Airport or city centre – where is cheaper to buy perfumes, cigarettes and alcohol?

Are there still savings to be made at the airport or is duty-free zone shopping simply a way of getting a bored audience to part with their shillings?

Holidays are coming and, despite our current heatwave, that often means a trip abroad for sunshine, swimming and a visit to the duty free.

The concept may have evolved substantially since it was a twinkle in the eye of Dr Brendan O’Regan, who opened the world’s first duty-free shop at Shannon Airport back in 1950 as a way of encouraging trade at the airport, it doesn’t mean we’re any less enthralled with it however.

These days, most travellers are making their way towards a European Union destination such as France, Spain or Italy. That means the delights of the duty-free experience have dissipated.

Of course if the UK’s departure from the EU goes ahead with no customs agreements, we could be entitled once more to the full duty-free experience when travelling across the Irish Sea.

But for now, are there still savings to be made at the airport? Or is duty-free zone shopping simply a way of getting a bored, captive audience to part with their shillings?

What does duty free mean today?

The arrival of the European Union means that the “duty free” we know today is very different from what once went before – a time of cigarette allowances and cut-price Cinzano and Blue Nun.

Duty-free shopping within the bloc ended in 1999, which means that for many of us, it’s a thing of the past. Last year, for example, according to the DAA, the Dublin Airport Authority, 80 per cent of passengers using Dublin Airport travelled to countries within the EU. Travellers to these countries can no longer avail of “duty-free” goods.

But airports haven’t stood idly by and watched their sales dwindle. Innovations such as “shop and collect”, which allows you to buy before you fly and collect when you arrive home, are a handy way of avoiding getting caught out by 100ml regulations if you’re bringing only hand luggage. Provided of course that you remember your purchase, and don’t simply skip out of arrivals. And, it’s not available for duty-free products.

At Dublin and Cork airports, a spokesman for the DAA says that by offering a single price to all customers across many product categories, including those going to a duty-paid or a duty-free destination, they can pass on VAT savings for duty-free passengers to all of its customers.

This, the airport operator says, means that it can “guarantee” that products such as perfumes, skincare and make-up products “are at least 15 per cent cheaper than downtown prices”, and these savings apply, regardless of where passengers are flying. If you do find goods that are cheaper elsewhere – such as our survey on alcohol prices shows – The Loop (Dublin Airport’s shopping zone) says it will refund you double the difference.

When travelling outside the EU, however, duty free does still exist, offering savings on most alcohol and tobacco products. This is why you’ll still see two prices on most of these products at the airport this summer, with the better savings still to be made on the duty-free products.

According to the DAA spokesman, the duty-free price of a specific product is calculated by taking the average duty paid price downtown, and subtracting the level of duty that applies to that product.


It used to be one of the biggest boons when travelling; stock up on your Christmas booze on your summer holidays at the low-cost duty free. So can you expect any savings today?

Well, if you’re travelling to an EU destination, savings will be limited. Consider a one litre bottle of Gordon’s Gin; it will cost you €28 at the airport, while you can pick up the same bottle for the same price in your local SuperValu. Or how about a bottle of Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish gin – €50 in the airport or just €49 in Tesco. And it’s not the only liquor that’s more expensive at the airport – a one litre bottle of Jameson is €3 cheaper in Tesco than at the airport, while there are also savings to be made on Tullamore Dew.

Indeed it can often be the case that bottles of spirits might be cheaper in the local supermarket when you arrive at your destination than at the airport due to different local excise duty regimes.

If, however, your destination is outside the EU, there are considerable savings to be made. Take that bottle of Gordon’s gin. If you’re travelling to the US or Russia this summer, you can pick up a bottle for as little as €12, or less than half the price of your high street equivalent. Savings on a bottle of Tullamore Dew can be as much as 78 per cent, and Bailey’s Irish Cream 50 per cent, with a one litre bottle on offer at the airport for just €18.

But tread carefully if you’re a fan of a “premium” brand, such as Hendricks Gin or Grey Goose vodka. According to the DAA, this range of products has a single price for all destinations – duty free or otherwise.


There are also considerable savings on offer for smokers though sales of these are restricted to those travelling outside the EU. For example, you can pick up 10 packets of Marlboro Gold (200 cigarettes) for €52, or 400 cigarettes for €88. If you buy these in your local newsagent however, it will cost you €12.20 for a 20 pack, or €122 for 200 and €244 for 400, so you can buy your cigarettes for less than half price at the airport.

And duty-free limits still apply when travelling outside of Ireland; this means returning travellers can bring 200 cigarettes and one litre of alcohol (four litres of wine or, if you must, 16 litres of beer) as well as 50g of perfume or 250ml of eau de toilette.


When it comes to smelling nice this summer, it seems to make sense to wait to make your purchase at the airport. Out of the eight perfumes compared in this survey, six were cheaper at the airport – some, such as the popular Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb, was almost 80 per cent cheaper at the airport.

However, it was possible to get other fragrances, such as Gucci’s Bloom and Victoria’s Secret Mist, cheaper elsewhere.


Again, there are clear savings to be made at the airport for your night creams, serums and lipsticks. As our survey shows, products such as the Estée Lauder Perfectionist Pro can be about 20 per cent cheaper in the departure lounge, saving you €17 on that product alone.

When it comes to make-up, Bobbi Brown’s Brightening Brick, which can give you a bit of an artificial glow before you hit the sun, is 18 per cent cheaper at the airport, while Urban Decay’s eye-shadow palette is about 11 per cent cheaper.

And, of course, you can’t forget about the “airport exclusives” which can make even the most tight-fisted of us part with our hard-earned cash, all for the pleasure of getting a “free” aftersun or make-up bag as part of the package.

What about in-flight shopping?

Of course it’s not just the airport that’s trying to get us to spend; the pressure continues on board the flight too. But is it cheaper? Benefit’s Hoola Bronzer for example is €29 in The Loop – and €27 on board an Aer Lingus flight. But YSL’s iconic Touche Elcat is €30 on board – and €29.80 back in departures The lesson then, in the age of the internet, is to do your research before you buy, if you really want to keep more money for Aperol spritzes on the beach.

Why is using your boarding card necessary?

You’ve gone through the arduous process of checking your bags in, if you have any, and making your way through security. Now, despite obviously having a ticket to an onward destination, you’re still being asked to show your boarding card – even when you’re purchasing a duty paid bottle of gin, or make-up. Or water. But why? Well, the good news is that while you might be asked to present it, if you’ve left it with your family at the other end of the departures lounge, or it’s smushed at the bottom of your bag, don’t panic.

According to a spokesman for the DAA, “if any passenger buying a non-duty free product does not wish to provide this information, we will still make the sale”. As that infers, you will still need the boarding card if you are purchasing duty-free liquor or tobacco as sales staff need to ensure you are flying outside the EU.

The spokesman says it is the policy at Dublin and Cork airports to ask passengers to present their boarding cards for a number of reasons, such as checking whether they’re entitled to duty-free prices, but also to understand passenger spending patterns.

“The only information that is tracked is the item purchased, the airline, and the destination in question,” he says, adding that this is used as market research and to help plan staffing levels. And here’s another point to note. Ever wondered where all those over-sized perfumes and suncreams end up when you forgetfully pack them in your hand luggage and they are seized at security?

According to the DAA, any unopened items are given to its charity partners – this year, that’s the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, LauraLynn’s Children’s Hospice, and Snowflakes (Autism Support) – to be used in hampers.

Fiona Reddan

Fiona Reddan

Fiona Reddan is a writer specialising in personal finance and is the Home & Design Editor of The Irish Times