to swing by a jewelry store a day or two before Valentine’s Day and call it a day. The last-minute trip squashed those plans and I was stuck figuring out what I would be able to buy in Qatar or if I should make a stop on my way home from the airport. I settled on trying to buy something in Qatar where there is no sales tax or try duty free at the Doha airport on the return leg.

Once I got to Doha, I noticed there was a very large mall called the Place Vendome. It seemed like a place one could buy nice things, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be a place where the nice things were extremely expensive. Ironically, one of the cheapest places was Tiffany’s & Co., an iconic New York-based luxury jewelry house. I ended up buying a very nice set of gold olive leaf earrings for about the same price I’d pay in the United States pretax. On a $1,000 purchase sales tax of 8.25% here in Houston would have added another $82 to my purchase.

Many other countries across the world often charge a Value Added Tax to purchases which can be returned to the traveler if they are taking the purchased goods out of the country. The steps and level of involvement to do this varies by country. It’s usually much simpler to shop where there is no sales or value-added tax.

Airport Duty Free

When I got back to the airport to fly home, I also decided to check out duty free at Doha International Airport. There were quite a few luxury brands with duty free locations at the airport and I was wondering if I should try to sneak in a purchase of an Omega Moonwatch as a Valentine’s Day purchase for myself. I was quite surprised to find the prices right around retail prices in the United States. While I do travel often, I never paid duty free much attention so I wasn’t aware that, for a good number of items, it can be a decent deal.

It turns out that duty free purchases being a decent deal was news to me but most other people already knew. Both Qatar and the UAE release some high-level financial data on how their duty free operates. Qatar Duty Free announced a 32 percent increase in duty free sales for 2023 compared to the year prior. Dubai Duty Free posted a 24 percent increase in sales for 2023 compared to the year prior and had crossed the $2 billion in sales mark taking it back to pre-pandemic sales levels.

Declaring Purchases to Customs

It is important to note though that purchases should be declared when re-entering the United States. Any purchases over the personal exemption of $800 may incur a duty and failing to declare items may result in hefty penalties. I made sure to keep my receipt handy and blurted out that I had things to declare when I got the CBP officer after the Global Entry kiosk. She was actually surprised that I was declaring something and sent me to another officer who would examine my purchase to determine if there would be a duty since I was over the personal exemption.

The second officer asked me the usual slew of questions and asked for the receipt. After a couple of minutes of typing on his computer, he let me know the calculated duty for the earrings I purchased was $8 and they won’t be collecting it since it’s a small amount. I was then free to go.

Buying expensive items oversees in countries without sales tax or robust duty free shops can be a good way to save some money compared to buying the same item within the country. It is important to remember that it’s always better to be upfront with United States Customs and Border Protection officers. My experience was smooth because I declared my purchases. If I had not done that and my bags were searched, I would’ve potentially faced penalties and revocation of Global Entry.

Hemal Gosai

Author

  • Hemal Gosai

    Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.

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