As the dollar falls to an 11-year low, Britons pound streets of Manhattan and go shopping until they drop

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The Independent US

It seems like a fair question, but Chris Haxby has got a "you've-got-to-be-joking" look on his face. No, he and his girlfriend, Londie McKay, definitely do not have a budget limit for what they will spend during their five days in New York. "There wouldn't be any point, would there?" he says. "Especially not in a place like this."

Shopping Heaven is what he means. This Christmas, swarms of British tourists are descending on Manhattan. Some will squeeze in a couple of sights ­ the Empire State building, Central Park ­ and maybe a Broadway show. But it is bargains that they are really after.

New York has always been a place for Brits looking for a steal. But these days, there are enough bargains to fill a terrace at Yankee Stadium. Fendi, Levis, Vera Wang, DKNY, whatever you like.

And it's all because of the exchange rate. The pound is at an 11-year high against the dollar. The euro is doing just as well. Which means that the New Year sales have come early, if you can get yourself over to this side of the ocean.

No wonder, then, that the only grumble from Londie, 21, this morning is that her feet are starting to hurt. It is only 11am and already she and Chris, 21, are making a second dash into Bloomingdales on Lexington Avenue. "That's what we came here for ­ to spend," she says with a laugh. Her parents, Peter and Tracey McKay, from Manchester are also there, as are an older brother and a nephew.

"We're here for shopping, shopping and more shopping," says Londie. Already, she has a small Bloomingdales shopping bag with the first prize of the day's hunt: a bottle of Vera Lang perfume. It cost her $60 (£34) and she is ecstatic. In London, she says, the same bottle would have set her back between £70 and £80.

This is no spur-of-the-moment binge. Londie came ready and armed. Back at the Howard Johnson hotel on 8th Avenue ­ where rooms are $119 a night this week ­ she has a large empty suitcase waiting. And she means to fill it.

So far she has notched up Macy's on Herald Square and Century 21 in lower Manhattan. She has DKNY jeans, CDs and DVDs. Still on her list: a Fendi bag (she has spotted the shop near the Empire State building) and a portable DVD player for Chris.

Not that mum and dad, who both work for Manchester airport, are slouches. Peter, 45, is holding a Nine West bag concealing a handbag and scarf. "They're not for me," he says, a little embarrassed. Tracey, has raided FAO Schwarz, the famous toy shop opposite the Plaza Hotel, for a teddy bear for her parents.

Is it all as cheap as they expected? "It is," says Peter, "so long as you are prepared to shop around."

This is all cheering news indeed for New York, which has struggled to recover from a three-year economic downturn made worse by the impact of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the city. It is only now that the statistics are pointing to a recovery for the city, much of it driven by tourists. "Things are booming," confirms Tim Zagat, who publishes a series of popular restaurant guides. "The biggest problem is getting into things you want to get into ­ hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres." By the end of the year, hotel occupancy rates are expected to reach 84 per cent, close to peak pre-attack levels, city officials say.

Curiously, the last thing to perk up is the number of foreign visitors to the city. But the cheap dollar is certainly starting to help. Tourism officials hope to exceed the 5.1 million tourists from foreign countries recorded last year ­ but that is still short of the 6.8 million who visited in 2000.

"British voices everywhere," says Dee Penfold, 43, describing her experience after queuing for two hours on Monday afternoon to get to the top of the Empire State building. She arrived on Sunday for a short week in New York with her husband, Chris, 43.

"And in Bloomingdales too. Full of Brits," she says.

Chris, who runs a care agency in Fraserburgh, Scotland for the elderly and handicapped children, at first didn't realise what kind of currency advantage he and his wife would have. They took a five-day package with hotel and air fare for £1,100 for the two of them.

"It wasn't until I went to the bank a couple weeks back and the lassie said what a great time it was to go to America." Now he knows people in Scotland who are booking holidays in Florida for next summer, but changing their money now while the exchange rate lasts.

Their day in Bloomies was Monday. Just like Londie, Dee also made an instant beeline for the Vera Wang stand. Otherwise, Chris and Dee have mostly focused on buying Christmas presents for their two sons, aged 16 and 18, in Scotland. That meant several pairs of DKNY and Calvin Klein jeans at Bloomingdales and, for one of them, a Beatles T-shirt.

Depending on how things go, Chris and Dee may venture down to Soho and visit the fancy new Apple Computer store on Prince Street.

Like other Brits in New York they would go to Apple primarily to check out its range of iPods, the hot-selling pocket-sized gizmos that can download thousands of songs from the internet and play them back through earphones. Buy the 10GB base model in London and you will pay £249. Come to New York and you will pay $299, about £171. Why not buy two?

The sore feet factor can also be easily eased in New York. Taxis are far cheaper than in London ­ a trip from John F Kennedy airport to Manhattan will cost $35 compared to £75 for a cab from Heathrow to Piccadilly. And the underground (or subway) is a steal at $2 a ride anywhere. But Chris and Dee, who are staying at the Bedford Hotel on 40th Street, have quickly discovered it is possible to walk almost anywhere in Manhattan. When they finally got home from shopping on Monday, they reckoned they had trudged 60 blocks in the day. It has helped that Dee has felt completely secure in the city.

"I feel a lot safer than I thought I would," she said.

Chris and Dee are in the city for more than just shopping, however. This morning, they are delaying a trip to the stores by first taking a wander up Fifth Avenue ­ Dee can look in the windows at Tiffanys, but there is no going in ­ before a quick ride on a horse and buggy through Central Park.

That's how they find out that not everything in New York is a bargain, however limp the dollar may be.

The buggy driver gruffly demands $34 for the 10-minute circuit through one small corner of Central Park. "Plus tip," he adds swiftly, clearly suspicious of foreigners who might not know that tips in New York are not a voluntary affair. Tip or be cursed at.

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