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Cigar Culture

What Are Duty Free Cigars?

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

The world is once again in a traveling mood. If you are a true lover of cigars, then you probably scope out the tobacconist situation in the different countries you visit. I certainly do. I can tell you that Madrid has great estancos (tobacco shops) in the city, but the duty-free cigar options at Barajas airport are not great bargains, though the selection is often good. Still, if you’re visiting only one place, the prices at duty-free stores in airports are likely to be the best you’ll find, though not always by a lot.

WHAT ARE DUTY-FREE CIGARS?

Essentially, duty-free cigars, like other duty-free goods, are products that carry no taxes. You can usually purchase the cigars only as you travel out of the country (or region, in some cases) in which they’re available to get the duty-free price. So, for example, if you fly into Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport and visit the excellent Exquisite store, you will pay duty if you’re staying in the Netherlands or traveling on to another European Union (EU) country. If, however, you are flying out of the EU, then you avoid the taxes. So, maybe they’ll ask you where you’re going and not ask to check your ticket, but more than likely, you’ll want to buy duty-free cigars when you’re traveling out of the EU.

There are exceptions to this rule. In some airports, you can buy duty-free cigars as you enter the country. Arriving at airports in Mexico I usually buy about 10 Cuban cigars on my way in. The prices aren’t always great, but there always seem to be special sales. No matter where you land, it’s always worth asking if you can buy duty-free as you enter the country. And there’s another very good reason for this right now.

NO CUBANS, NO HOW

While the Obama administration had relaxed the rules to allow you to bring in cigars and other products from Cuba, the Trump administration clamped down. The Biden administration seems in no hurry to change the restrictions or deal with anything related to Cuba. Here’s the gist of it from the US Treasury Department: “There is now an across the board ban on the importation into the United States of Cuban-origin cigars and other Cuban-origin tobacco products, as well as most other products of Cuban origin.”

So, if your plan is to buy Cuban cigars while you’re abroad, understand that you’ll be taking a big chance on trying to bring them into the US – illegally – and not getting checked at customs. With that in mind....

DO YOUR RESEARCH

As with any purchase of cigars, especially Cuban ones, it’s important to know what you want and what it’s supposed to look like. Doing your homework can focus your search of duty-free shelves. Ask the salesperson to open the box of cigars you would like to buy. Inspect them yourself as most salespeople in these stores know little, if anything, about cigars. I did this at Johannesburg, South Africa’s O.R. Tambo Airport while waiting for a flight to Doha, Qatar. I had in mind to buy some Partagás Serie D No. 4’s in Doha. I’d always had good luck there. I had a couple of hours to kill and checked out what was available in Jo’burg. I found the D-4s in a shop with a large humidor. I had the box opened, looking for that reddish-brown wrapper and to make sure the cigars had been humidified properly. I was pleasantly surprised by how good this box looked and scooped it up.

ALLOW FOR SERENDIPITY

I was done, but I knew that Doha’s airport usually had something interesting. I took a look and found a box of Trinidad Vigía for about US$168 for the box of 12. Not bad at all. Always be open to finding something unexpected. And don’t be disappointed when you can’t find the cigar you had in mind. It’s not unusual for duty-free shops to be sold out of many popular cigars.

THE BEST DUTY-FREE SHOPS

BEIRUT

I have friends who have traveled extensively in the Middle East and they swear the La Casa del Habano in the Beirut (Lebanon) International Airport is the best duty-free shop of all. It was the first Cuban cigar store ever opened inside an airport, in 1979, and in 1997 it officially became a La Casa del Habano (LCDH). The current store is nearly 5,000 square feet in size and has a VIP lounge. Prices change, but you can check them online before you get there.  

DUBAI

Another good friend travels frequently to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He loves the Partagás Serie E No. 2. Dubai International Airport has several places where you can buy Cuban cigars, including an LCDH. Search carefully and you might find some obscure cigars, but, again, you have to know what you’re looking for. The sales people there are not particularly knowledgeable, but the prices are very good and the stores are very reliable in terms of authenticity. You can also find some A. Fuente and Davidoff cigars here. Dominican cigars can be taken into the US. In Dubai, the price for a three-pack of the Arturo Fuente Opus X Robusto is listed at about US$85. Usually this sells for about US$110, if you can find it. You can also check cigar prices in Dubai.

HONG KONG

On my last trip to Hong Kong, I went to my favorite cigar store in Lan Kwai Fong and purchased a box of Montecristo No. 2 to take to Singapore. I was glad I did. While the duty-free store at Hong Kong International Airport had a very good selection, the prices were not very welcoming. Still, if it’s the only opportunity to buy cigars, you might find some that are usually unavailable elsewhere.

FRANKFURT

The company that owns the Exquisitie shop in Amsterdam’s airport also has a shop in Frankfurt at the not-very-melodious sounding Flughafen Frankfurt am Main, or Frankfurt Airport. The Heinemann shop is certified by Habanos as a “specialist” in Cuban cigars. So, you’ll get Cuban cigars and the prices on the specials are quite attractive. They also have some Davidoff cigars.

ZURICH

Three things about Zurich. First, there’s a Davidoff shop there, so check that out. Second, the cigars are more expensive than most other duty-free stores. Third, there are some hard-to-find Cuban cigars often available.

TEL AVIV

I have not been there, but a good friend assures me that Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport (Israel) has a lot of older cigars and some very attractive deals. Here, you really need to know what you’re looking for and do research on what vintages were good on older Cubans.

NOT SO GOOD

LONDON

This is simple. Don’t bother with the cigars at Heathrow. They’re expensive and I’m a little dubious about their maintenance. Go to James J. Fox in town if you want Cuban cigars that are about as well taken care of as you’re likely to find.

OTHERS

Paris is better than Rome for Cuban cigars, but neither is great. Just keep an eye out for rare finds and regional editions (I once found a very nice Juan Flor de Cano Robusto Italian edition at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport).

A NOTE ABOUT ONLINE DUTY-FREE CIGARS

You’ve likely seen offers from many online sellers of Cuban cigars that come from duty-free or free-trade zones in places like Geneva, Switzerland. First and foremost, as explained above, importation of Cuban cigars to the US is illegal right now. You also need to do a significant amount of due-diligence to assure that the seller is reliable and delivering authentic Cuban cigars. The prices are about as good as you’re likely to see for most Cuban cigars, but if the price seems too good to be true, it’s more likely the cigars are fakes. Always ask them to open the box to inspect the cigars to make sure they’re in good shape. Most good sellers will do this. Also, when you get them shipped, opt for a humidifying packet if it’s offered. From what I am told, these cigars do make it to their destination and the better sellers guarantee delivery. Again, buyer beware. Just sayin’.

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