Travels with my wallet

John Andrew on the perils awaiting the traveller with an eye for a foreign purchase
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It is said that travel broadens the mind. lt also has a shrinking effect on your bank balance. This is especially so if you find the shops and markets in foreign climes tempting. Quite rational shoppers at home can become impulsive acquirers abroad. Take the couple I encountered on a tour of the Far East. On each occasion we met, their suitcases had expanded and their hand luggage appeared to be breeding like rabbits. The despairing husband eventually managed to persuade his spouse to ditch most of her buys. She then happily went off on another shopping binge.

While some airlines are stricter than others and will ignore the odd kilo above the standard 20-kilogram allowance for economy class travellers, others are not so charitable. Ultimately the cost can be 1 per cent of the first-class fare per kilo. On a long-haul flight, that can prove quite expensive.

Larger purchases can, of course, be shipped. Bear in mind that although you pay the freight costs to the retailer, unless the goods are posted, you will also incur handling costs at the port of entry into the UK and delivery charges from there to your home. There is always the risk that the goods go astray, or the possibility that they are never sent. For example, a couple of years ago I found myself at the isolated city of Jaisalmer in northern India. Local craft specialities included magnificently embroidered bed covers set with small mirrors. I purchased one for pounds 35 and paid pounds 15 insurance and shipping. Nothing arrived.

The retailer, regional tourist authority and the Indian High Commission did not answer my letters. By chance a friend was visiting the city. Armed with the receipt and a photograph of the shopkeeper holding the item, she made a courtesy call at his establishment and duly arrived back in the UK with the elusive cover.

In virtually every country, tourists are viewed as fair game for the proverbial rip-off. Shopping is no exception in countries where haggling as opposed to fixed prices is the normal practice. lt is therefore wise not to make your big purchases in the early days of your holiday. First get a 'feel' for prices by talking to fellow tourists and viewing what is on offer. You could well find that the price at which a sale is likely to take place is a third below the original asking price. When deadlock is reached, walking away can do wonders.

Do not be under any illusions that it is necessarily cheaper to buy items in their country of origin. For example, you could well find that oriental rugs are cheaper at your local department store back home. You would also be saved all the hassle of transportation and paying duty.

Naturally when making purchases abroad it is always reassuring to be advised where you are likely to receive a fair deal. Unfortunately your friendly guide is likely to be working on a hefty commission for introductions to retailers. A cut of 40 per cent or more on the inflated retail price is quite common. Therefore, if an expensive item catches your eye, it is likely that you will negotiate a lower price if you return alone later.

Paying duty is the other hidden cost of shopping abroad. If you visit another European Union country, there are no restrictions on the value of the goods bought in ordinary shops that you can bring into the UK. This is because you will have paid the local tax on those goods. There are restrictions on the quantity of tobacco, drink and other items you may bring home which are bought in duty-free shops, but you can top up your duty-free allowance by making purchases at ordinary retailers, providing the purchases are for your personal use. This includes gifts.

The situation for travellers outside the EU is different. Although the duty-free allowance for tobacco, drink and perfumes is the same, it cannot be topped up by local purchases. Initially the duty-free allowance of pounds 136 for goods from non-EU countries sounds generous. Should a single item exceed pounds 136, it is worth remembering that charges will be levied on its full value and not just on the sum in excess of the allowance.

So what are these charges? Import duty is levied on most items and it varies according to the nature of the goods. The duty on a ring is 3.5 per cent, while a piece of costume jewellery attracts 8.5 per cent. VAT at 17.5 per cent is payable on the cost of the goods and the duty. Certain handicrafts from the Third World and unset stones from anywhere attract no duty, but VAT is still payable.

If you do have goods to declare, produce a genuine invoice. Do not be tempted by a retailer's offer to provide an invoice for customs requirements. Customs officials have a good knowledge of the cost of goods worldwide. Finally, counterfeit goods such as Rolex watches and Gucci leather goods are prohibited imports. Also think twice before buying souvenirs made from exotic hides or feathers, tortoiseshell or coral as these could also be illegal imports. When travelling do consider endangered species.

HM Customs & Excise publishes A Guide for Travellers, which contains useful information as well as the latest duty-free allowances. Copies are available from 0171-202-4227. There is also a Customs Information Line on 0181-910-3744/3766, which is open from 7am to 7pm Monday-Saturday and from 9am to 5pm on Sundays. The World Wildlife Fund produces a leaflet, Buyer Beware. Copies are obtainable from 01483-426444.

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