Tax free shopping in Europe and getting out with the refund

Remember how we didn’t have tome to get our tax refund in Zurich? We figured we’d get to Barajas Airport Madrid early since we had over 200 euros coming to us with all our tax refunds from shopping in Spain. Plus we were going to try to get the Zurich receipts stamped and submitted as well though we figured that would be more complicated.

By the way, if you don’t like long stories the short version is that we didn’t get the refund on our first two tries, missed our flight from paris to Seoul, and then had plenty of time waiting for our next flight to try again…

I’ll start the story in Barajas. We arrive nice and early, check in at terminal 2, walk to terminal 1, get our receipts stamped, smile at how easy everything is, and then try to figure out where to get the actual refund.

Information tells us we have a problem. Our flight from Madrid to Paris leaves from terminal 2 but the refunds are issued in terminal 1. We’re told there is no way to get from terminal 1 to terminal 2. Once you enter terminal 1 there is no way out except on a plane. We can not possibly pass through security into terminal 1, get the refund, and then catch our flight from Madrid to Paris. The only way is to do the refunds in Paris.

My wife explained that we had a short connection in Paris. Too bad. Not quite believing what she was hearing from the information guy, my wife asked several passport control officers if we could go in and then come back out. They all said we’d never be allowed to leave. Reminds me of the song Hotel California actually.

Now hopefully passport control would check your ticket before letting you in terminal 1. If we hadn’t talked to information and had just gone into the terminal to get the refund, it sounds like we would have been stuck in terminal 1 forever, kind of like Tom Hanks in that movie.

So we go back to terminal 2, through passport control, and see signs for the terminal 1 gates A, B, C, and D. The refund place is near B, so we start following the signs. Eventually we get to another passport control area. They don’t care about our problem and tell us that if we go in to get the refund we will not be allowed out.

We turn around and trek back to terminal 2, find our gate, wait, board the plane, and wait some more. We leave over 30 minutes late, obviously giving us very little time in Paris to handle the refunds.

What happened next was pretty confusing and my wife and I were running around like crazy pretty much the entire time. At the security line for connecting passengers we ask the Air France or security person (not sure who she worked for) where the tax refund office is. She tells us it is outside security. That makes no sense since in Madrid it is inside security so we think she means the place you get stamps. We explain we already have stamps. She doesn’t speak much English. We show her our stamped receipts. She confers with her colleagues and tells us to go inside.

We knew it was inside but were looking for directions as to where it is inside. Our tax free information pamphlet says it’s in the gates A,B,C area but that’s pretty big so where is it? Obviously this lady can’t give us decent directions so we go through security and start looking for information.

We are running because our flight should be boarding now. We don’t find any information but ask every shopkeeper we see (plus a few other people) and the ones that speak English tell us we have to leave and go outside. We keep telling them we have stamps but they say we have to go outside to get the refund even if we already have stamps. We start to believe them.

I say it’s time to give up and go to the gate, which we do. They haven’t started boarding yet but the flight should leave in less than 30 minutes. My wife says I can wait at the gate but she is getting the refund.

I follow her. She might need my help and I don’t want to leave her alone in case she gets stuck outside security or something. Unlike in Madrid, the passport control people here are happy to let us leave the secure area to go get the refund. We leave, go through and empty baggage claim area, through customs (there were no customs people there), and start asking for directions.

The directions we get are mixed, conflicting. Eventually my wife agrees to give up so all we have to do is get back to our gate. We get directions, but there’s a soldier blocking the escalator up to where we need to be. We ask how to get to our flight? “You don’t.” Our flight is leaving in a few minutes – can’t we pass? “No.” How do we get up there to our flight? “You don’t”.

We run to information – we need help badly at this point. We hear a gun shot or explosion or something. Then the information lady tells us to go up that escalator. We explain about the man with the gun but she says we can go up now because the explosion is over, some kind of security check or construction thing we figure. We run back to the escalator but they guy with the gun still won’t let us up.

Close to tears, my wife asks if anyone can help us get up to the departure area. A construction worker actually knows where the stairs are so we run up, go through security. When they see our ticket they rush us to the front of the passport control line where we get the slowest immigration lady ever. She is talking on the phone, talking to the person on her right, and talking to the person on her left. My wife tries to rush her but this seems to slow her down even more.

We get through and run to our gate, arriving 8 minutes late. It’s totally empty. I run down a few more gates and find someone to ask – they tell us that boarding is closed. I explain that we need to get on that plane. “No, boarding is closed. All you can do is go to the transfer desk.”

My wife starts running but I tell her not to bother. We missed the flight.

Now I know it’s our fault for being 8 minutes late. We shouldn’t have gone looking for the tax refund especially since it meant leaving the security area. I accept the blame for that.

But still, a few things really bother / amaze me.

1. Getting the tax refund is too damn hard. I have some brains and some travel experience. My wife is a tour guide in Seoul who has lived in Rome and London. If we can’t get our refund something is wrong with the system. Even a novice traveler should be able to take advantage of tax free shopping if European countries and stores are going to advertise it / offer it.

2. How can an airport block the path to departures without telling people the detour. I mean this just blows my mind. What genius thought to put a guy with a gun in our way and no information about an alternate route up to departures?

3. I’m surprised the plane left without us. We were 8 minutes late but how many times have I sat on a plane for 20-30 minutes only to see someone get on so we can depart? And I don’t think I’ve ever been to an airport without hearing announcements paging passenger so and so, final boarding call for flight x, passenger so and so please report to gate whatever. They often page the same person over and over again. Seriously, I’m 8 minutes late for the one flight they don’t do that? They knew we were checked in, and knew our connecting flight had arrived (late I might add) 45 minutes ago or so. Maybe waiting for the late people isn’t as common as it seems.

