What Not To Buy At The Airport

Fair pricing is a rare thing in airports. A captive audience of consumers coupled with high operating costs at stores' airport locations make for manifold markups, from expensive cuisine to pricey parking.
11/21/2012 07:34am ET | Updated January 21, 2013
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In this Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012 photo, a shopkeeper carries a mannequin as a woman walks into a shop at Dragon Mart in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Even as China rejects Western sanctions on its business partner Iran, it is forging deeper ties to Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-allied Arab nations across the Gulf. The growing links extend beyond a string of multibillion-dollar oil ventures. Chinese firms are helping build the Gulf's railways, Arab investors are pumping cash into Chinese banks and Dubai airport is racing to keep its duty-free shelves stocked with Chunghwa cigarettes coveted by businessmen from Beijing. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Fair pricing is a rare thing in airports. A captive audience of consumers coupled with high operating costs at stores' airport locations make for manifold markups, from expensive cuisine to pricey parking. To save money, do some research ahead of time and compare costs--especially when you're in the market for one of these nine items.

Duty-Free Merchandise

It may be possible to snag a duty-free deal once in a while, depending on your airport. But it's important to know that duty-free in no way ensures a good buy. "Duty-free is almost never a deal for the casual shopper out to get a bargain," said Jason Clampet in a report from USA Today. "You can save significant amounts if you're a smoker who lives in a state with high taxes, but you'll find that electronic goods, beauty products and luxury items such as designer purses usually cost less at home or online," advised Clampet.

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins agrees. Perkins saw significant markups on items such as iPads and liquor, compared to retail prices (with local shopping taxes included) available elsewhere. The solution? When making duty-free purchases, do a little homework. Go online ahead of time and do some cost comparisons beforehand.

Foreign Currency

Since foreign exchange desks in airports often hit travelers with sky-high transaction fees, the airport is probably not the best place to exchange your money. It sure is convenient, so if you're willing to pay the price for that, so be it. A good strategy is to get foreign currency by taking out money at an ATM in your destination; this way, you'll likely get the best interbank exchange rate, which is usually much better than rates offered at airport exchange counters. Contact your bank before your trip for more information on any possible foreign transaction fees.

Bottled Water

The Vapur Anti-Bottle is our favorite solution to expensive airport water bottles. Stop buying water bottles in your terminal at three bucks a piece and invest in one of these foldable, reusable containers. Fill it up at a water fountain after you've gone through airport security. It'll pay for itself after just a few uses.


Plan ahead and be sure to buy your souvenirs before you're at the airport, waiting for your flight home. Airport souvenir stores usually hawk severely marked-up merchandise that can be found elsewhere for a lot less. Plus, the wares tend to be quite unoriginal: trite Statue of Liberty T-shirts, cityscape mugs, key chains in the shape of Dutch canal houses.

There are exceptions to this rule, as some airports offer unique finds, like gifts crafted by local artisans. (Portland International Airport has some great Made in Oregon stores.) Our advice, as always, is to do your research before you get to the terminal so that you can compare prices. You could even take a quick look at what's on offer when you land, and then buy whatever you need when you return to the airport upon departure.

Neck Pillows

Trapped in their terminals, travelers are at the mercy of anti-consumer pricing schemes, especially when it comes to particularly convenient travel products like neck pillows. Order your neck pillow online ahead of time, and keep an eye out for special offers and sales. At time of publication, we spotted the SilverRest memory foam neck pillow selling on Amazon for $17.99, below the retail price of $29.99. We also recommend the Travelrest pillow, which sells for $26.95 online.


Although many airports offer free Wi-Fi, some hubs are still firmly entrenched in the dark ages, charging flyers to search the Web while waiting to depart. At JFK International Airport, for example, travelers can only access the Web through Boingo, which charges $4.95 per hour for those who aren't already members. Before you enter your credit-card number, though, see if you can get connectivity for free. Some ways to do this: Sit near the entrance of an elite-flyer's lounge or in an airport hotel lobby, both of which might offer free Wi-Fi that's not password protected.

Or try your terminal's Starbucks. The Starbucks located in D30 in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has free Wi-Fi, whereas flyers must pay $4.95 to connect elsewhere in the airport. Although all Starbucks stores offer free Internet, airport locations are sometimes the exception. Some offer free connectivity; some don't. Check the Starbucks store locator online before you get to your hub to find out.

Restaurant Meals

You may have noticed that restaurants commonly charge higher prices for menu items in airport locations than they do elsewhere. There's reason for this: Restaurants' operating expenses are generally higher at airports than at street locations. But food costs can vary even by terminal, heightening the confusion for travelers who want to compare prices. USA Today found that the same 20-ounce bottle of beer cost $4.49 in one terminal and $5.49 in the next at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

To sidestep the gouge, bring your own lunch from home. Or avoid sit-down restaurants and seek out more affordable snacks like grab-and-go fruit.

Magazines (While Abroad)

You're not normally taking a big hit to your budget when you grab the latest copy of National Geographic at the terminal newsstand. But when overseas, watch out. Imported U.S. magazines cost a lot more than those sold at home and can sell for well over the recommended list price at overseas airports, even if they're old (mostly due to taxes and shipping costs). I was almost charged more than $10 for a months-old issue of Martha Stewart Living at Guayaquil Airport in Ecuador. Sorry Martha, but I returned it to its shelf.

A Parking Spot

You'll frequently find the better price at off-site parking lots, rather than at airport lots. Do your research. (Have we said this enough?) At JFK International Airport, parking in the long-term economy lot costs $18 for the first 24 hours and $6 for each eight-hour period thereafter. So if you're parking your car for exactly seven days, you'll pay $126. The Parking Spot, which promises shuttles every five to seven minutes at 22 airports, offers a coupon to get airport valet parking for just $14.90 a day ($104.30 for the week).

Which items do you avoid buying at the airport? Share your tips in the comments.

By Caroline Costello

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