I can attest that if you travel any decent amount, you probably spend far too much time in airports. Especially these days, when ‘get there three hours early’ is the general advice, you can add a good chunk on top of your travel time. But for watch collectors, there’s sometimes the opportunity to make the most of that pre-flight limbo, as among the many luxury boutiques you’ll find in any airport are the watch shops .
Amid the usual inflatable neck pillows and pulp crime novels, you can be pretty sure that, in a big, fancy airport catering to the most well-heeled of jet-setters, you’ll find more than a handful of boutiques geared towards serious horological aficionados. But other than being stuck in airport with nothing else to do, why do these stores matter?
Well, depending on exchange rates and taxes, there’s a chance you’ll find a deal. Many of these boutiques inflate their prices to compensate, but you can still get as much as 30% off. Perhaps more importantly, because of their high turnaround of stock, airport stores often have bigger collections than your local, one-horse outlet. Finally, who doesn’t get a bit of a buzz over a new watch? Ticking a watch off your wishlist is at the very least, something to fill your time.
So, next time you’re in an airport lounge half a day before your flight is due, go to your happy place and think about watches. You may just find something special – and possibly empty your bank account. Especially if you’re in one of these ten airports.
Hamad International Airport, Doha
Voted the best airport for shopping in 2022, Doha’s Hamad International is a masterclass in how to do duty free. Along with a handful of well-appointed standalone boutiques from Hublot, Omega, and others, the airport’s own horological emporium, The Watch Room, is one of the coolest and largest stores of its type, pairing the usual run of airport favourites – Breitling, Montblanc et al – with more off-kilter options like Ulysse Nardin.
Yet selection isn’t why it’s so tempting. Haggling is a way of life in the Middle East and while you’d never dream of doing that here in the UK, in Qatar it’s a given, even in the airport. So, as well as the tax-free shopping, you may be able to knock even more off the price of your chosen watch with some ballsy debate. Granted, you probably don’t have a leg to stand on if you’re after a Daytona, and by all accounts airport stores are less into haggling than the stores in Doha proper, but you can still potentially knock a few percent off the ticket price.
It’s an ethos you can apply to the rest of the shopping options too, although there are more shops than a single trip can really take in. Just make sure you don’t spend too much time there and miss your flight.
More details at Hamad International Airport.
Singapore Changi Airport
With a butterfly garden complete with indoor waterfall, a free cinema, and a rooftop swimming pool, Changi airport is an international attraction in its own right. It’s stunning, and there’s good reason it’s been named the world’s best airport 10 or so times. But, as well as being one of the most beautiful airports in the world Changi Airport has a serious selection of watch stores, with standalone boutiques for Rolex in T3, Omega in T1 and Montblanc in Ts 2 and 4. Sure, that’s nothing necessarily to write home about, but Gassan Watches is.
The Singaporean watch specialist (think Watches of Switzerland but with an emphasis on airport shopping), Gassan has been in Changi since 1999, before watches in airports was cool. Now they have outposts in Terminals 1, 2 and 4 and offer a broad collection of mainstream brands – Omega again of course, but also Breitling, Longines and many more. They also have a range of Rolexes to rival the watch with the crown’s own store. Given Singapore’s reputation as a watch collector’s paradise, Gassan is a store that you should definitely make time to go see – even if it means arriving an hour earlier than you normally would.
More details at Singapore Changi.
Heathrow London Airport
You don’t need to leave sovereign soil for some solid watch shopping. Heathrow, being one of the world’s busiest and most important airports has an impressive array of watch stores, including Cartier and Tiffany – where you can also grab some last-minute jewellery – as well as Hublot.
Most important though are the Watches of Switzerland boutiques across terminals 3, 4 and 5, with the store in the newest terminal being a flagship among duty free stores. It’s relatively small by Watches of Switzerland standards but a lovely space that has a consistently good selection of pieces. They also happen to run the standalone Rolex store, where you can ask about the new Daytona. If you dare.
The downside of course is that you’re less likely to get a great discount (you’ll save the 20% VAT, though at the cost of a price hike to compensate) but they make up for that with their reserve and collect service. Just buy the watch beforehand and swing by to grab it with all those lovely duty free benefits – the perfect compromise if you’re rushing for a flight. After all, it’s not like you’ll be hanging around to haggle.
More details at London Heathrow.
Hong Kong International Airport
Hong Kong International takes shopping seriously. No half-hearted selection of cut-price stores here; across the two separate malls you can find nearly 300 different stores, covering everything your credit card could desire. It can be a bit overwhelming in all honesty, but if retail is your preferred form of therapy, then you might find yourself struggling to head to the gate. ‘Boarding’ doesn’t really mean anything, does it?
Among those various shopping options are a surprising number of standalone watch boutiques. Through departures at Terminal 1 you’ll find Breitling, Bulgari, Cartier, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Omega, Panerai and Piaget all with their own outposts. The only brand not really represented in fact is Rolex, whose store at Hong Kong International left a while back.
You’re less likely to get yourself a discount from this particular set of stores – and brand-specific stores in general, really – but the shopping experience and selection often make up for it. Plus, if they say you can get a watch, you can.
More details at Hong Kong International.
