Duty Free is dead, long live Duty Free!

Drink - Victoria Moore has something to declare

The great dilemma of any foreign trip used to be whether you bought your Duty Free on the way there or on the way back, or both, and how you juggled the measly allowance. Everybody knows that the purpose of two-hour check-in times is to allow passengers ample chance to dither anxiously over the Wyborowa (it's so cool) and the Creme de Cacao (I've been meaning for ages to make Brandy Alexanders for all my dinner guests) in the airport shop. Then, could you resist the walls of Absolut, a chunky bottle of each flavour - Lemon, Kurant, Pepper and Original - a necessary style accessory for any freezer?

But who wants to carry a kilogramme or more of Absolut from Heathrow to Athens to Delphi to Mykonos and back again? But oh, the bitter disappointment if you leave it to the return leg and the scrubby foreign airport fails to live up to the glossy standards of Heathrow or Gatwick.

This is why I was so relieved when Duty Free was abolished within the European Union last summer. The point of holidays is that you no longer have to make decisions. By the time I ever boarded a plane, I had attained some sort of hysterical model of indecision and was being tailed by airport security who'd seen me frenziedly pick up virtually every bottle in the Duty Free store before replacing it on the shelf only seconds later - if not a smuggler, at least a lunatic.

Well, that's all changed. And let me tell you something you might not know: European travellers need not suffer from the Chancellor's grasping measures. On the way back from Rome last week, I went into the Duty Free shop (incredibly, both open and glittering with spirits) just to see what I was missing out on. I'm still waking up in timber-shivering fear at the thought of what I almost overlooked: cheap alcohol decked out with swingy little signs proclaiming "no limits". The shop was writhing with looting Brits filling every bag and basket in sight with bottles of every sort which they then towed on to the aeroplane. I assumed it to be some sort of Italian high jinks: we all know how they like to ignore the law. Fearful of discovery by British customs officials, I bought a modest four bottles of Campari for about £6 each and sneaked them into my hand luggage.

In fact, it's all kosher: in many airports, the shops are still there, the prices are still low, but, Duty Free having been abolished within the EU, the limits have gone. If I hadn't been so needlessly morose at Heathrow on the way out, I'd have spotted that BAA Retail, which operates shops there, as well as at other UK airports, has been absorbing the Chancellor's duty for the past nine months. Savings are slighter than they are buying abroad, but deals with selected drink companies mean that it can offer a cocktail cabinet of brands at more or less the same prices as before the ban. Some of the better "duty paid" deals are on malt whiskies, such as Glenfiddich (£14.99 for a 70cl bottle, compared to £20.99 at retail), but Finlandia Vodka is also good value at £11.99 a litre.

But I've saved the very best news for the end. No more heaving clunking gin bottles around Greek islands. The World of Duty Free shops in London terminals offer a collection service. Buy as many bottles (although I would order crates) as you can at the discounted prices as you leave the country and they will be there, sitting at a collection point, when you and your new suntan return. Just make sure you've cleared out the spare room so that you have somewhere to put it all.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - How we have lost the joy of sex