Jetting off to paradise? No matter your destination, you’re bound to come across stores boasting luxury goods and products at cheap prices. We’re talking about duty-free shopping. Here’s what that means, and what you should know before you go.

What Is Duty-Free?

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Understanding duty-free can feel complicated. But really it means items that are cheaper because they’re exempt from local taxes. So if you’re in Ireland and buying a bottle of whiskey, you wouldn’t have to pay sales tax. Then, if you buy less than $800 of it, you wouldn’t have to pay a tax when you came back into the U.S. either. Anything more than $800 and it’s subject to some extra fees.

Where Can You Get Duty-Free Items?

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Duty-free items are sold exclusively to travelers who will take them out of the country. Local people have to pay local taxes. That means the only places you can get truly duty-free items are on cruise ships and airports. In other words, wherever travelers can shop and locals cannot. Sometimes you can also find them in “international zones” at ports, which are kind of in-between areas.

Do I Need to Do Anything to Prepare Before Buying Duty-Free?

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One of the pitfalls of shopping in other countries is that you don’t actually know how much you’re paying. Download a currency converter app on your phone before you go so you can quickly figure out how much items cost.  

And although you’re definitely welcome to browse, since you can never know exactly what’s in the shop, it’s always a good idea to know what you want to buy in advance. Is it Italian wine? Tequila from Mexico? A designer handbag? French perfume? If you have an idea, you can make a better game plan.

What’s Always a Safe Bet When Buying Duty-Free?

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Alcohol that you can’t get at your local liquor store. Cigars from other countries. Cosmetics or fragrances that are unique to that store.

Basically, you want to look for two things: items that are usually taxed a lot so the prices go up, and items that you can’t find anywhere else. Some perfumes or shades of lipstick you can actually only get at duty-free shops, so it’s a good idea to pick those types of things up. Especially if you have some foreign currency to use or forgot to get someone a souvenir.

What Items Are to Be Avoided?

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Don’t buy things duty-free that you can get at home on sale. Electronics, for example, are never a good buy from a duty-free store. What happens when you spill something on it and need to cash in on that warranty? Best to hold out for a sale at the big retailer in your hometown.

It may also make sense to avoid buying jewelry, sunglasses and watches at duty-free stores, but in this case it’s best to do your research. If you find something you like in the store, don’t be shy. Pull out your phone and do a little price comparison right there.  

And if you are on the lookout for authentic goods, made locally, it really is best to buy locally. You’re not going to get local products any cheaper than where they’re actually made.

Is There a Good Time to Buy?

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The “when” part of this equation doesn’t matter so much, except that if you’re on a cruise ship you should pay attention to the daily deals at the store. These stores are competitive with those on port, so make sure you check out what’s in the onboard store before you get off the ship. Then you’ll know what makes sense to buy there and what you should buy elsewhere.