Shoppers fly to buy with fistfuls of dollars: As the United States currency takes a battering, Rachel Borrill in London and Jim Gallagher in New York report on the tourists who know how far the buck goes

'EVERYTHING was so cheap, I spent my holiday buying Christmas presents,' said Sandra Hill, opening a bag full of CDs. Last Friday, Mrs Hill returned from America, one of an army of British tourists taking advantage of the two-dollar pound.

British travel agents predict that many people will go to New York for their Christmas shopping this year. John Harding, sales manager at Travel Scene, expects weekend breaks to the States to increase by 45 per cent. 'Those people will be going solely to buy bargains from Bloomingdale's and Macy's,' he said.

Last year 7.4 million Europeans visited America, spending over dollars 20 billion. John Keller, an under-secretary at the US Commerce Department, said the majority of tourists were British, and he described the recent surge as 'phenomenal, but due to the weak dollar'.

Mrs Hall, 36, from Cheshire, estimates she has saved hundreds of pounds on her Christmas presents. 'It was amazing. I bought three pairs of Levis, about 15 CDs and two pairs of trainers, and the whole lot came to about pounds 250. Can you believe it?' she asked.

Visitors to Britain are now arriving laden with gifts from America bought to order for friends and relatives. Sandra Lockhead, 57, left her Kent home for Florida three years ago. Her children still live in England and regularly send her their requests.

'My suitcases are full of things for them and my grandchildren. Clothes, shoes, games, everything really. My daughter even asked for some new contact lenses; apparently they're half-price in the US,' she said.

Tourists can also expect to pay less for their hotel room and meals. A double room at a Hilton hotel in New York costs pounds 122.80 a night; in London the same room is at least pounds 70 more.

Jeanine Moss, director of communications at New York Visitors' Bureau, expects hotel prices to fall. 'The UK is our number one overseas market and new hotels are being built all the time to cater for them. Last year there was dollars 1 billion in hotel development in New York City,' she said.

Dinner will also invariably work out cheaper. A meal for two at Les Halles, a French restaurant on Park Avenue, favoured by many film stars, costs just pounds 30 including wine. Even Big Macs are less than half-price.

Travelling around costs less. Petrol is 60p a gallon, and a rented four-door saloon with air-conditioning costs pounds 120 a week. A similar large family car in London would be pounds 585 per week.

Jim Myers, a car dealer from Essex, was tempted to buy a couple of new cars while on holiday in Florida. 'Brand new Range Rovers were half-price, and Thunderbirds were about pounds 9,000. It's unbelievable - if only they weren't all left- hand-drives,' he said. Instead, Mr Myers chose to buy some sheets and pillowcases. 'It was really strange - all the shops, even along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, were full of Britons bargain-hunting,' he said.

Juan Guzman, a yellow-cab driver in New York, relies solely upon the tourists for business. 'A lot of New Yorkers have lost their jobs and many seem to be travelling by subway. But I get a lot of English in my cab. Things must be good for them because they are even learning to tip,' he said with a smile.

Britons returning from America are allowed to bring goods and gifts worth pounds 32 free of charge. They then have to pay 17.5 per cent VAT and duty on some items of between two and 20 per cent.

However most people seem to be unaware of this, and walk through the 'Nothing to Declare' channel with all their goods safely packed away.

Last Friday at Heathrow airport, two women carrying seven suitcases, two boxes and five bags, said they had 'no idea' of the limit. 'We've only bought a few pairs of shoes, and a bit of jewellery,' muttered one of them as they ran for a taxi.

For bargain-hunters who cannot afford the pounds 300-plus airfare, mail order could be the solution. Richard McBrien, author of Buying Direct from the USA, believes there are still considerable savings to be made even after the duty, VAT and shipping costs.

After living for several years in America, Mr McBrien was amazed at the enormous difference in prices when he tried to buy a computer here. 'The identical machine cost nearly double what I would pay in the States. So I rang up a supplier in California and ordered it over the phone.'

Four days later the computer arrived, saving Mr McBrien pounds 600. 'Ordering from the States really is incredibly easy, virtually the same as buying something here,' says Mr McBrien. 'There are even American companies which have toll-free numbers so you don't have to pay for the international call. Many are geared up to deal specifically with the UK.'

But consumer associations are warning tourists not to forget the recession at home. Julie Rogers, from Milton Keynes, persuaded her husband to 'shop until we drop' in Florida, using their credit card. 'We just bought and bought - it all seemed so cheap, but now I wonder how we will pay all the bills waiting for us at home,' she said.

TRANSATLANTIC BARGAINS Product British price US price Levi 501 jeans pounds 36.99 pounds 19 Nike Air Jordan trainers pounds 89.99 pounds 65 Plunge-filter coffee maker pounds 39 pounds 15 Compact disc pounds 12.99 pounds 6 Olympus MJU pocket camera pounds 109.99 pounds 50 Ping Eye II golf clubs (full set) pounds 875 pounds 370 Paperback (As the Crow Flies, Jeffrey Archer) pounds 5.99 pounds 3.49 Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses pounds 69 pounds 29.97 Armani suit pounds 895 pounds 600 McDonald's Big Mac pounds 1.79 60p

(Photographs omitted)

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