Have you ever imagined going on a holiday to Europe but actually getting money refunded to you when you are flying home? Well, if you like shopping, then this Thrifty Thursday guest post by Jo Karnaghan will tickle your fancy! Have a thrifty travel story of your own to share? Contact Brooke.
Brooke has very kindly set me my dream assignment for this guest post – I get to go shopping in the European Union, and write about it. The only catch is I need to claim back the VAT. I know I’m good at shopping; I’ve claimed VAT refunds before and I know I can write about it, so how hard can it be?
I’m off to Europe for a two week trip in France and Italy. I’m travelling from Paris to Milan so I know there’s plenty of opportunities for, um, “research”.
Before I leave I know exactly what I’m looking for:
- A wallet (a very expensive designer one)
- 2 pairs of shoes – a pair of ballet flats from a particular shop in Milan and a pair of sandals I’ve spotted on the internet
- Some lingerie
- Something for my husband
- Something for my daughter – she likes stuffed toys so that’s what I’m after
- Plus anything else that catches my eye (you know how it is!)
I know that to get a VAT refund in Europe there is a minimum spend in each shop, so I went looking for the details for France and Italy. It was hard to track down the info in plain English, so in desperation I resorted to Rick Steves’ website and found a great post on VAT refunds and how much the spend requirement is in every EU country. I noted with a sense of trepidation that sometimes it is hard to do in Italy… I need to spend 175 Euro per shop in one day in Paris, and 155 Euro per shop per day in Italy.
To try and maximise my chances of getting a refund I decided to concentrate my shopping efforts where I could in department stores so I can pool my purchases.
OK, so armed with all this info, I headed off.
First stop Paris. I hit the two Right Bank departments stores – Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps, and unfortunately didn’t find anything I was looking for. They don’t have the wallet, the sandals I had liked on the net weren’t what I wanted in real life and I didn’t see anything else on my list. I’d done a VAT refund previously in Au Printemps, and was really hopeful – they will actually pay you cash money up front before you leave the shop if you leave your credit card details (in case you don’t take the goods out and complete customs in Europe).
Still, I know where to buy the wallet so 500 Euro later I’m the proud owner and the kindly saleslady is helping me complete the VAT details. My passport and credit card details are added to a very lengthy receipt, I’m given an instruction sheet and a pre-paid envelope to put the receipt in once I’ve got it stamped, so I can send it to them and claim the VAT – 10% in this case. The money will be credited to my credit card.
To complete my Paris purchases I find a pair of cute designer flats for 450 Euro (ouch!) in the designer’s boutique. This is a good test for French VAT refunds, because it’s a small boutique and I’m the only tourist in sight (the wallet shop was full of tourists, so it’s clear they know exactly how to help in this regard). After choosing my shoes I asked about the VAT refund – detaxe (day-tax-ay in French) and to my relief they know exactly how to do it. Again, my passport and credit card details are taken, I’m given a giant invoice, and a prepaid envelope and instructions. This time the instructions are for a agency who handles the VAT refunds on the store’s behalf. The salesgirl tells me I can expect to get an 11% refund.
I leave Paris pleased, knowing I’ve got 100 Euro in my kitty – if I can work out the Italian customs as I’ve been warned…
During the next ten days I gather some stuffed animals for my daughter and buy a few odds and ends, but nothing I can claim the VAT on.
Last stop is Milan – shopping heaven. They really know how to sell the VAT refunds here – there are brochures in the hotel lobby, in every second shop and there’s even a guide book by one of the third party refund agencies with maps of the shops who use their refund service!
The little shop that sells the ballet flats sells only, you guessed, ballet flats, and they didn’t cost enough to claim, so there’s no more I can do there. I’m tempted, but decided that buying another pair just to get a 10% discount isn’t worth it.
In La Rinascente, a large department store in Milan I finally find some lingerie and pick up some gifts for my husband. I’ve spent about 500 Euro, so a claim is in order! Following the signage (kindly written in English) I find the Refund desk tucked away in a forgotten corner of the top floor of the building. Passport, credit card and I’m processed.
The Claims Process:
With Rick Steves’ advice ringing in my ears I arrived at Milan’s Malpensa airport 3 hours before my flight so I can find the VAT refunds desk. After circumnavigating the departures area a couple of times, I finally find it, and there’s NO QUEUE (I’ve seen people in queues miles long at Charles De Gaulle!) I’m quickly told this desk is only for people who are planning on checking their baggage – I need to go to the desk on the other side of Immigration if I’m taking my goods as carry on (I never check baggage).
On the other side of Immigration there is no refunds desk to be seen. I found the counter for the Agency I need – opposite is a closed door with a little sign saying Customs and VAT refunds. The door is locked! Next to the door is an even smaller sign saying that if the door is locked to go into the office round the corner on the left. I’m now deep in Italian Customs offices. Most of the doors are open, but have signs on them saying No Tax. Finally, down the end is an open, unmarked door, with another office inside. I heard voices, so went in – it’s the Customs Officer! I showed my receipts and passport. The Officer asks to see the wallet – because it seemed very expensive just for a wallet! – which I showed him. He stamped my receipts and I’m out the door at last!!!
Off to the Agency desk and the assistant asks if I want cash or credit to my card. There’s Euros, US dollars, Sterling and Yen, but I decide to get a credit card refund. I’m advised the Italian one will be paid in 5 business days and the French one in about 3 weeks.
Finally, before it’s done, I find a letter box and post the one for the wallet, which has to be returned to the firm for the refund. It’s taken me over an hour and a half…
Back in Sydney, and 5 days later the first refund is sitting on my credit card. This is followed another 2 weeks later by the second one, and quickly by the third and last one. My credit card is about 150 Euro better off, and everything I’ve brought home is a hit!
My tips for successful VAT refunds in Europe:
1. Make sure you know what the spend is in each shop. If it’s not advertised in the window, do ask – you never know.
2. Look out for signs in shop windows advertising refunds.
3. Don’t spend money just to get a refund – you only get back between 10 and 12%. If you’re only a few Euro short it’s worth it, but any more than that isn’t!
4. Keep your goods handy in case the customs officer wants to see them
5. Don’t use or wear the goods. It’s OK to take them out of their wrapping for packing purposes, but don’t turn up wearing your new ensemble – you may be refused a refund as the goods are clearly used
6. Persistence might be required to find exactly where to get your receipts stamped. Don’t assume the country you are departing from WANTS to give you a refund!
7. Department stores may lack the charm of shopping in boutiques, but they are usually very well organised for VAT refunds. Just don’t expect the Refund Desk to be somewhere easily found, no matter how well signposted it is.
8. Always ask about the VAT refund BEFORE you pay for your goods. Once the payment is completed there’s nothing the shopkeeper can do for you.
9. Allow plenty of time at the airport in case you have trouble finding the Refunds desk or there is a long queue.
10. Not everyone can afford expensive wallets and designer shoes, but if you plan ahead and consolidate your purchases into fewer shops, you, too, can benefit from a European Union VAT refund.
* * * * *
About the Author: Jo Karnaghan has spent the last 25 years travelling in Europe, during which time she has honed her travel philosophy of frugal first class. Her dream is to be able to travel in Europe fulltime, and to always turn left upon boarding the plane. She is currently writing her first book (on travel of course). Jo believes the best parts of any trip are often those that cost nothing. When she is not writing, planning or thinking about travel, Jo has a busy career as a medical practitioner, wife and mother, and student of French. She lives in Sydney, Australia with a patient husband and daughter. Jo is the author of Frugal First Class and can also be found on Twitter @jokarnaghan1.