Travel

Here’s how to avoid messing up your Europe VAT refund

A receipt is no good for getting a VAT refund unless you have a customs stamp. The trick is getting it.
A receipt is no good for getting a VAT refund unless you have a customs stamp. The trick is getting it. Detroit Free Press via TNS

A couple of weeks ago, I bought $220 worth of gifts at a store in Sorrento, Italy.

The clerk punched buttons on the cash register. A receipt as long as my arm printed out.

“This is your form,” he said, rolling up the tape. He explained that all I had to do was take it to a kiosk at the Rome Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino) Airport to get my 27 euro VAT sales tax refund before flying home.

“If you cannot find a kiosk, get it stamped by customs,” he said. “And here,” he pressed an envelope into my hand, “this explains.”

I thanked him, then returned to my hotel. The form looked simple enough: my name, address and passport information. The envelope, “Global Blue: How to Get Your Tax Refund,” explained how foreign travelers to European Union nations can easily get a refund of sales tax (called value-added tax, or VAT) they paid on purchases as cash or credit.

We’re not talking pennies, here, either. VAT sales tax in most of Europe is about 20 percent, built into the price of the purchase. If you buy a lot of gifts, you can get a pretty good refund.

So I skimmed the instructions. No problem. I’d get my money at the airport.

Not so fast.

Terminal 5 at Rome’s airport is where North American flights depart. There is a lot of security. I passed through one checkpoint, then checked in with the airline and gave it my luggage. Then I went through customs and more airport security. Then I got bused to Boarding Area G.

That is when I started looking around for the kiosk that would give me my refund. No luck. I asked someone. And asked someone else.

Finally, an Alitalia agent pointed to a sign and escalator. “Down there at (Boarding Area) H,” she said.

I went down the escalator and realized that I would have to get to H on a train, then go back through security again, and who knows where I would end up and how long it would take.

But no problem, I thought. I’ll just mail in the form when I get back to Detroit.

Oops, too late.

Of course, you know where this is going. If you do not have a customs stamp on your receipt, there is no refund. And if you are already at your gate at Rome’s airport, there is no timely way to return to customs to get your receipt stamped. And if you checked your luggage with the gifts in them before you get to customs, the customs officer will not stamp it anyway because he did not see proof of the gifts.

In addition, it turns out that Terminal 5 does have a VAT refund desk — not a kiosk — but it is after check-in and before customs, and you must know where it is so you don’t accidentally skip it.

At any rate, I flew out of Italy without getting a stamp or refund and feeling pretty stupid.

My advice to travelers? If you plan to buy a lot of gifts in Europe for which you could get a tax refund, read up on the logistics before leaving home. The rules will make your head spin, no matter what country you’re visiting.

And if you manage to make it to the VAT refund counter at the airport’s Terminal 5, I’d really appreciate it if you could try to get my 27 euros for me.

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