What To Buy When Airport Shopping

Modern-day airports often look more like shopping malls than anything else, but that doesn't mean buying stuff there is a sensible idea. What's worth purchasing at the airport, and what should you leave for another day?

Picture by teducation

Your holiday has just begun, you're killing time in the international departure terminal, and there's shops a-plenty to tempt your credit card away from the carefully planned trip budget. In the thrill of heading off, it's often easy to forget (or ignore) the fact that what you're buying is almost certainly overpriced. At an airport, there's likely to be no competition for your business, and the prices reflect that reality.

The following are my own general airport shopping principles, though I wouldn't make any claim for them to be exhaustive: add your own suggestions in the comments. While some of these principles apply more to international travel (such as the comments about duty free), they're also sensible even at domestic airports.

Most general goods: Don't

Airports charge high rents, and the only way retailers can make back those costs is to keep profit margins as high as possible. So with very rare exceptions, stuff won't be cheaper than you can find it outside an airport setting; in many cases, it will cost more.

In the case of an essential (such as forgetting to take a converter to make your gadgets work overseas), you might not have much choice but to pay those inflated prices. But for anything else, holding off makes fiscal sense.

Food: Don't

That principle is particularly evident when it comes to buying food. Even fast-food chains which otherwise tend to have consistent prices at state level will often charge a premium for a snack you grab on site. Eating before you hit the airport, bringing your own or waiting until you hit the plane (assuming food is included) are all more sensible strategies.

Currency exchange: Neutral

If you've got time to plan in advance, then organising your overseas currency through your nearest bank may well prove cheaper than airport exchange rates. But with that said, if you've paid for travel and accommodation in advance and intend to use a debit or credit card while overseas, then the convenience of using the airport for the small amount of on-hand cash you need might be worth the difference in rates.

Duty free on departure or overseas: Don't

While the level of bargains available in a duty-free shop varies hugely, there's a much more practical reason to avoid buying goods at the start of your journey: you'll be stuck with lugging them for the rest of the trip. This might make sense for something you simply can't get in Australia, but not for stuff which is more widely available.

In the case of perfume and alcohol, which make up a huge percentage of the typical airport duty-free store, not only do you need to consider whether you'll damage them in transit, you'll also have to consider if you're even allowed to take them. Most international airports restrict you to carrying liquids in bottles of less than 100ml, so if you have a transit stop en route, your newly-purchased goods won't be able to go with you.

The bottom line? If you do want to bring home some duty-free hooch or scent, grab it last thing when you land in Australia. Gadgets and other items might be a different matter, but in either case do price research before you leave to make sure you're getting an actual bargain, and not just something you need to

Magazines: Do

I realise this list was in danger of saying "never buy anything in an airport". I actually don't think that's a bad rule, but in an attempt at even-handedness, I'll note this: since most magazines have a standardised retail price which tends to be observed, grabbing a magazine for in-flight reading isn't a bad investment, by comparison. The same isn't necessarily true of books, which will tend to be at list price almost all the time.

What rules do you follow when shopping in an airport? The comment field is waiting!

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman tries to avoid airport shopping by hiding in the frequent flyer lounge. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    If you are planning to buy some duty-free on your return, it's also worth looking into buying it on the way out and getting them to hold it for your return journey - you just go up to a hold desk on your way to the customs gates and pick up your purchases (they ask for your return flight details when you purchase). In my experience, the range at the duty free stores on your way home isn't as good, and you have to wait for the other 400 people on the plane to buy as well!

    In Japan however this does not apply. I found prices in the Narita Airport is cheaper by 5% compared to the outside price as they do not contain tax.

    Duty free "Gadgets and other items", Do the research and buy the best price you can get before hand up to 30 days then take it with you carry on if you can get it on an invoice worth over $300 then visit the Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS)office at the airport. Details:

    The only gadget I purchased at an airport was a PS3 Bluetooth remote for 15 pounds in Heathrow airport London and it is still cheaper than anywhere I have looked in Australia.

    From Australia the currency exchange is a joke... the rates are about the worst I have seen. You can tell from the spread on the buy and the sell. The bigger the spread, the worse the rates compared to the current market. I have been living overseas for many years now and analysed transactions. Australian airport exchange is almost always guaranteed to be the worst. Unless you are talking about converting aud$20 or less then it is Currency exchange: DONT!!!

    I recently flew to China last July. I was able to buy two bottle of booze and they were sealed and allowed on the flight as long as they stayed in the sealed bag, China had no limits on this kind of stuff, so was good to have my Bundaberg Rum with me in China. This way at Brisbane international flying with Qantas.


    "If you do want to bring home some duty-free hooch or scent, grab it last thing when you land in Australia."

    If you wish to pay more for duty free products than anywhere else in the world then by all means follow this terrible advice. Otherwise buy from duty after you have gone through security at the airport before coming to Australia. Case in point. Duty free price of a bottle of Tequila in New Zealand, AUD $22. Price for the same bottle duty free in Sydney airport AUD $42...yeah I like throwing money away.

    Flying from NZ to Australia, i noted the following prices (AUD) for bombay sapphire 1Litre in Duty Free:
    Auckland - $16 / Sydney - $30
    Outside in Sydney, 700ml was being sold around $45. Sometimes is does pay to pick up alcohol from overseas, as long as you meet the import limits in Australia.

    alcohol prices at the melbourne airport are only marginally better than what you'll find outside (even with the wet tax). what the duty free there saves in wet tax, they re-gain in markup. i found prices to be roughly twice what they were in the US.


    Especially if you're coming from America, sure it's gonna take up some space, but a 750ml bottle of smirnoff blue costs $12USD and you can get it at Kmart, while the cheapest I've ever seen it in any duty free or store or anything in Australia is $35AUD. Just stick it in your checked baggage,wrap clothes around the bottles and you'll be fine. I've done this tons of times and never had a bottle broken.

    I used to live in Thailand, and the onshore exchange rate is nearly 5% better than it is here in Australia. If you're going to Thailand, keep your dollars and exchange at the airport in Thailand.

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