I like to find a good liquor deal as much as the next guy trying to drown his sorrows or celebrate his sudden rash of good fortune. So I window shop at the duty free liquor shop the way my wife window shops at shoe stores: not buying much, but taking it all in and daydreaming about making that shiny hand-blown bottle of $100 elixir my own.
But I always have this nagging feeling that those loudly advertised bargains aren’t really such a bargain at the duty-free stores. Unless it’s something rare that you can’t find elsewhere, the prices seldom seem very enticing. So I usually don’t buy much because I’m simply not convinced it’s worth the hassle, especially with all the pain-in-the-butt luggage restrictions these days.
For example, if you buy duty free in one country and have a connecting flight in another, you have to then stash that bottle in your checked luggage during the recheck. (Got room? Have the time to deal with it? Think the bottle won’t break in transit?)
My First Study of Duty Free Booze Prices
Way back in 2007 I did a study on this blog looking at specific prices and comparing them to what I could find at my local liquor store to compare the best deals. That’s never going to be scientific, but it’s a good comparison shopping experiment. Back then I didn’t have a camera on my phone, so I probably looked a bit suspicious writing down prices in a duty-free shop and then again in my local liquor store, but that’s the life of a quasi-journalist. Hey, it got me quoted in a couple of news stories, so that was fun.
When I did my research then, the conclusion for alcoholic beverages was as clear as a glass of Kahlua—and that particular brand turned out to be the best duty free liquor value I found, about half the price of what it goes for in stores.
Otherwise, it was a mixed bag. Bacardi Gold rum and Bailey’s Irish Cream were about the same price in the airport and out. Hornitas Reposado Tequila was cheaper at duty free, but 1800 Añejo Tequila was much cheaper in regular stores. Ron Zacapa 23 rum was cheaper in a Nicaraguan duty free store, but about the same as retail in any other country I checked. Every bourbon brand was cheaper outside the airport than in, though some Scotch and Japanese whiskies were a wash on who had the lowest prices.
I did notice one trend though: the higher-priced the item, the better chance it’s a favorable deal in the duty-free shopping outlet. I saw a bottle of Reserva de Familia Tequila—some of the nicest stuff that has ever passed my lips—for $85 at duty free and at the time it was going for $120 to $140 in a lot of U.S. stores. I learned that if you know the prices well on a few favored high-end brands, you could possibly find a better price at the airport in your international travels.
When I did all that 15 years ago, the shopping spots were duty free stores in Houston, Cancun, and Merida, the liquor stores in Nashville, Tennessee. What would I find this time if I mixed it up?
Duty Free Liquor Prices at the Airport
I’ve had a nagging suspicion the last few years that duty free liquor prices in the airport are getting worse. It’s such a huge profit center for the stores, the brands, and the airports that they often now funnel you through the shops just to get from the security gauntlet to your gate. They must all be making fat margins to give the stores such prominent space and force you through there just to get to your gate.
I think the last time I actually bought a bottle in one of those stores though was 2019, some Costa Rican rum that was a good deal in the San Jose CR airport. Since then I’ve just been wind0w-shopping because at the same time, prices seem to be getting better in my local Mexican supermarket and in the Florida stores when I’m back in Tampa Bay. Hunches aren’t reality though, so again I picked some random liquor brands and did a comparison, this time taking photos.
The duty free liquor prices are from the Cancun airport, now one of the busiest airports in the world. Probably the only airport in North America getting more tourists each month is Orlando and a lot of those visitors are domestic, so Cancun seemed like a good representation for what international travelers will see when they’re shopping for Johnnie Walker or Absolut.
Then I logged prices from a Florida liquor store, spot-checked a few online, and—since the airport is in Mexico—also listed prices from La Comer supermarket, which has similar price tags all across the country.
Grey Goose Vodka – Cheaper at Regular Stores
At the airport duty free store, a bottle of regular Grey Goose vodka is $41.50 for a one-liter bottle. When I walked into the Luekens liquor store in Tampa Bay, the same size was going for $33. Add in tax and you’d save about five bucks by getting it locally.
There’s one catch though. The airport was running a deal that if you buy two bottles, you get one free. So if you’re having a huge party and you’ve got someone else to carry one of the bottles, you would come out ahead buying at duty free. I’ve rarely seen anyone actually do this though. Most people don’t want to carry three liters of booze back home with them and deal with questions from customs about how much alcohol they’re carrying.
Absolut Vodka – It’s a Wash
Although Absolut is not the best-selling brand at duty free stores—that has long been Johnny Walker—it must be near the top since it gets prominent shelf space the world over. There’s not much advantage to buying it at the airport though unless you’re buying in bulk.
A one-liter bottle at that Luekens liquor store I visited was only $25, making this one of the best bargains around for making cocktails. It’s the same price in multiple states at Total Wine. It’s hard to find that same size in Mexican supermarkets, but the 750ml one is a mere 249 pesos as I write this, less than $13 including tax.
