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Duty-free shopping: for some travelers it is a way to pass the time during a layover, but for others it is an integral part of the travel experience. These shoppers get a special kind of excitement from finding the kind of deals that are not available anywhere else.
Duty-free shopping has changed a lot in the past couple of decades. These airside shops used to specialize in heavily-taxed items like cigarettes and alcohol. You might have been able to find some gift-like items — a box of chocolates or some perfume — but the selection was quite limited compared to the options that are available today.
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A couple of things happened that helped usher in a new era of duty-free retail. As security increased in the wake of 9/11, people began spending more time in the airside portions of terminals. Fliers became, more or less, a captive audience, and duty-free shopping became a more prevalent pastime. At the same time, airports were looking for new income streams. Rather than putting pressure on airlines with higher landing fees, airports started looking for other ways to make money.
Airports have even tried to offer sweetened deals to get major brands to open retail outlets that were larger than the traditional small kiosks or displays. Seoul Incheon’s duty-free mall, for example, scored a major win when it convinced Louis Vuitton to open a large outlet in its duty-free area. When this shop opened, it was the first LV boutique at an airport.
Not all duty-free shops are created equal. Choosing a favorite airport for shopping is a matter of taste and opinion. However, these five hubs are standouts when it comes to duty-free retail.
If size matters, London Heathrow is the best place to seek duty-free deals. England’s largest airport has more than 500,000 square feet of retail space spread across its five terminals. There are plenty of shopping options in each of the concourses. People seeking major international brands should make sure that their flights take off from a gate in Terminal 3, which has 40 high-end outlets including Hermes, Cartier, Dior and Gucci. Some of England’s best local brands, meanwhile, are located in shops in Terminal 5.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi
The problem with some duty-free shops, even in major airports, is that they close before the last flights arrive. If you are on a redeye or have a late night connection, you could be out of luck. However, that would never happen at either of the two main airports in the UAE. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s shops are open 24/7. The retailers certainly take advantage of the extra hours. Dubai International’s duty-free shops take in more revenue than any other duty-free airport malls in the world.
Incheon has always been among the best when it comes to duty free. Some of the world’s most prestigious brands are represented here, including the aforementioned Louis Vuitton. In terms of overall size, Incheon’s duty-free space is smaller than only two other airports: Heathrow and Dubai. The South Korean hub still has a lot of the classics like tobacco, liquor, make-up and perfume too.
Amsterdam’s main hub is probably better known for its viewing deck and art installations, rather than its shopping. That said, it is also one of the better places in Europe to find deals on duty-free items. In addition to the regular duty-free discount, many Schiphol stores also run promotions of the "buy one and get one free" variety.
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Zurich’s airport has all the duty-free classics: whiskey, tobacco and some of the world’s best chocolate. The best thing about the shops here is that you can order online and then pick up when you are passing through to catch your flight. Or, if you are more of a serious shopper, you can use the website to plot out the shopping strategy that you want to execute when you arrive at the airport. This is one of the last places where Europeans can buy duty-free while traveling on the continent.