Do you ever buy duty free aboard?

To me it’s somewhat of a miracle that duty free still exists on planes. The weight of the carts and space they take up must add up over time, and surely there aren’t actually good deals aboard. It’s basic economics, given that in retail I don’t think you can pay higher “rent” than being flown around the world constantly with fairly low turnover.

So who actually buys duty free items onboard? I mean, I guess they have a really captive audience when you’re on a plane and have nothing better to do, but still, surely logic kicks in at some point.

I don’t think I’ve picked up the duty free catalog once in the past million miles I’ve flown, though I ended that streak yesterday on a flight from Hong Kong to Bali.

I flipped through it quickly and realized, embarrassingly enough, that I don’t have an international adapter.

In 2011 I picked up a free piece of crap international adapter which was shipped to me in a few dozen parts, and ever since I’ve just been mooching off hotels and lounges for adapters. I kind of figured if I had one I’d lose it within weeks by leaving it plugged in at a hotel or in a lounge.

That being said, yesterday I saw an international adapter that looked compact and functional, so I bought it. It was pricey at $45, but I also realized that if I didn’t buy it then I probably never would.

And while I was at it, I couldn’t help but pick up a $20 Cathay Pacific pilot bear. I mean, does it get any cuter than that?

Do you ever purchase things through onboard duty free? Have you ever actually seen a good deal?

Filed Under: Travel
  1. The only item I’ve bought was some Grey Goose vodka – 750ml for $27. Beats the price anywhere else I’ve seen!

  2. I’ve bought like 5 of those pilot bears, each a diff design

    But other than that haven really bought any of those expensive watches

  3. Funny, that Daily Steals international adapter showed up intact for me and still works perfectly to this day!

  4. in some programmes, elites get fairly good discounts on onboard duty free purchases. with that factored in, onboard prices for the certain items can actally work out to be the best deal.

  5. I’m not a major duty free shopper myself, but on some routes the revenue from Duty Free can be quite considerable. For example, on Emirates’ Lagos flights, it is not uncommon to see sales of around $100k on the single sector, mainly in cash. I’ve actually seen people buy $10k worth of jewellery from the cart without batting an eyelid.

    I personally use Duty Free only to buy gifts that I had forgotten to pick up earlier. On-board prices are rarely competitive (as your $45 adapter proves). šŸ™‚

  6. I once purchased a Lego airplane while flying BA first to keep my 6 yo busy during the flight.

  7. Not an answer to your question..

    I am interested in your thought process..
    when did it occur to you that you can write a post about this?

    If it occurred as a part of the selection/buying process, then $45 for this charger was a good deal for you (after all it gave you an idea for a post – which I am guessing is probably worth more than $40 markup).

    If you genuinely came up with the decision to write about this after-the-fact, then yeah, $45 adapter is a ripoff, you should have picked one at walmart when you load BB, and all that šŸ™‚

  8. Are all items from the catalog on board? Aren’t some items that you order shipped to you at home?

  9. @ T3pleShot — Hah, thought occured to me after the fact. I figured to get a “premium” adapter (with USB functionality and everything) I’d be looking at $30+, so I didn’t think the markup was that bad in the realm of that.

  10. @ Eugene — Parts of the catalog are just “onboard shopping” where you can order through a form, though they have hundreds of items available aboard.

  11. I never have. The only purchases I’d consider would be unique souvenirs like your bear or some of the exclusive Delft items offered on KLM flights.

    Sean M.’s Emirates example may make it worthwhile for some airline/route combinations packed with passengers with money to burn, but I’d imagine that’s the exception rather than the rule.

  12. ive actually bought a really nice watch on a flight.
    ive used some elal matmid points that ive had to lower the price and it turned out to be a really good deal.

  13. Hi, my partner smokes and cigarettes are usually much cheaper on-board Swiss aircrafts than they are on the ground. So I buy those. They also have some nice design products on board, so I also bought a great adaptor on board KLM, I never found one that nice on the ground. Once I also bought chocolates that I gave to the crew because they were so great!

