Does Buying Booze When You Land Cost More?

Does Buying Booze When You Land Cost More?

Duty-free shopping is often a trade-off between savings and convenience, but the penalty for buying when you land isn’t necessarily as large as you think.

Picture by ryanwick

When Lifehacker ran a guide to what to buy when shopping for duty-free at the airport a few weeks ago, several commenters suggested that buying alcohol at overseas airports was often cheaper, assuming you could either stash it in your checked luggage or weren’t making any interim stops on the way home and so could take it as part of your carry-on luggage. (Restrictions on carrying more than 100mls of liquid mean that carry-on duty free doesn’t generally make sense on, for instance, a London-to-Sydney flight.)

Despite flying overseas more than literally anyone I know, I’ve never actually purchased duty-free alcohol (I hate excess luggage on the way out, and I’m always in a rush to get home when I return), so I don’t claim any expertise on the topic. As such, all these insights were very welcome.

However, reflecting on the issue soon raised a related question: just how much difference in price is there between on-departure duty free stores in Australia and the ones that lurk just before immigration when you land? Logic suggests that the latter are likely to be more expensive, but how much difference would there be?

I decided to check this by looking at the price of a one litre bottle of spirits when I flew out of Sydney in February, and the same bottle when I landed in March. (Duty-free stores often have ‘buy 3 bottles for $70’ style specials, but I ignored those for the sake of a more direct comparison. I also skipped wine since any decent wine purchase should be made in dozens anyway, and the range was more likely to vary.)

The results of my mini-survey suggested that the prices for booze are actually the same in most instances. A litre of standard Absolut vodka was $30 on the way out, but $29 on the way in. Everything else I checked — Bailey’s, Bundaberg OP and Jameson Whiskey — were exactly the same price ($35, $35 and $34) in both locations.

That doesn’t mean that you might not score a better deal overseas, but it does suggest that if you’re buying spirits for home consumption from an Australian duty-free store, there really isn’t much advantage in lugging them halfway around the globe first. It also suggests that buying in advance (to pick up when you return) won’t net much of a saving, other than time in queuing up to buy if you’re on a busy flight. Then again, if your luggage takes ages to emerge, you’ll be waiting anyway.

Lifehacker’s weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


  • Hi.
    I think we’ve had way too many of these flying related tips.
    I believe you guys should focus in every day life more, since most people don’t fly every day like some of the writers here appear to.

  • “Restrictions on carrying more than 100mls of liquid mean that carry-on duty free doesn’t generally make sense on, for instance, a London-to-Sydney flight.”

    When I flew London – Sydney the best option was to buy alcohol at Heathrow and take it as carry-on luggage. The prices were better in London than Sydney arrivals and it was made clear that as the duty free was past security screening the 100ml limit did not apply. This of course only applied as far as Sydney. If we had been planning on getting a domestic flight then the 100ml restriction would have applied and we would have had to leave it in Sydney.

    • The issue is that some airports en route rescan carry-on luggage before you reboard and apply the same 100ml restrictions — which means that’s not always a viable option.

      • Yeah, that makes sense – we flew back via Abu Dhabi where the rules were pretty relaxed. In fact, the duty free there was very cheap, although the range was limited.

  • “Logic suggests that the latter are likely to be more expensive”

    not sure what “logic” you’re thinking of…
    since the duty free stores departing and entering into sydney are actually part of the same store, just different outlets, it’d be more logical that the prices be the same.

    besides, the SYD duty free store also has a website, where their prices and specials are listed and advertised.

  • Sorry but you are completely wrong on this one. Sydney is bar-none the most expensive duty free out of most ports in the world. Here are my recent trips and the cost of a bottle of Jose Cuervo Especial.

    US to Sydney
    At San Francisco: AUD$19
    Syd Price: AUD$45

    New Zealand to Sydney
    At Christchurch: AUD$26
    Syd Price: AUD$45

    Bangkok to Sydney
    At Bangkok: AUD$20
    Syd Price: AUD$45


    I am not sure of your reasoning about convenience…are you trying to defend Australian duty free shops in some way? How is it an inconvenience to buy a couple of bottles before getting on the plane at your last stop before Sydney. You buy it, carry it on the plane, put it in the over head, and then carry it to customs where you put it on a luggage cart…wow…that’s rough. And you save so much money by doing so. It’s time to wake up to the fact that Australia is expensive for most everything and there is no defense against it…no matter how you try to rationalize it.

    • Actually, when i was in Bangkok recently they wouldn’t let me carry liquid over 100ml onto the plane even once i passed immigration. I actually had my carry on bag checked right before boarding.

      • “Actually, when i was in Bangkok recently they wouldn’t let me carry liquid over 100ml onto the plane even once i passed immigration. I actually had my carry on bag checked right before boarding.”

        This seems to be on a per airline basis as I was able to bring back duty free on my recent flight from Bangkok.

  • It’s usually the same company running the concession these days. In fact, for Adelaide travellers, you’re better off buying BEFORE you leave and arrange to collect on your way back in…for 2 reasons:

    1. They’ll give you a 10% discount on pre-orders
    2. On your way back in there’s no need to queue up – just go and pick up your pre-order which will be waiting for you.

  • Well I:m currently taking a holiday in Japan, I normally reside in Australia. Now I don’t know too much about hte prices of duty free alcohol, but I was just walking through a supermarket here and found 750mL bottles of Absolute vodka for 1,299yen. Thats roughly AUD$15. Now normally in Australia I pay anywhere between AUD$35-45 for the same bottle. I noticed several other cheaps alcohol prices at this store too. I’m not sure how much the tax is on bringing in alcohol from ovverseas, but I would think id still be bringing home a bargin. I was shocked on how cheap the alcohol was. I was trying to work out why its so much more in Australia. Is it we jsut have a much higher tax on alcohol? or is it just business mark-up?

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