OPINION: Are Duty-Free Shops Past Their Time?

Experiences during my recent trips have caused me to wonder: Have duty-free shops outlived their usefulness?

It has long been widely accepted that one cannot just assume prices at duty-free shops are bargains; one needs to know one’s prices and do some conversions for differences in currencies and package sizes to be certain you're getting a bargain. That is just being a smart consumer – unless, of course, you’re buying something you simply can’t get at home. In such cases, the price matters less.

But prices (and attendant calculations) aside, there is little question it’s harder to take advantage of duty-free shops - bargains or not - thanks to post-9/11 security rules.

If you gravitate to things like chocolate, cigars, or cigarettes, the rules do not pose much of a problem. But those are not my vices.

The regulation that one can only take a one-quart bag of liquids in containers of 3.1 ounces (100 ml) or less is the biggest impediment if alcohol or perfumes are the items you gravitate toward in duty-free shops. And while I have not done any formal research on the subject, one can tell simply by looking at the amount of space dedicated to those categories that those items are quite popular. The duty-free shop in Terminal A at Denver International Airport, for example, dedicates at least three-quarters of its shelf space to these two categories of items.

Several years ago, before the “3-2-1 rule” went into effect, I picked up a liter of cask-strength scotch at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) while returning from Austria. Back then, I was able to carry it on at Heathrow because I had purchased it after clearing security (as travelers are still able to do) but, importantly, I was also allowed to carry it on after clearing customs at O'Hare International Airport (ORD) in Chicago and going back through security before catching my short flight to Indianapolis (IND).

Not so today.

While travelers can still carry liquids purchased at duty-free shops on to their first flight, those items must be in checked baggage for any connecting flights after clearing customs. Unless your final destination is the North American airport at which you'll clear customs, that means opening your bag in the airport terminal, tucking your treasures inside, repacking the rest of your personal effects, then checking the bag through to your final destination. That means those of us who prefer to travel without the albatross of a checked bag are simply out of luck unless our air travel ends at the airport at which we clear customs.

It’s too bad, really. It was fun bringing home treasures from my travels – especially when they were item I could not buy at home. Now, though, it seems we either choose to check a bag (and hope that, in our haste, we have packed things well enough that they arrive in one piece) or to live on the memories.

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