  14. I used to buy more before the 100ml restrictions and when UA gave miles for shopping.

  15. Alcohol and Tobacco are criminally expensive in countries with universal healthcare, like Canada, Scandinavia, etc. Since the duty free shops in some airports are only in certain terminals, close early, don’t carry ‘your brand’ then buying on board can often be the best solution. No idea who buys the other crap though!

  16. I have the same adaptor and it is brilliant. Just for the record, it is $49.95 on the ground –

    I never leave home without at least 2 adaptors, but that’s just me.

    I wish airlines carried basic audio cables, audio cable splitters (sound from 1 source for 2 people), batteries, etc šŸ™‚ These items will definitely sell and sell well!

  17. Alcoholic drinks (0.75 or 1L bottles)are often sold at very good prices by some airlines (El-Al, Air Berlin). Of course if you are connecting in the US you may not bring glass bottles on board, but maybe this will change soon.

  18. I regularly fly Asiana and on flights to Seoul in Y the duty free sales are mind boggling. I have seen people place their orders before departure. It is my belief that they travelers are buying gifts for family and friends. Otherwise, I rarely see enough sales to think that the profit “outweighs” the costs of the magazines, carts, items themselves and logistics. Do we really want flight attendants hawking duty free for their commission when they constantly remind us that they are there for our safety?

  19. Worth buying for countries that have fake alcohol problems and expensive prices domestically. Also, it’s wise to buy onboard at least one bottle to make it seems as though you are only bringing that one bottle through and not any in your luggage šŸ˜‰

  20. I buy duty free liquor on board with some frequency. Sometimes the deals are actually better than in the airport duty free: e.g. $162 for 750ml Johnnie Walker Blue on my recent ICN-JFK. Also there are items not readily available other places. You can buy Satsuma Shochu on JAL for ~$30 and resell it for over JPY10.000 when you land.

  21. I like this article. Never really seen anyone buy duty free on a US airline but in Asia I see people buy cigarettes and alcohol all the time, especially into China since they don’t want the products sold in China.

    Saw one person look at a watch in business class cx once but he turned it down after seeing the actual product.

    I Would love stuffed pilot bear but I’m too cheap to pay $25 for it.

    I may be tempted with some cologne next time I fly but in hk prices in the stores are the same as in the plane.

  22. I only buy stuffs onboard to spend duty free voucher I got every year from SQ PPS club. Otherwise, never bother to look at the duty free magazine.

  23. I bought for the first time in January @MIA – headed to Cancun for a week. bought 2 fifths of Bailey’s for morning coffee. didn’t need 2, but better deal. Lady behind me in jet bridge thought it was a wise move, regretted she hadn’t. sold her the 2nd fifth for $20 (her offer) & got mine for $16 – cheaper than my local supplier šŸ˜‰
    PS my deal of the day ($5)adaptor still works great, but doesn’t get the use Lucky’s does

  24. the 1 litre grey goose on UA for $33 is a great price. especially if travelling from Australia where the same bottle sells in the airport for approx. $70!!!

  25. I bought a bottle of johnnie walker XR coming back frm Tokyo-Narita that was cheaper than anywhere in Asia and about $3 cheaper than the duty free shop in the airport.

  26. Some countries taxes on luxury items are huge, since restrictions on fluids the best and safest way is to buy them on board on hour final sector. Some airlines, Asiana have on board stores ehere the items are awaiting your arrival. It’s a huge and very profitable area anyone weighed an Emirates catalogue. Different regions different catalogues.

  27. @ Sean M. — $100K on a flight?! Wow! Is it usually just a handful of purchases making massive purchases, or is it pretty evenly split up among passengers?

    @ Hristo — Hey, I got a good deal after all!

  28. I bought a cool travel alarm clock that I didn’t need and some chocolates for my wife on a recent Lufthansa flight. The clock just looked cool but the chocolates would have saved me from the “Look honey, I got you nothing” when I got home and realized I had left it all on the plane.

    I’m usually picking up small gifts and cheap model airplanes for my office.

