Is duty free actually a good deal at the airport?

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Is duty free actually a good deal at the airport?

Duty-free shops are designed to be enticing, with shelves of designer handbags, sunglasses and perfume bottles all marked down. After all, who wouldn’t want to snatch up high-end items at bargain prices?

But are those items truly a bargain? Here’s how to know what to buy the next time you’re in the airport.

What does 'duty free' mean?

For many travelers, duty-free shopping is a bit of a mystery, said Angela Ash, editor of Destination Diaries.

“Some items just leave you wondering if it's really a deal at all. But just like most things, it takes a little understanding to be sure that you're achieving optimal results the next time you see that duty-free sign flashing in the distance,” said Ash.

Duty-free items are priced with no national or local taxes. This deal is most valuable for items that are typically not discounted anywhere else. Think high-end makeup and perfume brands like Clinique and Dior, as well as some jewelry lines, such as Swarovski, said Ash.

“You will rarely ever find such brands discounted, so at least not having to pay tax on them is savings,” she said.

How to buy duty free

If you’re want to make sure you’re actually getting a good deal on duty-free items, do some homework ahead of time, said Caleb McElveen, Specialist at Cruiseline.com.

Check prices online or in the stores before you travel and write down prices. Many travelers see duty-free and they automatically believe that they’re going to get a deal,” he said. “That’s not always the case. In many instances, you could find yourself paying the same price if not just a fraction better.”

Cruise ship duty free vs. airport duty free

Want to score an even bigger bargain while duty-free shopping? Understand the difference between shopping at duty-free airports versus cruise ships, said Ash.

Cruise ships will inevitably promote special savings on the already tax-free items as the cruise nears its last stops.

“On the fourth or fifth night of a cruise they’ll start to do blowout specials,” Ash said. “The last three nights of cruise is when they really hit with specials that are above and beyond the already discounted prices. Sometimes they’ll even offer two-for-one deals.”

If you’re headed for a cruise this summer, it’s best to hold off on your summer shopping spree until then. (Here's how to save money on cruises.)

The caveat

While duty-free purchases are tax free at the register, upon returning to the United States you must declare these items and may be required to pay a customs duty. Depending on how much you spend, that bargain purchase may not end up being such a bargain after all.

If you have to pay depends on residency status, the country you were in, how long you were there and the amount you paid for the goods, among other things. For U.S. residents, typically up to $800 worth of purchases are exempt from such duty. You can learn more about customs duty fees on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website.

Looking to save while traveling? Here are 50 things you can get for free.

Image: Steve Doig