Shop-a-holics unite! You have nothing to lose by buying duty-free but local and national taxes (though you'll still have to pay customs fees on articles over $800).
The first duty-free liquor counter was opened at London Airport in 1959. Since then, travelers have counted on doing their last-minute shopping at the increasingly mall-like duty-free centers in airports around the world. But how can you get the most from duty-free? Start by comparing prices using a duty-free guide, which will tell you if that bottle of new Armani cologne is going to be cheaper at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, than at a store back home.
You can also go armed with some little-known facts. For example, the Vatican is an entirely duty-free zone, so it's heaven for travelers with a yen for religious art and artifacts. Certain buildings in the UN complex in New York, which is governed by its own laws and not strictly part of the US, offer duty-free shops in their lobbies (you have to present identification to shop, but busy shop-hands tend not to ask.)
Today's security restrictions on liquids mean that some airports will permit you to buy a small amount of liquors or perfumes and pick them up at the entrance to your flight, though regulations are very much in flux. US to UK flights have stricter rules, and all liquids must be sent through security. Apart from liquids and liquors, travelers can pick up a myriad of other last-minute bargains in duty-free shops worldwide.
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A wealth of Hello Kitty merchandise not offered in the US is on sale in Tokyo's duty-free shops. World famous Japanese brands of makeup are another draw, and you can find products (like some skin whiteners) that are not sold in the United States or Europe.
The British Museum Shop, at Heathrow Airport, offers beautiful reproductions of some of the museum's most popular art and artifacts. Buy here, rather than in the museum shop in town, and avoid V.A.T. taxes, which can be steep. Stanstead's Glorious Britain shop will warm the cockles of any royalist's heart. Visitors can purchase mugs, t-shirts and other paraphernalia all emblazoned with various images of royalty on them.
Marco Polo Airport has recently been renovated, with lots more room for last-minute shopping. Glass, of course, is everywhere. However, the small shop Venetia Studium is worth a look for reproductions of Venetian velvet scarves and clothes copied from the famous Italian turn-of-the-century designer, Mario Fortuny.
Here travelers to Thailand will have their last chance to shop at Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. The ubiquitous shops are famous for their traditionally made fabrics. Available in hues the full range of the rainbow, Jim Thompson silk is popular with fashion designers and interior decorators the world over.
The duty-free shops at this airport sell maple syrup -- and lots of it. Not only does the sappy stuff come in the form of syrup, you can get it in candles, soaps and sweets, too. In the US, real maple syrup (not the kind you get in the supermarket) is hard-to-find and expensive. Next time you're north of the border, stock up.
White Mexican wedding skirts, skeleton dioramas for the Day of the Dead, canned moles and sealed jars of spicy sauces are all great buys at Mexico's airport duty-free shops. And just in case you forgot to pick 1 up during your trip to Cancun, you can get Apocalypto-style Mayan pyramids in the form of pencil sharpeners, paperweights and other less-than-useful but very decorative guises.