What about at duty free? If you pick Absolut up at the airport you’ll pay $23 for a one-liter bottle, a good price, but not much cheaper than U.S. stores and more than at Mexican ones. If you’re buying in bulk though it’s a better deal at the airport: three bottles for $46, a great value.
Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey – Same Price
At the duty free store in the Cancun airport, a one-liter bottle of Jack Daniels is $31. At Florida retail stores I checked it was running $27 to $32 for that size, plus figure on 10% sales tax. That’s basically a wash, but I did see the 750ml size for $22 at ABC Fine Wine & Spirits online, which is a better price-per-volume overall.
It’s also around $22 for a 700 ml bottle at the supermarkets in Mexico, which means you could buy Jack Black for the same per-centiliter price in Playa del Carmen when you go grocery shopping as you can get it for at the airport.
Jameson Irish Whisky – Slight Edge to Duty Free
At the Cancun duty free store, a one-liter bottle of Jameson costs $32. It’s the same price at Florida liquor stores, so you would save a few dollars in taxes by buying at the airport and lugging it home.
It gets complicated though if you get away from apples to apples comparisons. The more common 750ml size is around $22 in stores, cheaper on a per-centiliter basis than the larger bottle, and it’s also about the same price in a Mexican supermarket. In both cases, it’s often packaged in gift boxes for that price that will include two mini bottles, ginger beer, or glasses. Then retail has an even bigger advantage.
To add more issues to the math, this one was also on a buy two, get one free promotion at the duty free store. So again, if you’re going to buy three liters to carry home, the bulk deal is the winner.
Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Tequila – Cheaper in Stores
With tequila you can sometimes compare a whole line since most tequila brands come in three levels of aging: unaged silver or blanco, somewhat aged reposado, and longer-aged añejo that’s meant for sipping, not cocktails. I was able to do just that with Milagro Select Barrel, a step up from the basic Milago tequila, since they were all right next to each other.
At the duty free store, a 750ml bottle of the silver is $56, the reposado is $63, and the añejo is a hefty $88. At the Luekens liquor store I walked into in Dunedin, Florida, the prices for the same bottles were $37, $43, and $60 respectively. Even adding in tax, that’s a huge advantage to the non-airport option. No customs, no baggage—just put them in your car trunk.
It’s also cheaper in Mexico at retail. At La Comer supermarket, the reposado version is 980 pesos, which comes out to around $49. This is rather unusual though: almost every tequila brand I’ve looked at is cheaper in Mexican stores than it is in Mexican airports or USA stores. As we’ll see in this next example…
Herradura Reposado Tequila – Cheaper in Stores
Herradura is a middle-of-the-road brand in Mexico, not considered a top-shelf choice. You can typically find it for somewhere between US$22 and $28 almost anywhere in the country for a 750ml bottle. It’s also not all that expensive in the USA either, typically listed for around $10 more than that at chains like Total Wine.
At the airport duty free store though, it goes for $41.50, quite a bit more. No volume deal offered either, so you’re definitely better off getting this one elsewhere. The same goes for common tequila brands like Jimador, Cazadores (less than $15 in Mexico), Azul, and Centenario.
There are a few other brands I spot-checked, things that I buy myself now and then so I know the prices. Maker’s Mark is usually cheaper in retail stores: Luekens was having a “buy two, get $8 off” sale on that while I was there, with a price of $22 a bottle, so it was a bargain $34 for two 750ml bottles. That was the price of one bottle at duty free. Same story with Woodford Reserve, one of my other favorite bourbon brands. Big advantage to skipping the airport store on that one.
My conclusion this time around is not much different than last time: duty free liquor stores probably aren’t going to save you more than a few dollars if you’re just buying one or two bottles. If something is on a three-for-two or even better, a buy one get one deal, that gives them the edge. Factor in the carrying hassles though and this strategy really only works if you’re flying directly home from that airport and won’t have to make a connection.
The cheaper the liquor brand, the less sense it makes to buy it at a duty-free liquor store. It’s a giant waste to buy inferior brands like Jim Beam or Bacardi there. You’ll pay about the same as you would locally and you’re not taking the opportunity to upgrade to something less crappy. Remember, the top brands that sell the most are just the ones that are marketed the most heavily, not the best brands deserving of your disposable income.
There are a few other times when dropping your credit card on the counter at the duty free store can make some sense though.
When You Should Buy Liquor at Duty Free
All these comparisons I’m making are between stores in the USA and Mexico. If you live in a country where alcohol taxes are higher, including Canada and Ecuador, it can tip the scales to duty free and even make Crown Royal cheaper at the airport than you can get it in Quebec or Ontario.
It can also make sense to buy something on the way to a high-tax country such as Norway or even Malaysia. Or on the way to one that’s just naturally expensive, such as Switzerland or Japan. After you see $30 cocktails on the local menu, that $30 you spent on a bottle of duty free liquor is going to seem like a smart purchase.