  29. I find that duty free alcohol, either on board or in the airport is 99% of the time more expensive or much more expensive than at home. Combined with the hassle of repack / recheck when arriving back in the US doesn’t make it worth it to me

  30. @lucky – Usually about 10-15 big spenders ($5k+) and a handful of other smaller ones. Many of the passengers are traders for whom the entire purpose of the trip is to stock up on stuff that they can resell at home. They burn their last few thousand dollars on duty free items (watches, jewellery and other high value premium gifts especially) that they can buy on board. These are the same folks who check in 50-100 pieces of luggage for the most part. Mainly USD cash transactions too – most airlines won’t accept cards for Duty Free purchases on their West African routes.

  31. Well, onboard booze and cigarettes are less expensive than at home. I live in Virginia, which has expensive state controlled booze sales (I stock up in DC). But without federal taxes cigarettes are far cheaper onboard than even in Virginia, which is supposedly the supplier for the NYC black market.

    But (1) onboard is more expensive than in airport duty free, (2) I drink more down market brands than are offered onboard, but which are often available at duty free, (3) I don’t smoke (4) a bottle of booze becomes a burden if I have a connection. SO, on rare occasions, I’ll get a bottle of booze for a gift.

  32. Booze is often a good deal on board on the final segment en route to your destination because:

    a. The liquids police, even if you have bought it in the terminal, may confiscate it, especially on routes to the U.S. I have seen this at Incheon during the ridiculous gate inspection of everyone’s carry-on. Have also seen it in Manila for the flight to Guam. I don’t trust the liquids gestapo at all, so no way am i buying liquids in the terminal, especially for a U.S. bound flight.

    b. Liquor tends to be very expensive outside the U.S. because they tax imports like crazy. So like some of the other posts above, if you want to drink in your room or party or whatever at your destination, on board duty free may be a good value.

  33. I’ve seen a few times a good deal… Mostly booze… On domestic flights in Europe it can be quite expensive. Like 8 euro per shot. Or just buy the bottle for 20 euro.

    And i know that you’re not allowed to open DF in-flight, but so what. Some rules are just to be broken

  34. I bought a similar bear (moose to be exact) on an Air canada flight. He was adorable. I am still regretting not getting the aviator koala that was on Qantas flight on our honeymoon.

    I also wanted to get a sim card for tahiti on our Air tahiti Nui flight but woke up too late to purchase it. It was the same price onboard as it was on the ground so this could’ve saved me a lot of time buying it in the airport (got in at 10pm so nothing was open anyway) and trying to activate it while going to my hotel. I could’ve played with it on my flight and had it almost ready before i landed.

    The other item i would probably get would be alcohol if you wanted to buy more than the allowable limit. The flight attendants don’t know how much you bought already so you could technically buy a bit more. If you had a domestic connection, you would have to put the alcohol in your check-in bag. All of this is assuming the alcohol is cheaper in the airport than outside (not necessarily the case in the Caribbean).

  35. I had a seatmate that got wasted on a flight from SEA-NRT and bought chocolates on the cart. Not only for himself but then bought all the FAs chocolates+things (… I mean ALL of them) and even ended up buying me chocolates (are all Brazilians this friendly?).

    It was my only thing I’ve ever “received” from the duty free cart. Guess never hurts to sit next to a friendly drunk :).

  36. Qantas’s in-flight liquor prices consistently beat anything on the ground in Australia. When heading down under I can’t bring cheap liquor from the States thanks to the War On Liquids – and if I buy it on arrival at SYD, I get stuck behind an A380-load of people who descended on the customs line while I was buying my scotch. In-flight duty free is a no-brainer. (But I, too, am baffled by the economics of it.)

  37. I used to work for B/E Aerospace, a supplier of aircraft interior. In the Dutch office they had dozens of inflatable planes from every airline you could imagine hanging from the ceiling. Even though I only worked there half a year, I did buy some planes in the years after leaving, to leave them at the office.

    Furthermore a headset, since mine broke after 5 minutes in-flight (AMS-MEX is a long time without them…), some cigarettes and yep, a teddy bear. That’s about it.

