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.
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
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.