As mentioned before, if you’re buying in bulk, you can forget any of the price comparisons and assume you’re getting a better deal than you would at home. If you love a certain brand and drink it all the time, then by all means stock up if they’re running a multi-bottle promotion.
In some cases, higher-end liquor can be a better deal at the airport: good 12-year Scotch, aged rum, limited single-barrel bourbon, and tequila that’s in a fancy glass bottle weighing more than your suitcase. As soon as you pass $100 a bottle, the retail advantage starts to disappear. If you’re buying something like this as a gift for a client, then a few bucks one way or the other probably doesn’t matter anyway.
One trend is recent years is that the largest duty free chains are making direct deals with distillers to offer exclusive products. This is partly because they do so much volume. If duty free were a country, it would be the second-largest market for Patrón after the USA. No single retailer outside of maybe Costco has that kind of clout. So you may find an exclusive Scotch, tequila, or bourbon at the airport that you’ve never seen elsewhere—and never will. Snag it while you can if you’re a fan of that distiller.
Last, there’s one advantage to these stores that you may have noticed while walking by: samples! I always seem to be browsing when it’s too early for that, but often there’s some perky employ perfectly willing to let you try four or five different versions of something to settle on the one you want.
Do your own due diligence, but the moral of the story is that you need to know the price of whatever you are inclined to buy so you’ll know if it’s really a screaming bargain or just something that looks like a bargain to tourists in spending mode. If it’s not significantly cheaper, the hassle factor is far less just throwing a bottle in your car when you’re back on the home front.
Also keep in mind where you are when you do your shopping. Duty-free shops in Hong Kong and Tokyo are known to have the highest liquor prices in the world because they’re places where businessmen buy gifts to impress other businessmen and close the deal. Bourbon that costs $40 in the U.S. will go for $80 there and nobody blinks. On the other hand, ones in the Americas tend to have rather uniform prices unless it’s something on sale or produced locally. It can be cheaper to buy good rum in Central America or the Caribbean, for example, or good wine in a duty free shop in South Africa or Chile.
Wednesday 26th of April 2023
I think the only real bargain in Duty-free is the cigarettes and I don't smoke!
Wednesday 12th of April 2023
More than ten years later, Duty Free simply isn't what it once was, a retail option that offered real savings to travelers. With smartphones, product prices must be evaluated on an individual basis and you should start with the assumption that the Duty Free price is worse. Travel Retail Exclusives are a mechanism by which the price can be kept high and the consumer is unable to comparison shop. However, the emergence of enthusiast sites such as Whiskybase allows one to quickly determine if a Travel Retail Exclusive is a good value or not.
Duty Free retailers are not motivated to pass along the savings to consumers, because consumers continue to purchase despite the fact that they are not saving money. Duty Free continues to be a brand unto itself, a brand built on the legacy of the Duty Free experience from the 20th century.
In a global, data-driven society, you must be willing to empower yourself and adapt to a changing reality. This includes going through Duty Free, looking up pricing and sampling product without feeling an obligation to make a purchase. Reward retailers who are willing to compete for your business with better products and better pricing, not those who rely on legacy branding and extensive marketing. You might discover that retailer is attached to a gas station or it might even be a boring old state-sanctioned liquor enterprise.
Thursday 10th of February 2022
I picked up Kahlua recently in Dubai for ~2/3 the price of what it goes for in Bishkek, and remember finding a good deal on a boxed set of Talisker and Dark Storm a couple years ago.
Broadly though it's always worth googling prices at home before buying, as your experiences with overpricing seem to play out more often than not.
Monday 16th of February 2009
I agree Kevin. You need to know the rules for your home country (usually it's two liters max) and forget what any clerk tells you. It's seldom worth it to buy more than one bottle of anything because of the hassle factor.
Sunday 15th of February 2009
You might have called me clueless last week, but you will never call me stupid. I purchased duty free at the airport in Los Cabos Mexico on Feb. 7 2009, a last minute decision that ended up as a bad one. Price has nothing to do with my purchases I could accept it if I overpaid but the clerk purposely oversold me the amount I was allowed while assuring me over and over "no problem". The product was allowed duty free into Canada "no problem" she stated over and over. Well, guess what, she lied and the duped one which of course was "me" received Canada Customs finest treatment when I got home. The excess product was destroyed and I was detained along with my family and all of our luggage searched again. Nice. Customs officials told me it happens everyday where people are oversold by duty free stores. "Every day" they said. You would think that there is not much that one person can do about this rip off. I beg to differ. With todays internet there is one thing a person can do. I have posted serveral times on travel sites this past week about my experience and I am finding that my posts are not only being read but people are replying with their own stories about these rotten duty free stores. Bottom line, they got me once but only once. Never again.
Friday 18th of February 2022
@Kevin Koch, I agree, that's why I made the comment about having to split up the order with someone you're traveling with. It doesn't do any good to buy 2, get 1 free if that free one is not going to make it to your house because of customs rules. There's a chance you will get away with it, but it's deceptive marketing that they're fully aware of.