  38. I’ve only bought a couple of time and only because Air Canada offered a 15% discount and to redeem a voucher I got from Lufthansa. The prices seem like they are a good deal but be careful the size is usually smaller than what you can buy at a dept. store. The best example is fragrance the bottles you buy in-flight are NOT full-size and you don’t get a gift with purchase as you typically would from buying in dept. stores šŸ˜‰

  39. Also have your adaptor and it works well – much beter than the crap sold at Walmart – so ignore that advice. And I have bought the alarm clock mentioned by another poster on Lufthansa, while my wife bought a nice watch. Otherwise it is booze, since we live in Canada and we are forever getting ripped off by our government controlled liquor boards.

  40. My partner and I just flew BA to LHR and purchased 2 bottles of Smirnoff Blue label for 10 Pounds each (litre bottles). Its cheaper to buy alcohol on the plane than it is in the UK or EU for that matter.

  41. Yup. Stick to Tobbaco (as it’s overpriced on the ground in any country – except in Duty Free Areas), and Model Planes. Alcohol tends to be overpriced no matter what (be on the plane or on the ground)

    Yes. Model Planes. Don’t look at me in that tone of voice…

  42. I’ve always thought that a Duty Free Deals web site would be a good idea. I’ve not bought on board but did look at iPads at ICN when passing through last time as they were cheaper with the currency variance. It would be nice to know what deals are out there.

  43. I’ve never bought anything on board, other than beer, snack boxes, or wifi. I plan to keep that streak alive.

  44. I bought a wireless adapter onboard Cathy Pacific flight. Many hotels in China do not have wireless internet, so this can be plugged in the ethernet and instantly become a hot spot for all my portables. Loved it. It was not much mark up compare to on the ground purchase

  45. Yes, I do buy duty free on board. Make-up is usually a pretty good deal. And when visiting friends in the UK, we always take them cigarettes.

  46. Buys something from duty free at $40 markup. Writes article about duty free not being profitable.

  47. A couple of years ago on an Emirates 380 suites trip they were showing an affinity MontBlanc pen that paid homage to the A380, with the design on the body of the pen having ovals on it to honor the marvel that was the shape of the windows on the A380, etc. etc. etc. Now, honestly? It was a pretty cool pen. But the price? Upwards of US $750, plus one got the chance to be entered in a sweepstakes to fly Emirates in first class anywhere in the world to Toulouse for a tour. The f/a told me that they had sold seven of them already by the time I had even asked how well that pen was selling (And I asked ~two hours into the flight). It was a limited edition, but I don’t remember the total number made.

    So, on flights that are carrying people with money, I suppose it can be a real profit center for the airlines, obviously…

  48. I actually love to buy perfume miniatures on board. I think they are actually good (or not bad) deals.

  49. I did get a Spanish brandy 3 times for gifts and once for personal use. My wife occasionally gets cigarettes.

  50. Really nice watch for my SO, it had everything she had been looking for a while but couldn’t really get it in stores locally. It was only $50 so a pretty good deal overall.

  51. I’ve bought a great Swiss adapter on a flight and on asian flight I bought a pair of mikimoto pearl earrings which I had priced out on the ground – good price onboard –

  52. On my first trip to France years ago, I bought a model airplane of the Air France Concorde. Besides that, when flying to Hong Kong on Cathay, I always buy a ticket for the Airport Express train to Kowloon. Saves a couple of dollars vs. buying it once you’ve landed at the airport.

    @Josh- Americans enrolled in Global Entry can now use SmartGate in Australia. Not sure where you’re from but if you’re eligible, go ahead and sign up. It’ll help you out and you can go get your booze without worrying about the lines. šŸ™‚

  53. I can’t believe you didn’t have a universal adapter until now (well, when this article was written). That is as shocking as Gary not having Global Entry until last year.

  54. I actually have a good deal! I bought an ESTEE LAUDER NUTRITIOUS 6.7Fl.oz/200 ml on board Asiana Airlines Oct.31.2014. It was a STEAL for a price of $39 comparing to Macy’s $55.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *