Is duty free cheaper than online or the high street?

Asking yourself ‘is duty free cheaper?’ is key if you want to bag a bargain at the airport

Is duty free cheaper than buying online or on the high street? It’s an important consideration, especially for holidaymakers striving for ideas on how to save money wherever they can. 

Going on holiday can be an expensive endeavour, even if you manage to find the cheapest flights, cheap airport parking and make a saving on your holiday car hire. But while taking a trip through the sparkling world of duty free after airport security seems like a way to bag some luxury items for significantly less, is duty free actually cheaper than the high street or shopping online?

Duty free means you don’t pay the tax usually charged on the item as you’re taking it out of the country. And, as tax rules in different countries vary, with some countries there can be bigger savings to be made.

Liisa Matinvesi-Bassett, comparison site PriceSpy’s Country Manager UK, says: “There has long been a myth that when travelling abroad, duty free can offer the best price on luxury items. Many travellers are becoming aware that this is not the case and people really need to do their price due diligence”. 

Is duty free cheaper? 

Whether duty free is cheaper than buying the same thing online or on the high street can depend on what you’re buying and which country you’re buying it in. But in reality, you may well pay more at the duty free till, especially at UK airports, than buying the same item online. In fact, price comparison site PriceSpy found 3 in 4 duty free purchases are cheaper online than in duty free.

World Duty Free are the stores we all recognise at UK airports and its website claims you can make 20% savings on items including fragrances and alcohol compared with the average UK high street price.

However PriceSpy’s research checked over 300 products including makeup, sunglasses and electronics in duty free stores across Manchester, Birmingham and Heathrow airports and found that passengers could save on average 14% by shopping online compared with the duty free price tag.

Sunglasses rack up the biggest savings ditching duty free for online shopping, with Ray-Ban RB3025 Aviators selling for £121.65 duty free and £75.50 online. That is a whopping 38% cheaper online than in duty free.   

Similarly with toiletries – you can save around 18% (or more) buying online. For example, the Hugo Boss Bottled Deodorant Stick (75ml), costs £18.50 duty free but it’s 40% cheaper online at just £10.95.

Across the UK, World Duty Free prices are checked around four times a year but only against high street shops and supermarkets. A spokesperson for World Duty Free, said: “Our price checks are not made against online retailers’ prices or promotional offers or prices as online retailers have completely different cost structures and their overheads tend to be less than those of “bricks and mortar” retailers.”

Where’s the best place to buy duty free? 

In terms of the best place to buy duty free products, it can vary depending on what you’re buying. Nicky Kelvin, Head of The Points Guy UK, says: “London Heathrow and Dubai are considered to have some of the best deals on cosmetics, whereas airports in Spain and the Cayman Islands are said to be the cheapest places to buy alcohol. Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok came out on top for tobacco but buying gifts, such as toys and confectionary, in duty free is usually where you’ll get ripped off”.

Before you hit duty free in the UK, you can always check prices in advance on the World Duty Free website, as well as using online comparison sites like Idealo and Kelkoo and checking supermarket deals through

Woman buying cosmetics

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Are there limits on what you can buy duty free?

There aren’t necessarily limits on what or how much you can buy in a duty free shop, it’s more a case of limits on what you can take into the country you’re going to before having to declare it. Your airline may also have limits on how much duty free you can carry with you on board your flight. 

If you’re going to Dubai, for example, you can take in 400 cigarettes and four litres of alcohol. But if you’re entering the USA, you can only take in 200 cigarettes and one litre of alcohol before having to declare it and pay any additional tax or duty.

When it comes stocking up at your holiday airport and clanking your way back to the UK armed with duty free, HM Revenue & Customs set the limits on what you can bring back to the UK before paying duty. 

As a rough guide this means you can bring back: 

  • 42 litres of beer
  • 18 litres of still wine 
  • Four litres of spirits or nine litres of sparkling wine 
  • 200 cigarettes 
  • £390 of other goods like electronics.

Anything over these limits and you must declare it and pay the relevant tax. 

Do you have to declare things you’ve bought at duty free when you get to your destination?

You may have to declare items you’ve bought duty free before leaving the UK when you arrive at your destination as each country will set its own rules on what you can bring in.

Adam French, Personal Finance Editor at our sister site The Money Edit, says: “Knowing your destination's duty free shopping rules can help you to maximise savings, and avoid getting taxed for purchases above the allowable limits.

“UK residents can also reclaim VAT on many purchases bought in the EU following Brexit - but beware, if you go over your duty free spending allowance of £390, you could get hit by a large tax bill on your return to the UK”.

An easy way to check the rules around the world is by using the duty free limit calculator on the World Duty Free site. Simply put in the country you’re going to and it tells you what you can take in before you need to declare it. 

If you need to declare purchases – you should go through the red channel on arrival – not the green one.

If you’re returning to the UK, you can check limits on how much duty free you can bring back on the HM Revenue & Customs website and if you’re ‘over the limit’ you can declare any goods online and pay any tax owed up to five days before returning to the UK.  

If you’re unsure about whether you’re over the limit, it’s always worth going through the ‘red’ channel for items to declare and letting the customs officials decide if you need to pay any extra duty.  

It goes without saying that it’s never worth risking trying to avoid paying any extra tax that may be liable – it’s your responsibility to check the rules and pleading ignorance is unlikely to work – either abroad or on your return to the UK.

Sue Hayward
Sue Hayward is a personal finance and consumer journalist, broadcaster and author who regularly chats on TV and Radio on ways to get more power for your pound. Sue’s written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, i Paper, Good Housekeeping, Lovemoney and My Weekly. Cats, cheese and travel are Sue’s passions away from her desk!