No, it’s not in your head: Airports are making you spend more


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While you may have heard your parents wistfully remembering the good old days of airport travel when people bothered to dress up and smoking was still allowed, these days the words “airport,” “airline ” and “flying” conjure up images of testy Transportation Security Agency workers, pat-downs, lines as far as the eye can see and ever-shrinking personal space.

Given that flying can often be stressful, it makes sense that people would reach for nearby distractions. Feeling anxious? Nothing that some shopping, a few stiff drinks, and a big meal can’t cure. According to the Global Airport Retailing 2017-2022 Report, international airport sales hit $40 billion two years ago and are expected to reach $58.4 billion by 2022. (Here are some tips for international travel.) 

With airport spending steadily rising, it seems that pre-flight shopping is here to stay. But what is it about the airport specifically that gives your credit card such a workout?

Turns out there are five key factors that tap into your subconscious and rack up your bills.


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The perfect storm

Between feeling stressed from the whole experience of entering the crowded airport, blindly hunting down your airline ticket desk, waiting on a snaking line full of disgruntled travelers, getting scrutinized by TSA agents as you pass security, and eventually ending up on the other side with hours to kill before your departure, it’s easy to see why flying can feel so unnerving.

Combine those feelings with the general anxiety around boarding an aircraft that is suspended 31,000-38,000 feet in the air and the perfect stress and fear one-two punch is born.

To combat those unpleasant feelings and enjoy some escapism, many passengers take off in search of “retail therapy” a widely-accepted term for the relief and pleasure you feel in giving your credit card a workout.

“Airports are an interesting ‘group pen’ situation, in which people are forced to spend time, at least mildly anxious, and seeking reassurance,” said Margaret J. King, director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank that studies human behavior and decision-making. “Shopping, eating and drinking help combat these conditions by modifying natural stress levels. This is the main reason that new airports and concourses are designed to resemble malls.”

So those bright, blinking, cheerful signs pointing you in the direction of duty-free goods, junk food bliss and overpriced cocktails beam that much brighter in the face of stress and anxiety. (Here’s why airport food is so expensive.) 

TSA limitations encourage more spending

How many times have you gone through security only to have your bag opened up and inspected and your personal items confiscated? With strict and sometimes confusing TSA rules, odds are you will end up forfeiting your beloved perfume or shampoo during one of your travels.

Enter: The overpriced airport drugstore.

Feeling a lack of control and utter sense of desperation, many flyers run into these stores and fork over their hard-earned cash for a toiletry item with an inflated price tag. “Airport retailers know they’ve got a captive audience of travelers with a little time on their hands—but not enough time to do much homework and compare prices,” said Elisabeth Leamy, consumer advocate and financial expert.

Last-minute souvenir shopping

Picture this: It’s the last day of your week-long trip to Paris and you’re at the airport awaiting your flight home. As you start to think about what you have to do when you get back, your stomach turns and a wave of panic takes over. You forgot to grab a souvenir for your mom and dad.

Luckily, (not so luckily for your wallet), airport retailers are ready and waiting for just such a predicament. “The souvenir shops are very well placed to catch you at your most vulnerable,” said Brett Downes, team lead at HQ SEO and Ghost Marketing. “People will buy last-minute gifts, not just because they forgot, but also to use up their remaining currency. While originally planning to change back their currency into local money, they are tempted to use the remainder at the gift shop since it subconsciously feels like’free money’ and they save themselves the hassle of tracking down the currency exchange.”

Curving walkways

Did you know that approximately 70% to 95% of the human population is right-handed? We can tell you who does know that fun fact: the airport. The layout of the shops is engineered to catch your attention and encourage more spending. Airport walkways usually curve from right to left, because most right-handed folks tend to look toward the right while walking on the left, so this increases shop visibility.

Plenty of temptation and a vacation mentality

Have you ever found yourself reaching for an extra piece of cake or splurging on an extravagant purse while traveling far home? There’s something that happens to our brains when we abandon our normal routines and go somewhere exotic that makes us more likely to open our wallets and increase our calorie intake. Maybe it’s a mix of rationalization—“Well I only get to go away once a year so I might as well make the most of it”—or the simple joy of not feeling like your usual self. Whatever the cause, it’s working.

This mentality can bleed into our airport experience as well. As King points out, “the budget you are on is the vacation one until you reach your final stop, your front door. Vacation spending is indulgent and expansive, allowing higher luxury and calorie limits.” That explains why you are ready and willing to hit up the duty-free shops like they’re going out of style and gleefully pay $30 dollars for a hamburger, fries and beer. It’s not your fault. Your vacation spirit has hijacked your brain.

What you can do about it

If you know you are easily tempted by the siren song of brightly colored airport shops and welcoming fast-food signage, make a game plan. Before you set off on your travels, set a budget that incorporates the airport spending to and from your destination and see how much wiggle room you have once you factor that in. (Here’s a budgeting guide to help.) 

You can also pack your own food and snacks to keep you full and occupied and prevent a marked-up junk food buying frenzy. You should also plan a visit to the travel section of your local drugstore to pick up TSA-friendly items that won’t get yanked out of your suitcase and orphaned at the security desk.

With careful planning and a few clever tweaks, you can be on your way to a memorable vacation that won’t leave you weeping over your credit card bill when all is said and done. Bon voyage!

Want to learn more travel secrets? Here are six things airlines don’t want you to know. 

This article originally appeared on Policygenius and was syndicated by

Featured Image Credit: Kirkikis / iStock.