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Is duty-free shopping cheaper?

We compare the costs.

couple entering a duty free shop at the airport
Last updated: 10 January 2020

You can still generally save on the original duty-free staples of alcohol and cigarettes, but when it comes to electronics, cosmetics, confectionery and more, you might be better off shopping online or going to the mall.

And you could save much more money if you buy retail then claim a refund under the tourist refund scheme.

rack of tim tam biscuits range at duty free shop in melbourne airport

You'll usually find Tim Tams cheaper at the supermarket than at the airport.

Duty-free money-saving tips

  • Save on liquor. It's well-known that alcohol is cheaper duty-free. We found duty-free rum for nearly half the retail price, but we found champagne and wine for a similar price and cheaper price respectively at Dan Murphy's.
    • The tourist refund scheme (see below) applies to wine but not liquor, so if you're taking wine overseas, you could be better off buying retail and claiming the 14.5% refund on departure.
  • Don't buy chocolate duty-free. Those giant Toblerones might be hard to find outside the airport, but if you're just loading up on Tim Tams and Freddo Frogs for friends overseas, grab them for a much lower price at the supermarket.
  • Shop around for cosmetics and electronic goods. Duty-free came out cheaper with these products, but it's always worth doing your research before you buy to ensure you get the best price.

Tourist refund scheme

If you're travelling abroad, the government's tourist refund scheme (TRS) can be a better shopping option than airport duty-free, since it allows you to get the best price at a regular retail store and then claim a GST refund at the airport.

But the refund only applies to things you wear or carry on the plane and excludes liquor (except wine). You can shop up to 60 days before travelling and still qualify for a tax rebate. Here's how it works:

  • Spend $300 or more in a single store up to 60 days before leaving Australia and make sure you get a tax invoice.
  • Bring the item purchased as well as the tax invoice, your passport and boarding pass to a TRS facility no less than 30 minutes before your flight departs. For information on where the TRS facility is at your airport, visit the Australian Border Force website.
  • The GST rebate is calculated by dividing the GST-inclusive price by 11. (You'll get $60 back from a $660 purchase). For wine, you'll get a 14.5% refund.
  • You can't drink the wine before you claim the refund (obviously), but you can wear or use most other goods beforehand. 
  • Only the person who actually bought the goods can make a claim.

Note for wine buyers: Because liquids can't be taken onboard in your carry-on luggage, you'll need to visit the Customs and Border Protection Client Services counter to have your wine sighted and verified before you check in. Check the wine in with your luggage, then continue through Customs and Immigration to make your TRS claim using your now-stamped invoice.

Duty-free product warranties

For one CHOICE member who got in touch with us, Vicki Vincent, adherence to Australian Consumer Law was spotty when she bought duty-free.

Vicki told us the Airport Tax & Duty Free shop at Sydney Airport gave her the run-around when she tried to return a Sony camera, eventually claiming the manufacturer had ruled that Vicki had voided her warranty. Yet when she took the matter up with Sony directly, her camera was picked up by a courier, repaired and returned in short order.

"I wonder if they have a bad after-sales service because a large number of their customers are heading home and not planning to return?" Vicki speculates. "It's not a good last impression to give tourists."

If you're tossing up between buying electronic goods in Australia – either duty-free or retail – or in duty-free outlets overseas, consider the following:

  • Because warranties are administered via retailers, if you buy an item and it breaks down, your first port of call is meant to be the shop that sold it to you. This is a problem if you bought it overseas and are now back home.
  • Some companies do offer a worldwide warranty service, which means a broker or retailer here may honour a warranty for something bought overseas, but you should check this carefully with the manufacturer – preferably before you travel.
  • The shop may well assure you that the warranty will be honoured back in Australia, but remember you're getting advice from a shop that probably makes the bulk of its sales to transiting, rather than repeat, customers.
  • At the very least, make sure what you purchase comes with a written guarantee of the worldwide warranty, and that there are written contact details for the company's service arrangements in Australia.

Check the voltage

Buyers of electronic goods like computers may also be hit with another problem. Although you may be able to buy the goods cheaper overseas, they may not be designed to run on the voltage used in Australia. This might mean you have to buy a potentially bulky transformer to make it work, which could eat into any savings you make.

If you do want to buy electronic goods, make sure you read the specifications very carefully.

What can I bring in to Australia duty-free?

There are limits to how much alcohol and cigarettes you can bring in:

  • 25 grams of unopened tobacco product – roughly a pack of ciggies – along with one open pack. 
  • 2.25 litres of alcoholic beverages.

Who's running the duty-free shops?

Duty-free shops have an official air about them, perhaps because you need to have your passport on hand and make your way through customs to gain access to the cut-rate goods. But the only thing official is that you buy without paying tax or import duty. The businesses themselves are non-government operations licensed by the Australian Tax Office.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.