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Can you read bar codes?

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaThe terrible dangers of mixing a snooze with booze aloft and the cheapest duty-free alcohol in Asia.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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In search of the cheapest duty-free prices at Asian airports

Which airport has the cheapest duty-free hooch?

EVERY Man must do his duty. Every woman too. And thus we follow that most noble of pursuits – scrounging deals and saving pennies on duty-free at every airport we pass. It’s an in-built biological response, as clockwork as the toilet-imperative when the inflight movie ends and cattle class arises as one to stagger dishevelled down the aisle in a none-too-shabby rendition of The Walking Dead.

Bernard Shaw once wrote, “When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty.” And there’s nothing more urgent than stocking up on single malt or cognac. Women have their shoes and perfumes. Men need barley.

Something about an airport suspends disbelief to the point where it is assumed, prices are cheap and the quality impeccable, no matter, as in Guam, store racks marked exclusively in Japanese for Japanese travellers, are considerably more expensive than any other stuff in the shop. This is apparent at a glance. You just need to look at the price-tags. But mulcting the Japanese is an art form in Asia and the more brazen the outrage, the more satisfying for the perpetrator.

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Women don’t fall for this gobbledegook. They can read bar codes – I kid you not – and tell whether the milk comes from the local dairy, a Hokkaido heifer, a New Zealand ewe after a romantic night out with the farmer, or Cleopatra’s left breast. I have been boxed on the ears a few times trying to slip in expensive – but tangy – Omega 3 eggs from Japan when a bargain-basement dozen from China would suffice. Caveat emptor.

{Women can read bar codes and tell whether the milk comes from a Hokkaido heifer, or a blushing Kiwi ewe after a romantic night out with a farmer...

Then you have to look after your stuff. Proud duty-free bags have to be coddled and pampered till delivered to your darkened cellar that maintains a perfect 12 degrees Centigrade. Some years back on a flight to India at around 1am, just before that accursed hour when the lights smack you awake like a nuclear blast and you prepare bleary eyed for a new day and New Delhi customs, we tossed and turned in the stygian gloom. Snores rent the air. Suddenly, a latch on an overhead bin worked its way loose and a large box of duty-free Chivas dropped with an ominous thud on the head of the passenger in front of me. His snoring ceased. He moaned and slumped in his seat.

An air hostess was there in seconds. Years of training kicked in, as she took in the scene in an instant. She picked up the alcohol and said in a clear, calm and collected voice, “Whose bottle is this?” She returned the Chivas lovingly to its owner and departed. The gentleman in front of me slept more deeply than he planned but was none the worse for wear when we arrived. That’s called doing your duty. I was impressed and vowed never to fall asleep beneath an overstuffed bin ever in my life.

The plane’s wheels will have barely grazed the runway and passengers are gearing up for that almighty dash to duty-free unless they had the forethought to buy it earlier. Question is, how much are you saving? In Hong Kong, a Johnnie Walker Black Label one litre bottle aged 12 years retails in town or online for HK$420 (or US$54) whereas it is priced at HK$275 (US$35.40) at the airport. Sales may bring the airport duty-free price down to HK$250 or just US$32. It’s not a bad deal. In comparison, a 12-year-old one litre bottle of Chivas Regal costs HK$300 (US$38.60) at the airport. Of course, when you look at expensive cognac and rare whiskies, duty-free makes a world of difference.

So is Hong Kong’ Chek Lap Kok the best place to buy duty-free alcohol? In Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport where the company KingPower has a chokehold monopoly on acres of prime duty-free, a one litre 12-year-old Johnnie Walker Black Label is priced a tad higher at Bt1,320 (US$36) while a Chivas of similar vintage and volume weighs in at Bt1,250 (US$37.20).

In avowedly communist Vietnam, Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat international airport sells Johnnie Walker Black at a similar US$36 with Chivas priced at US$38. These rates are nipping at Hong Kong’s heels while in New Delhi – and fabled Dubai, which spends squillions telling you how wonderful the place is for shopping – both Johnnie Walker Black and Chivas go for US$40 for a one litre bottle of the gold stuff. This common rating perhaps has more to do with the volume of Indians pouring into the Gulf than any real economic calculation.

So who has the cheapest hooch in Asia? The best deal is at Singapore’s Changi Airport where a one litre 12-year-old bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label retails for S$40.20 (US$30.44), and a 12-year-old Chivas 1.14 litres at S$55.60 (US$42,10, or approximately US$37 per litre). Unsurprisingly, Singapore does well with perfumes too. You can’t buy gum but as Prince would put it, you can certainly “Party like it’s 1999”.

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