So a lot went wrong in Charles de Gaulle. We got sent the wrong direction, we couldn’t find directions, we couldn’t get back to our gate because of some soldier, we got more bad information, and we even got the slowest immigration officer ever. Not to mention our flight from Madrid had been delayed.

Anyway, the transfer desk people were kind and didn’t charge us. They said they should have made us pay because they knew we were here and had left to go get the tax refund (they were some of the many people my wife had asked for directions since there was no airport information booth around).

So we thanked them and sat down to wait 8 hours or so for the next flight to Seoul. After a few minutes my wife left to go get the elusive tax refund and I started writing this. I’m just copying it from my notebook now since I was traveling without my laptop. I’ve already taken that later flight and gotten back to my dogs.

It took about an hour for my wife to find the tax refund office and half an hour to get back to our gate. She got lots more bad directions on the way but eventually found a directory (seriously Charles de Gaulle – if everyone who works in your airport is an idiot how about a few more directories?) that showed her where the office really was.

She showed the guy the receipts but he said he wouldn’t give the refund because the shopping was done in Spain. Spain had to issue the refund. So my wife had to put the envelopes in the box there.

And another thing. If all you need to do is put the envelopes in a box, how about putting a few more boxes around? One inside the departure area would be nice!

So we think we’re getting a refund but it could take a while.

By the way, as I was waiting for the later flight I saw 3 people get on a flight to London 5 minutes after boarding had closed. Why did Air France wait for them on that short flight but not for us on our 10 hour flight?

And one last complaint. As I listened to the announcements (not that they made one for us), I noticed that the Charles de Gaulle PA system is about as clear as the old New York City subways. I can only make out an occasional word even when listening closely.

Anyway, vacation is over after a very weird ending. Back to normal life. And I wonder – has anyone else here missed a flight? If so, what happened?

This will be one of the last times I ask you to ignore my typos. Soon I’ll be back to my computer that has spell check…

Filed Under: Vacation experiences

Comments (9)

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  1. travelfan says:

    Sorry you had such problems but I think they deliberately make it difficult so that most people do not even attempt to get their refunds. That way, the money stays in the country.

    I’d suggest you come to the United States and buy your Burberry coats next time…without the hassle of buying it in Europe and paying more for it than necessary.

  2. William Storrer says:

    My wife and I had a similar problem. We were returning to the states from Hungary, via a short stop in Amsterdam. No way to get things done in Hungary. The refund place in Amsterdam was in one terminal miles from our gate. The man at the refund tried to send us elsewhere and was rude. We eventually had to work by mail.

    I think Americans should be warned to buy only what they cannot get in the states, and plan to get to the refund area three hours before the flight is called for boarding.

  3. Hans-Jurgen A. Wiegand says:

    I’m going to Germany in April, and I plan on buying food & drink. I can can buy Chinese imports in the US, I don’t need to buy those in Europe. I Found they don’t have sales, and the clerks act as if your desturbing them. They ran Wal-mart out of Germany! That says it all to me!

  4. sarah says:

    Charles de Gaulle. Like the President.

    When someone leaves a bag unattended in CDG airport it gets exploded. Perhaps it wasn’t the airport’s fault for blocking your way but rather a suspicious package….

  5. Neil says:

    I also had a nightmare getting a VAT refund at Charles De Gaulle. After spending a goodly amount at Printemps Haussmann, I had the store fill out the forms and opted for reimbursement on my Am/Ex card. At the airport customs stamped my copy but not Premier Tax’s copy (deliberately or not, I have my suspicions). For more than six months, I have been communicating with the store and Premier Tax, still no refund even after sending my original stamped receipt to them. Looking back, I don’t think I’ll every buy clothing or other items in France. The prices are actually much cheaper in the U.S. because of the diminished value of the dollar. That’s why the American stores and shopping malls are filled with foreign travelers. We offer the best bargain in the world.

  6. James Trotta says:

    If we had known how hard it was to get the refund we may have spent less. But because my wife is Korean, we have money in Korean and US currency – meaning the weak dollar didn’t kill us in Europe.

    And we did try to buy items made in Europe. My Burberry was made in Portugal while my wife’s was made in Italy. However, we definitely saw Burberry bags from China so it does pay to look!

    As for sales, we got lucky by accident. Sales started in Munich before Christmas and in Zurich after Christmas. Then in Madrid they started on Jan. 7th. So we hit each country when there were lots of sales going on.

  7. jane Doe says:

    You must be nuts and VERY materialistic. Give me a break, Next time enjoy the country not the stores. Have a hard time feeling sorry for you.

  8. Lou says:

    Did you go shopping or did you go to meet the people and get to know them. Instead of staying in hotels stay at “zimmer frei” and you will get the most for your money and make friends for life. We tried getting our tax money back at Frankfurt one time and no one informed us we had to have the purchases with us. The agent stamped our receipts anyway and we made our way to the place to get our money. That said, it wasn’t hardly worth it. All I read from your postings was how expensive everything was and your food was too expensive and the hotels were too expensive and the shopping was too expensive. Two hints: Don’t go shopping and don’t eat at expensive restaurants. Look for out of the way places and go to the small towns. If you don’t have enough money to do it right, STAY HOME!!! An 18 trip to Europe Traveler!!!

  9. H. Ushky says:

    Yes, I beleive also that the authorities deliberately arrange the tax refund formalities difficult and put on your way as much as possible obstacles. Every country/airport the regulations are different. My theory is, the countries are afraid the local citezens will tax refund and steal the tax money. After a few tries long time ago I gave up shopping and tax refund. I rather spend more time in sightseeing and not shopping unless it is on my way without any extra effort. This way I save myself unnecessary headaches and return home relaxed.

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