You’re killing time in the duty-free shop before your flight home and spot some seemingly low-priced alcohol. “Bargain!” your brain might shout—but not so fast. Not only are there restrictions on what you can buy, but sometimes the list price is a good deal in one country but a rip-off in another. To snag the absolute best price, you first need to understand the basics of duty-free.
A duty-free shop is where you can purchase goods without the added import or export tax that a country normally puts on products. That doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest you’ll ever see a bottle, but it does mean it’s the cheapest you’ll find a bottle in that area. For example, if a country charges a 6 percent duty on alcohol not made in the country, a bottle in the duty-free shop costs 6 percent less than it does outside the shop.
There are also limits on how much duty-free alcohol U.S. citizens can bring back into the country. The general rule is that if you spent at least 48 hours outside the United States, you can bring back $800 of duty-free goods. But you can only do this once every 30 days. In general, only one liter of alcohol can be brought back, and the purchaser must be 21 years or older regardless of the drinking age in the country where the bottle was purchased.
These restrictions keep duty-free from being a total grab fest. To make things worse for the hopeful duty-free shopper, bottles in some countries are more expensive in duty-free than they are at a store in the United States. The comparison website Duty Free Buzz can give you a general sense of prices for some major European and Asian destinations, but information on price comparisons aren’t always readily available.
The Best Countries to Buy Duty-Free
All the restrictions can make you wonder what the big fuss is about, until you actually experience the duty-free havens. The best duty-free alcohol deals can be found in the Caribbean and territories that U.S. Customs calls “insular possessions,” aka the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam.
In the insular possessions, U.S. citizens can bring back five liters of alcohol amounting up to $1,600 duty-free. At least one of the bottles must be a product of the island in which you purchased it. The U.S. Virgin Islands is the only place to take advantage of this because it’s the only one with distilleries (both Cruzan and Captain Morgan).
Outside of U.S. territories, the Caribbean is the place to be. A trade treaty called the Caribbean Basin Initiative allows travelers to buy two liters of duty-free alcohol up to $800, as long as one of the bottles was produced in the country in which it was purchased. Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Caicos, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Turks are not included in the Caribbean Basin Initiative. The 17 countries that are, aka the best foreign places to hit the duty-free shop, are as follows: Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Curacao, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.