The Truth About Duty-Free Shopping

by Jana Jones

I could not believe the bargains I saw the first time I went on a Caribbean cruise that called at the U.S. Virgin Islands' St. Thomas. Jewelry store after jewelry store offered gold and gems that were mind-bogglingly priced, as were liquors and other gift items. I bought a gold something-or-another for most of my female family members, liquor or leather for most of the male family members and still ended up under budget and under the allowable import maximum.

Is this still doable? These days, everyone is looking for an edge -- an opportunity to save money in any way possible. And, since cruise passengers really maximize their saving opportunities by shopping for duty-free bargains while they travel, we set out to discover the truth about duty-free shopping in a Members Speak Out poll.

Nearly 2,600 people responded to our questions. Liquor was the number-one purchase option in our survey, with 32.6 percent of respondents saying that duty-free booze was worth the price of hauling it back home. Cigarettes and fine jewelry each garnered 6.2 percent of the votes; perfume/cosmetics and electronics were also equally divided, each getting just more than 4 percent of the votes.

St. Thomas was judged the best cruise destination to buy duty-free goods, with 29.4 percent of the votes; St. Maarten came in second at a shade more than 22 percent; Cozumel received 11.5 percent; Grand Cayman, about 4 percent; and around 9 percent of people say that they can find better deals in the airport on the way home. Those were the destinations in our survey, but a smattering of respondents wrote in about some other favorite spots. Kusadasi in Turkey was one of them; the Panama Canal, Hong Kong (for electronics) and the duty-free shop in the Auckland (New Zealand) airport were represented. Almost everyone who enjoyed shopping said that you really have to bargain for the best prices.

When asked if certain ports had better deals on some items than others, less than 1 percent of people said no, while some 46 percent said yes. (More than 50 percent didn't have an opinion either way.) And the question "Have you ever bought something duty-free, only to discover it less expensively at your local mall?" was divided equally between yes and no, with 22 percent of respondents voting for each. (Fifty-seven percent did not weigh in.)

And, while most said they enjoy shopping when they cruise, more than 66 percent said that they wouldn't "go nuts," but would pick and choose what they wanted from destinations on their trips. When asked if they focus their onshore shopping specifically on the duty-free stuff, 51 percent said that they buy what they like, duty-free or not, and about 31 percent claim to gravitate to locally produced goods and crafts that remind them of their trips. About 0.5 percent never shop ashore.

But enough statistics -- let's get onto your comments!

Most Shopper-Friendly: Although the Caribbean seemed to be the area that most respondents considered "shopper-friendly," the Mexican Riviera (west coast) and Nassau (Bahamas) got some props, as well. "I've found that shopping the little shops in Zihuatanejo gave me the best selection and pricing throughout the Mexican Riviera -- in particular, a ring I had been searching high and low for, a white opal mounted in sterling silver," says Deepnite10. One member responded that "Puerto Vallarta must take the prize for decent deals, thanks to its strategically located Wal-Mart, across from the cruise terminal." (Editor's Note: Yes, and there's a Sam's Club right next to it!) But, says member Localady, "For Mexican Riviera cruising, do your jewelry shopping in Mazatlan. It has [fewer] markups [than] Puerto Vallarta or Cabo."

Several members also commented on the knockoff handbags in Nassau's straw market. "I like to purchase the 'remade' purses at the straw market in the Bahamas," says member SunshneNC. "These purses look just as good [as], if not better than, the real ones." A member says, "Knockoff pocketbooks were cheaper in Nassau than anywhere else; they were double the price in St. Thomas." (Editor's Note: If U.S. Customs finds you with bootlegged "replicas," they'll confiscate them.)

What's the Deal On Liquor? Many people are finding that the inability to carry liquids onboard a plane or the additional cost for baggage has severely curtailed their desire to buy liquor, even when the deals are good. "All of the choices offered are better bought at home, from a reliable, local business owner. I wouldn't 'shlep' home heavy bottles of liquor just for a duty-free price," says another member; member Morgsmom agrees: "Liquor is cheaper in St. Thomas and St. Maarten than in Cozumel, but it is still not worth lugging back a box to save $20, in my opinion." "I have found the liquor is cheaper at our local discount liquor store than onboard or in St. Thomas. don't have to drag it home. Even Costco prices are cheaper. So much for duty-free."

