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The Only Tolerable Part of Flying Is Duty-Free Shopping

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And I’d argue it’s worth showing up early for.

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A woman picking up lipsticks from a counter display Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images

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I arrive everywhere compulsively early, and the airport is no exception. On a recent trip home from Seattle, I had well over an hour to kill before boarding my flight, even after going through security and walking through an endless stream of Hudson News stores to get to my gate. As I do whenever I’m at an airport, I made a beeline for duty-free.

Like almost all duty-free stores, this one is windowless and brightly lit, so as to erase all sense of time and place. The walls are lined with makeup testers that have seen better days, and the aisles so cramped with products you have to be careful not to swing your bag into a perfume bottle or two. There’s nothing here I haven’t seen before: Chanel, Lancôme, Clinique, Dior — these are not exotic brands that can’t be found at just about any department store around the world.

But I still stop here every time I travel. Not because I need to buy any slightly less expensive beauty products or perfume, but simply because I love physically being in the duty-free store.

I understand why many people hate airports and dread every moment spent in them. They’re like malls, but worse, because you can’t leave. The food is twice as expensive and the people twice as grumpy. Entering them comes with the dehumanizing process of stripping off layers of clothing and walking barefoot into a body scan, feet spread, arms hoisted in the air, and then still having to get patted down because the sensor couldn’t detect if there was anything in your hair. You shell out hundreds of dollars for a ticket and still have a United employee remind you every five minutes that your economy seat means you are only allowed one personal item on board — no full-sized carry-on!

And I know that it’s at odds with the whole spirit of traveling to get so elated about mass-market cosmetics, but for me, a visit to the duty-free store is a break from the mental and physical toll that comes with traveling: a welcome pause in the middle of a cross-country or trans-continental flight.

I travel frequently and almost always by myself. In the past five years, I’ve split my time between California, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil. I’ve logged countless hours in countless airports. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to live and work in so many places, but the fact that I move frequently by choice doesn’t make the sudden change from one location to another any less jarring.

Earlier this year, I flew out of Rio de Janeiro on a late summer evening and woke up in the middle of a snowstorm in New York City. Before that I left behind my job, my apartment, and my boyfriend in Buenos Aires to (temporarily) move back in with my parents in my small hometown in California.

Airports are the space in between all of that, a weird limbo detached from the real world. Ample experience with long layovers has not made me immune to the feelings of crankiness, loneliness, and exhaustion that airports often inspire, but it has taught me to find comfort where I can.

Traveling for me usually means saying goodbye to people, often without knowing if or when I’ll see them again. At duty-free, I’m able to find reminders of those I’ve left behind: The Clinique display never fails to remind me of the endless mauve lipsticks and neutral eyeshadow duos my mom would get as a free gift-with-purchase when she did her shopping at Macy’s. A whiff of Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb makes me think of my college roommate in Montreal, while a bottle of Dior Sauvage takes me back to the apartment of a man I dated when I first moved to Brazil.

Nowadays, I have a duty-free store ritual. I look for some fancy lotion to moisturize my dehydrated skin, try on some lipsticks, put on concealer if I need it, swatch anything else that catches my eye, and spray multiple perfumes before deciding on what scent I’ll wear for the rest of the trip. If time allows and there are nail polish testers available, I’ll give myself a manicure and do laps around the store while each coat dries. (And yes, I am that person who sticks their fingers in all the testers at the makeup store. I’m a beast, I know, I’ve accepted it.)

I didn’t buy anything at the duty-free store on this particular trip from Seattle — I never do — but helped myself to a few sprays of Chanel Coco Noir and applied a Clinique moisturizer. Looking slightly less like a garbage person than when I’d walked in and finally unwound from the stress of getting through airport security, I felt relaxed — happy that I had so much time to myself to sit undisturbed in a pleather chair and read a book, and excited for the journey ahead.