Duty-Free 101: Alcohol

Duty Free Store at YVR - Vancouver

If you’re like Kramer on Seinfeld, you like to shop at the duty-free store and it’s an integral part of your trip to the airport either on your way somewhere or coming back home. In this post, I’ll explain duty-free rules for alcohol for customs and airport security to help you maximize your duty-free purchases while traveling.

What is duty-free?

Duty-free are shops where you can buy items that are exempt from payment of certain taxes and travelers can take their purchases into other countries. It is very common for someone traveling back to Canada from the Caribbean to purchase alcohol at the duty-free store because it is in most cases a good deal.

Duty Free Store at YVR - Vancouver
Duty Free Store at YVR – Vancouver

Why purchase duty-free goods?

In the case of alcohol, you can get bargains from the duty-free store. The small 375 ml Bombay Sapphire Gin bottle I purchased in Vancouver cost me close to $16CAD whereas the 1.75L (1,175 ml) bottle purchased at the duty-free at LAS – Las Vegas McCarran Airport cost $28.60CAD. To purchase 1.75L of Bombay Sapphire Gin in Canada would cost me $60CAD which equates to $31.27 in savings. In this circumstance, my 1.75L of gin was half price, and if the exchange rate from USD to CAD was better, the savings would be even that much better!

Wine at the Duty Free Store at YVR - Vancouver
Wine at the Duty Free Store at YVR – Vancouver

When we went to Dubai, we knew how expensive alcohol was at the hotels and limited bars where it is served, so we picked up duty-free on arrival to enjoy a glass of wine and a couple of beers at our hotel. No word of a lie, a Bud goes for $25 at the Hilton Hotel by the beach. So either you abstain from having a drink or pay tons of money for a cold beer.

Duty Free 101:

“I can buy as much duty-free alcohol I want”: Yes you can, but just because something is “duty-free” doesn’t exempt it from your customs allowance. Anything above and beyond what you can declare in the country of entry will be subject to taxes. When I flew into Barbados with the duty-free alcohol I purchased at YYZ – Toronto Pearson Airport, I had to declare the duty free purchase and have it inspected but I did not pay duty or additional taxes because I met the allowance criteria. If you want to bring more than the allowance, you will pay fees and what may seemed like a great bargain may end up costing you more so be prepared to pay.

“I can drink my duty-free purchases on the flight”: You cannot consume alcohol purchased from the duty-free store onboard the aircraft because in some countries federal aviation law prohibits it and most airlines also prohibit it.

“I don’t need to check my duty-free purchases when I’m connecting”: Unless it is packaged in a STEB (Security tamper-evident bagsbag and meets certain conditions, duty-free alcohol bottles that exceed 100ml’s cannot be packed in your carry-on if you are connecting; they will need to be checked.

For passengers connecting through Canada, these conditions are:

  • either the bag or the product within does not pass required security screening;
  • the retailer did not use an official security bag;
  • the clerk improperly packaged your purchases at the point of sale or did not include an itemized receipt;
  • you opened the bag yourself after making the purchase and before screening; or
  • more than 48 hours have passed since you made the purchase (official security bags are only valid for two calendar days).

Source: http://www.catsa.gc.ca/duty-free-purchases


  • Know your allowances: Prior to even arriving to the airport for your flight, have a look at the customs allowances for the countries you will be visiting. While World Duty Free lists the allowances on their website, I am unsure how often they update them or how often the allowances change but would consider this a reliable source of information: http://www.worlddutyfree.ca/en/plan-your-visit/customs-allowances/. The staff working at the duty-free stores are sales people and may not be able to advise you on the entry allowances for the countries you are traveling to, and if you’re like me, you’d rather get the information from an official source.
  • STEB vs Sealed Bag: Have a look at online message boards to see if the store complies with STEB criteria. Just because your duty-free is in a sealed plastic bag, doesn’t make it STEB compliant and you may not be able to take it into your carry-on. If you want to read more about this, check out the ICAO website: https://www.icao.int/Security/SFP/LAGS_STEBS/Pages/default.aspx.
  • Don’t break the law: Don’t drink your own alcohol onboard an aircraft for your sake and the other passengers…no one likes flight delays, diversions, and getting arrested.

Do you have any other information about duty-free purchases? Any experiences or resources to share?

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