At Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport, Duty-free Isn't Always a Bargain

Tourists can get good deals on perfumes, but the price of cigarettes can be a drag. How does the international airport stack up against European ones?

Many Israelis start their vacations overseas even before leaving the ground – at the duty-free shops at Ben-Gurion International Airport. A throng of over 10,000 people a day pass through the James Richardson store to buy perfumes, cosmetics, tobacco, liquor and chocolates.

Its massive customer traffic enables James Richardson to offer tempting bargains like “buy five boxes of chocolates, get two free,” or “buy three cartons of cigarettes and get one free.” Such deals, along with the customs exemption, often make stocking up on perfumes, chocolates, alcoholic beverages and cigarettes at the airport seem worthwhile. But how does the store stack up against the duty-free at European airports?

TheMarker dispatched reporters to London, Amsterdam, Rome and Berlin to check out duty-free prices at the airports there. What they discovered is that the best place to buy perfume is right here at home – except, that is, for London, where duty-free prices are even lower.

A price war between James Richardson and Israel’s drugstore chains is the likely reason, with the duty-free store publicizing its commitment to offering the lowest prices in the country on perfume brands.

In most other product categories, the answer was less clear-cut. Prices at European airports were largely in line with those at Ben-Gurion. The bottom line is that, in most cases, there’s no reason to put off duty-free shopping until heading back to Israel, especially in light of the fact that not all products sold at the duty-free here are available in Europe. For example, Parliament and L&M cigarettes couldn’t be found at the airport in Rome.

Watch out for customs

Although comparing duty-free prices around the world before leaving Israel can be a problem, for some items the duty-free price here can be compared to those at other local stores before heading to the airport.

Prices for liquor and cigarettes appear on the James Richardson website, but not those for perfumes. When arriving at the perfume counter at the airport, however, you can always whip out your smartphone and visit your favorite price comparison site. In any case, it’s important to note that the customs exemption only applies to items costing up to $200, and that the same rules apply to purchases made here and overseas.

The Israel Consumer Council says many of the complaints it handles reflect a lack of understanding of customs regulations among the public. Many travelers aren’t aware that taking advantage of a “buy one, get one free” sale can put them over the limit. For example, travelers are allowed 10 packs of cigarettes – the equivalent of one carton – so anyone traveling solo who winds up with two cartons will need to pay tax.

Berlin: Bare-bones shopping

Returning to Israel from a weekend in Berlin is an experience that jolts you back to the reality you left behind for several days. It begins with passengers to Israel being separated from everyone else and being subjected to a more thorough screening – particularly on night flights, when security agents want to know where your suitcases spent the whole day after hotel checkout. You end up in a long, narrow waiting room with bare walls and no washrooms until boarding the plane. Along the way is the rather small and nondescript duty-free shop – in a word, functional.

But the travelers – the Israelis who flew with us, anyway – load their carts as if they hadn’t passed through duty-free in Israel or visited Berlin’s excellent shopping areas over the past few days. Just one more shopping spree and we’re back in Israel!

Bottom line: Schoenefeld Airport’s small duty-free is absolutely bare bones, even smaller and skimpier than at most of Europe’s airports, although the basic things usually bought at a duty-free can be found such as perfumes, liquor, cigarettes, and sweets for the kids, as well as several items of clothing and various toys. We recommend leaving the real shopping for low-cost and chic Berlin.

London: Desolate at night

Terminal 1 at Heathrow Airport felt almost empty on a Sunday night. One large store – flanked by a cafe and souvenir shop – selling perfume, chocolates and cigarettes is the main attraction. With such a huge, major airport, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Brits aren’t going out of their way to sell another bit of merchandise to tourists leaving the kingdom (although Terminal 5 is more tempting).

The service, like in London itself, is gracious and polite. Every request for a price check on a bottle of liquor gets an immediate response, even when they’re told it’s only for a small survey and there is no intention of buying the product. While prices here are reasonable – although not cheap compared to London itself – those at the souvenir shop are exorbitant, and it isn’t surprising that almost nobody enters. There were also several other stores, but they were all closed.

On the way to the gate for the El Al flight at the other end of the terminal, another duty-free store hidden off to the side suddenly pops up. This one offers much better bargains but was found to be surprisingly devoid of customers. The British, it seems, apparently count on tourists spending all their money on Oxford Street and see no reason to hawk their wares at the exit gate.

Amsterdam: Not a good deal

Traffic inside Schiphol Airport at 8 P.M. was quite thin by Ben-Gurion Airport standards, where it was bustling even at 4 A.M. The duty-free stores there weren’t packed, either. Some were actually empty and several were preparing to shut down for the night. Neither was the staff particularly attentive to the few shoppers browsing the shelves.

With minutes ticking by standing by the perfume shelves, none of the salespeople bothered approaching us, even though the store was relatively small. A handful of customers made their way through another store selling liquor, cigarettes and chocolate, while the staff gathered around the checkout counters and giggled among themselves as if their workday had ended.

The variety of products and amount of shelf space seemed smaller than at Ben-Gurion Airport. Passengers returning home might have been surprised to find a holding surcharge tacked on to the price of some of the alcoholic beverages.

We watched as an Israeli shopper stood by the cigarettes, repeatedly taking and putting back the same carton of Parliaments while struggling to convert the price into shekels. Consulting on his cellular phone with the people at home, he finally hollered: “Never mind, Moshe, it’s not a good deal.”

Rome: Calm and courteous

“Lady, you want some chocolates?” “Mister, are looking for cigarettes?” “Which bottle of liquor do you want?”

Make no mistake: These questions weren’t asked at the airport in Rome but at the duty-free in Israel, where sales personnel seemed to descend on the shoppers from all directions. Even after we picked out a carton of cigarettes ourselves, one of the salespeople suddenly appeared and asked to attach one of his stickers to the package so he’d be credited with the commission.

You won’t find aggressive sales techniques like these at Rome’s airport, where things are more relaxed. It was nearly 10 P.M., and the shops were almost empty. Nobody was in line at the cash registers and the aisles were void of people, too. We could have stood 30 minutes by the same shelf without anyone coming to ask if we needed assistance, but the staff was easy to approach if we had a question or needed help locating an item we wanted.

There are several duty-free stores at the airport offering the same products, so it’s best to shop at the one closest to your departure gate and avoid the need to haul any heavy purchases a long distance until reaching the plane.

Additional reporting by Ronny Linder-Ganz, Avi Bar-Eli and Anat Georgi.

David Bachar