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How to Buy Booze at the Airport Duty Free

Everything you need to know about what (and when) to buy at airport duty-free liquor stores around the globe.

You’ve arrived at the airport within the recommended three-hour arrival window, completed the security screening process and idly browsed through the unimpressive magazine section at the duty-free store. Let’s face it, you’re already bored.

Awash in glaring airport lighting and panic-tinged recycled air, you stop to treat yourself at duty-free. With aisles of alcoholic delights beckoning (but limited luggage space and arm strength), you’ve got some hard decisions ahead. Back away from the regrettable well vodka and make good choices. Here’s how to get the best deals and spend your money wisely.

It’s All About Timing

Buying alcohol at the start of a multi-stop journey may get your treasures confiscated by officials in countries that have carry-on alcohol restrictions (here’s more information than you’ll ever need). Unless you want your prized bottle sadly tossed in the discard pile consisting of too-large lotions and other confiscated items, consider whether you will have access to your checked luggage or if you’re transferring through an airport (and going through security again) where your alcohol may be problematic.

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Buying alcohol at the start of a multi-stop journey may get your treasures confiscated by officials in countries that have carry-on alcohol restrictions.

There’s a bit of a gamble here, however. Waiting until your return trip through the airport, you may find that the selection is limited depending on your departure area, or you may already have luggage stuffed with tchotchkes with no room to spare. If the airport’s departure and arrival gates are in the same space, keep an eye on the available options as you deplane so that you know whether to shop elsewhere before your return flight.

Watch the Weight

Another reason why timing is crucial: Unless you’re enjoying your libations while traveling or gifting them when you arrive, you’ve just saddled yourself with a bottle-shaped millstone that will seem to get heavier each time you hoist your luggage off the ground. It pays to look up the weight restrictions for carry-on and checked luggage on all the airlines on each leg of a multi-step flight (watch for those codeshares, which may have different rules), particularly if you’re flying a smaller regional plane which may get you some serious side-eye from attendants as you clank up to the gate with your purchases.

Look at Your Location

Scoping out your region means thinking beyond the airport and looking at the area’s specialties. Do some research to avoid a “coals to Newcastle” situation, such as bringing a mediocre rum to areas in the Caribbean where the local product is far superior. If you’re flying somewhere remote or where alcohol is prohibitively expensive (or even just plain prohibited), buying booze on your way may be the way to go. Just be sure to leave your bottle in the sealed bag it was packed in, although, this step could be key to getting your goods onto a non-stop flight. And thanks to drunken belligerence from badly behaved passengers (including brawling and, even worse, twerking), some airports are moving towards these systems to discourage passenger drinking.

Avoid Generic Brands

It’s a pretty good life lesson to avoid generic brands when traveling. Why insist on stubbornly sticking to your usual repertoire of alcoholic beverages when there’s literally a whole world of other options to discover? Plus, mass-produced bottles are often cheaper at your local liquor store, where retailers avoid airport markups. Save that cash for street food or that Instagram-worthy cocktail.

Be sure to check the availability of each item online before you buy so you don’t pay a premium for something you could have picked up at your corner store (if you’re not up to panicked web searching while standing in the aisles, some airport retail stores list their inventory online for comparison shopping).

Consider Terroir

A word that’s moved beyond the swirl and spittoon wine set and into the mainstream, terroir, or taste of place, means you’ve got a souvenir that’s intrinsically reflective of the area’s soil, plants, and weather patterns. Look for locally-produced items that tell a unique tale about the artisans in the area, and focus on smaller vineyards, distilleries using homegrown ingredients (meads are a particularly great way to show off the distinct tastes of regional honey, for example), or microbreweries. Just by buying a bottle using these guidelines, you’ve got a better chance of getting a sense of the area’s hops, grains or grapes and coming home with a worthwhile souvenir.

A Few Taxing Concerns

While you’re thinking local, check out the area’s currency and taxes using an online tracker or local bank. Once conversion rates are carried out—especially on credit cards, which often assign a fee and an exchange rate—some of those duty-free deals may not be so great after all. Remember that you may still have to pay a charge if you exceed the duty-free limits for your country upon return, so don’t get sticker shock when you’re stopped at customs. If you’re on a time crunch, sites such as Duty-Free Addict can help you calculate the real value of that bottle.

Check out Retail-Specific Bottles

Some brands, especially makers of whiskey or other spirits, produce pretty bottles that are only available in airports. Often, these travel retail exclusives are resized to meet duty-free specifications, and in other cases, these bottles are meant to make a splash on the shelves to grab the casual shopper’s attention. Don’t underestimate the extent that companies will go to attract this captive audience—Johnnie Walker’s lavish two-story outpost in the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) offers a Schiphol Limited Edition bottle on the off chance you want to remember all that time schlepping to your gate in one of the world’s largest airports.

INSIDER TIPLook for unique blends or cask treatments that are often deemed tasteful by industry experts.

Let’s Be Practical

Don’t judge the quality of booze by its trappings but when it comes to hauling spirits around in your travels, all bottles are not created equal. Now is not the time to indulge in an artfully blown glass or asymmetrical bases. Look for sturdy, short-necked bottles for easy transport (do you really want to be fussing over the thin glass spout of that bottle of grappa being shoved into the overhead compartment?) Ask the clerk for some bubble wrap or extra paper (or in dire circumstances, an extra airplane blanket or hoodie makes for perfect packing). For some pro tips on how to pack wine in your luggage, check out the Fodor’s guide on packing beverages here. After all, once you’ve expended all that energy choosing a bottle, the last thing you want is to arrive home to a sea of shattered glass, fumes, alcohol-soaked belongings, and tears.

And most importantly, remember to crack that bottle open once you return home (with friends if you must) rather than letting it gather dust.

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