On the other hand, there are those who live near homeports -- such as Galveston, Miami, Los Angeles, Ft. Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Tampa and San Diego -- who drive to their departure points. For them, eliminating the hassle of air travel does make liquor a worthy duty-free bargain. "St. Thomas offers not only low liquor prices," says Bathsheba, "but also the opportunity for U.S. residents to return with five liters, duty-free, rather than one." Jkloni told us, "In Cozumel, we buy Kahlua (48-ounce bottles at $8 each a couple of years ago). It's $32 at home. And, we're able to drive to the port of New Orleans." Several people also said that, if the prices are right, buying in the airport duty-free shops can be worth it, since you are already past security and can carry the liquor onboard the aircrafts.

The Pricey Stuff: When it comes to electronics and jewelry, most shoppers have become fairly savvy of late, checking prices before leaving home and comparing while at the ports. With the Internet offering tax-free options, many seem to feel that the risk and hassle of bringing back the items is just not worth it. Burroughs, for example, is concerned about warranties being honored: "What happens if the thing doesn't work? Who is going to believe the guarantee is valid? And, [there's] the added expense of postage if you ever need to return an item." He goes on to say that "friends that travel with us bought [what was supposed to be] a high-point diamond ($4,000.00 at a Diamond International), harked from the ship, and the thing was worthless. Its real value was, at best, $150.00. [It] broke their hearts, and now they know."

Old Sea Legs tells us, "A Citizens Eco Drive watch was selling in St. Thomas for $225 and in St. Maarten for $200; it was available (on sale) for $150 at Kohl's in our local mall." Greeneg sums up this train of thought quite succinctly: "There really are no real 'bargains' anymore, particularly considering the current plight of the U.S. dollar. The best buys are going to be from online retailers -- not tourist oriented traps in the shopping malls of the ports."

Still, many like Carol Anne, want the jewelry to remind them of the trip and are willing to take the chance on its authenticity. "I feel St. Thomas has the best prices for jewelry. Although, over the last 18 months, the prices there are climbing close to what I would pay at home for the items that interest me," she says. "Bottom line, if I see it and love it and can afford it, I'll buy it and not worry about if it's less expensive at home. It's great to wear a piece of jewelry and look at it with a memory of the cruise and where you were when it was purchased! I can't get that feeling buying it at home from my jeweler."

Good Smells: Colognes, perfumes and cosmetics received mention in our survey, and while some people felt that there were the occasional good deals, many more, like cruisefanfromca, thought that there were better bargains closer to home:"Cosmetics can be cheaper when the local department store is having a sale or a promotion where you get a free gift with purchase." Yavacation agrees. "Perfume is just as good a deal at home when there is a sale. [You] don't have to worry about it getting broken or stolen out of a suitcase, either."

Smokers Corner: Smokers find that cigarette purchases in St. Maarten are now less expensive than on the ship or in St. Thomas. Srafnel's response was typical: "Cigarettes in St. Maarten were cheap! They're $16 a carton, versus about $20 (on average) in other ports. The only problem was that they seemed cheaply made ... they weren't packed tightly enough, and the tobacco tended to fall out of one from each pack. But, at less than half the price of back home, losing 10 cigarettes is worth it!"

Many of the cruisers in our survey completely ignored the sales pitches and lure of dazzling jewelry, going for the locally made items that would remind them of the visit. Cruisebaby12 told us that "I would rather spend my money on local artisans and sipping a tropical drink on the shores of a beautiful beach. Not to mention, dropping my coins in the casino slots onboard is more my speed." Newyorknative concurs. "We cruise to see the world, not to shop. If we happen to see something we like -- usually a locally produced piece of craft or art -- we buy it. We never look to go shopping while traveling."

Of course, not everyone feels that way. Many people love to shop while cruising. The big issue now is how to know when you're getting a great deal. Member 2zhaus has a unique method for finding the best bargains: "I listen to what the crew tells me. Many times, I have found great deals because my waiters or room stewards have said, 'wait until you get to this port or that port'. They have very seldom led me wrong."

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