By: Sarah Bretz
All travelers have heard the term duty-free, and most of us know that you’ll find duty-free products in airports, on cruise ships, and even in some cruise ports. But what does it really mean, and what are the ins and outs of goods coined with that term? Here, we cover the basics of buying duty-free during a cruise.
1. What does "duty-free" mean, anyway?
Technically, it means that goods sold in a foreign country have entered that country without local import taxes. It can only be done with a product that has never mingled with regular goods and can’t be sold to locals. To remain duty-free, customers must soon leave the country where they bought the products. This is why you’ll see legitimate duty-free shopping in airports and on cruise ships, because the products aren’t being sold to locals who live near the cruise ports. Upon returning to the US, each traveler has an $800 exemption, and the next $1,000 worth of goods has a flat rate of 3 percent that must be paid. (If you’re traveling as a family, collectively your family may have up to $1,600 exemption.) In other words, if you spend $800 or less, you won’t have to pay a duty.
2. What items can you usually find duty-free on a cruise ship?
The most popular duty-free items on cruises are bottles of liquor, cigarettes, and jewelry. You can also often find makeup, purses, clothing, chocolate, and a variety of luxury goods. Today, most shops offer a variety of shopping experiences while onboard from the fan favorite logo shop or brand boutiques such as Kate Spade, EFFY, Longines, and many more.
3. How can you be sure you're getting a good deal?
Three words: do your research! If you know there’s something you might like to buy ahead of time, do your due diligence online or in local stores before your cruise and write down the prices you find so that you can compare once onboard. If you find something once you’re on the ship that you’re wondering about, you can buy some internet time to look it up or wait until you’re in a port and find a wifi connection. One thing to keep an eye on is deals and promotions. Using bottles of liquor as an example, sometimes the price of a single bottle will still be better than you might find at home, but an even better deal could be getting two for a better price than if you were to buy the same two bottles separately. Also, pay attention to the size of the bottles you’re interested in. Maybe the price doesn’t look like a good deal compared to what you’ll find at home until you realize this is actually a 1-liter bottle and your local liquor store has 750 ml ones. Like anything else, not all alcohol will be a good deal, so do your research.
4. What shouldn’t you buy on the ship?
Steer clear of toiletries and medication unless you absolutely need them, as these items are easily double on the ship as what you’d pay on land. The best line of defense against being forced to purchase essentials is using a thorough cruise packing list while packing so you don’t forget anything you need. If you’re prone to seasickness, don’t forget about packing your favorite go-to medication or sea bands. Some ships do offer complimentary seasick meds, but don't count on it.
Another type of product to stay away from buying on your cruise is electronics of any kind. Even if you save some money, it won’t be worth it in terms of warranties, returns or exchanges, and repairs if you have an issue once you are home or during the warranty period. Other than simple things you might have forgotten like batteries or memory cards, stick with buying your electronics back home.
5. What about buying duty-free in port?
The same general guidelines apply in port. Do price-comparisons and think critically about what you actually need to buy in a port. If it’s a product you can easily buy at home, weigh the pros and cons and remember — it’s going to have to fit in your luggage and possibly be within a weight requirement, too. One thing that we love to look for in ports is brands and specific products that we can’t find at home, such as Dominican or Costa Rican coffee in their respective countries, chocolate in Grenada and of course, the ever-famous Tortuga Rum Cake. Be sure to do your research, stick to brands you know, and when shopping in the ports, ask if they have a US-based office. Many companies such as Diamonds International and EFFY actually have offices in the US for any post-purchase issues. For big purchases, be sure to check with the Port Shopping Guide onboard your ship for additional assistance - they can be a great resource of information as well as ensuring the store has the item you are looking for, ready for your inspection upon arrival.
Tip: Another great tool is the "Port Shopping" section in our app, Ship Mate. Be sure to check out the stores in your ports of call ahead of time as this will save you lots of time in port. Plus, the maps make it easy to find your favorite stores!