Abu Dhabi International Airport, Abu Dhabi
Set in the blistering landscape of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi International Airport is an superb destination for watch enthusiasts. With its diverse range of offerings, the airport provides a shopping experience that caters to all calibres of collectors. Among the well-curated selection, you can find luxury staples such as Rolex, Montblanc, and Tag Heuer. Additionally, the airport caters to those seeking fashion-forward wristwatches, with brands like Emporio Armani and Boss.
Abu Dhabi International Airport has witnessed significant growth in recent years, positioning itself as one of the fastest-growing aviation hubs worldwide. This rapid development is reflected in the increasing number of boutiques found within the airport’s premises. Such expansion aims to meet the rising demands of the growing number of passengers, projected to soon exceed 45 million annually.
More details at Abu Dhabi International.
Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport
Yes, it’s an ugly airport from the outside, that’s something the French have had to come to terms with. Not the only thing, but a major one. Largely they’ve done so by spending no small amount of effort turning the inside of Charles de Gaulle airport into a shopping experience to rival any in Paris. Throw in a few trees and it would rival the Champs Élysée.
It goes without saying that the boutiques of French brands here are phenomenal – Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Hermes (though with plenty more than just watches on offer, obviously) – but CDG also has a fantastic Rolex boutique and, if you’re after a last-minute present for a fellow watch lover, a Swatch store. Don’t underestimate how far a shiny new Swatch goes.
Like Heathrow, the shopping process is also made as streamlined as possible. Just reserve your watch(es) of choice at one end and they’ll be waiting for you when you land. Even if you’re just hopping across the channel for an hour.
More details at Abu Dhabi International.
Flughafen Zürich, Zurich
Yes, there are plenty of places in Switzerland to buy watches however if you only have time for a flying visit then Zurich is the airport you want to visit. Not only is it rated among the best airports in the world, it features a wide variety of duty free and standalone boutiques. Rolex, Omega, Montblanc, Bulgari and Swatch all have stores there and there’s even a Bucherer 1888 establishment, one of the largest watch retailers in the world, specialising in both new and vintage timepieces.
Of course, being in Switzerland means you can walk down almost any street and find a boutique, but the convenience of having them all in one place can’t be overstated. Plus, Switzerland is perfectly located for layovers and flight changes between western Europe and the rest of the world.
More details at Flughafen Zürich.
Toronto Pearson International Airport, Toronto
As Canada’s largest international airport, it’s also a hub for luxury shopping for those visiting the country. The usual suspects are all present with dedicated boutiques for Rolex and Omega as well as some of the other top watch brands that haven’t had as much representation in airports such as Longines. Making Toronto one of the most diverse watch shopping destinations despite being one of the smallest compared with some of the behemoths in this article. It’s likely that Toronto has one of the highest watch boutique to terminal ratios.
Having been to this airport personally, I can vouch for its friendly attitude and pleasant environments, although as this is Canada we’re talking about that shouldn’t be too surprising. Admittedly I didn’t have time to visit the boutiques as it was only the shortest of layovers.
More details at Toronto Pearson International.
John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York
John F. Kennedy International Airport has been at the forefront of luxury travel for decades. Not only is it one of America’s busiest international airport today, it played an important role in historic feats of aviation too, serving as the arrival destinations for Concorde and the A380 Airbus. It’s the world’s gateway to the Big Apple and the entire north east of the USA. So unsurprisingly, there are a lot of shopping outlets and luxury boutiques sequestered within its six terminals. Tag Heuer, Omega and more find homes at the site.
If you’re looking for a little adventure while you’re there you could even transport yourself back to the prohibition era and find your way to hidden Speakeasy located in the Centurion Lounge.
More details at John F. Kennedy International.
Dubai International Airport, Dubai
With eight, large, duty free watch shops across its three terminals, the Dubai International Airport is a hotspot for luxury watches. Which makes sense because it’s one of the busiest airports in the world, and the most modern. Terminal 3 in particular is famed for its modern architecture and sweeping design.
On the wristwatch front, there’s a diverse selection available including Rolex, Omega, Montblanc, Breitling, Cartier and many, many more. It’s reflective of the fact that Dubai and the United Arab Emirates have become a global centre for luxury products and exotic lifestyles, with many of the top watch brands believing it to be one of the most important markets.
More details at Dubai International Airport.
Customs Tax & Duty Explained
It might be tempting to try getting back into the country with your shiny new watch on your wrist, but given the customs agents can just run your credit card to check, it’s probably not worth the risk. Smuggling has a bad rap. So, that means working out the customs you owe – which here in the UK is a little trickier than elsewhere.
Step 1: Convert the price you paid into British pounds. Simple enough.
Step 2: Find out the basic import duty. You can find it out using the free tool at ChamberCustoms, all you need to know is the price of the watch in GBP (that you just calculated), the commodity code (1901110000) and the country in which you bought it.
Step 3: If you didn’t buy at duty free, add VAT – just multiply the price paid in sterling by 0.2 to get that extra 20%. Combine that with the import duty and you have what you owe customs. It’s up to you whether you haggle or not.
Correction: There is no Rolex boutique at Toronto Pearson.
At Heathrow T3 while waiting for a flight in January this year, I checked out Watches of Switzerland & found that the prices were the same as elsewhere. No advantage in purchasing anything at the airport in terms of price. The Rolex boutique had no Rolex’s for sale so no difference there either!
That is because the duty free status is no longer applied to ports and airport. The full VAT is applied in the UK.