Until I went on a Caribbean cruise recently with a bunch of girlfriends I always thought “duty-free” was just another excuse to get all those vacationers into the shops to stuff their shopping bags full of items that could be had back home for roughly the same price. I learned on this trip that I was completely wrong.
This time, because some of my girlfriends were actually going to the pre-port shopping talks I have always avoided, I decided to give it a chance. Previously I had traveled with my husband, who was about as interested in shopping as he is in packing a rabid marmoset into his suitcase.
I have always shopped when we were vacationing because I have always shopped. Do I really need to clarify? But I basically just wandered around, going where I wanted and buying what I wanted. I always ended up with nice things but I was apparently shopping the wrong way. Here is how to shop duty-free in the Caribbean the right way.
1. Duty-free is not a rip-off. “Duty” refers to a tax or fee placed on goods by local governments, which is one reason you pay so much for jewelry at home and so much less for jewelry in the Caribbean. Shop owners who import goods in certain areas (like the Caribbean) and sell them to buyers who are leaving their country aren’t charged a duty on these products. This allows sellers to pass the savings along to their customers, giving smart shoppers the opportunity to grab fantastic merchandise at bargain prices. So, that designer purse, watch, perfume or those precious jewels actually are a bargain.
2. First, go to the shopping talks. Even if you think you already know how to shop, go to the shopping talks they offer onboard. I’m sure the cruise ships get some sort of kickback from the shops they recommend but, on the other hand, you are guaranteed that the gold bracelet you buy is the best price and won’t turn your wrist a lovely shade of green after you have been wearing it for a week. These shopping experts will also help you get the best price and often have freebies at the talk and coupons for more freebies at the shops. That free teeny-tiny topaz necklace may seem like a waste of time but think how much your little niece will like it for a souvenir – and money you don’t spend on souvenirs can buy more stuff for yourself. Truly a win-win shopping situation.
3. Go to the stores they recommend. Many of these stores are chains and have locations on all the islands so if you can’t make up your mind, you can probably find something similar at the next stop. These are also the stores that depend on their cruise customers so they truly will give you a great deal.
4. Go to other stores. There are plenty of other shops on the islands – you do not have to stick to just the few they recommend. I like refrigerator magnets and Christmas decorations from every location I visit (yes, I am that person), so I will browse all kinds of stores. T-shirts, local cookbooks, kitschy jewelry – if you like this kind of stuff, as I do, you will do fine looking in all kinds of places. These fun purchases don’t have to be expensive and are often beautifully made.
5. Buy that expensive item you have always wanted. My best friend marched into a Louis Vuitton store on St. Thomas and bought a beautiful and rather expensive purse. She was very, very happy with her purchase and I could not quibble because a) she had been wanting that purse for years b) it was for an anniversary present and c.) most important – she knew that, even though it was expensive, it was actually half the price she would pay in the States.
6. Do your research. My friend knew that Louis Vuitton purse was half price because she had done her research. If you are even considering an expensive purchase while you are in the Caribbean, do your research before you go and find out if that Hublot watch is a steal – it probably is (I realize you may have never heard of a Hublot watch before now – neither had I before I wrote this article).
7. Do even more research. Every location you visit in your travels all over the world has specialties to purchase, and the Caribbean is no exception. Before you make your shopping plans, do your research about what to buy that is actually from the Caribbean. When I went to the Dominican Republic the first time, I found that the beautiful blue stone Larimar is actually found there. I had never heard of Larimar before I did my research but was prepared when I arrived and bought several pieces, and eventually bought a beautiful bracelet when I visited a second time. Larimar is available all over the Caribbean and is truly beautiful and unique – similar to turquoise but a lighter color – and you should think about picking some up when you are there.
8. If you love it, buy it. Even though I said above that you could probably find that item at another store at the next port, don’t count on it. If you truly love it and it’s the right price, don’t dither. You will never regret buying something you love but you will always regret not buying it.
9. Make a list. My family is thrilled when I forget that I already bought them a present and then proceed to buy them another one at another location. Then, “Wait? Did I buy them one yet?”…and I proceed to buy yet another one. If you are buying for a number of people, make a list (even if you are buying for yourself). Believe me, I have experienced the shopping frenzy after which you get back to your stateroom and realize you already bought a silver bracelet at the last port almost exactly like the one you just purchased. “Oh, that’s why it looked so familiar!”
10. Pick up a business card. Many of the stores have a web site so, if you ignored my above advice about buying what you want, you might be able to get it online.
Now, go shopping! And remember what Dolly says: “Money is like manure; it’s no good unless you spread it around!”