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Don't shop till you drop in US

The plummet-ing US dollar means that relative prices for British travellers are falling in much of the world. Exchange rates are more favourable both in the US and in many other countries where currencies are pegged to the American dollar (in the case of Ecuador and Panama, the local currency is the dollar).

Asian destinations such as China and Thailand, and much of Latin America and the Caribbean should offer even better value for travellers with sterling. But those who see the opportunity for some cut-price Christmas shopping are being urged to bear in mind the strict limits on purchases made outside the European Union.

The usual limits on "luxury" goods apply: 200 cigarettes; 2l of wine and 1l of spirits; 60cc of perfume and 250cc of eau de toilette. Besides these, returning UK travellers are limited to £145 worth of all other goods including gifts and souvenirs.

"If you have any more than these allowances," says HM Revenue & Customs "you must declare the goods in the red channel or use the red point phone. If you do not, you are breaking the law and we may prosecute you."

The rate of duty varies depending on the type of goods and the country where they were bought, but is typically 10-20 per cent. In addition, VAT at the standard rate of 17.5 per cent is levied. Customs officials routinely target inbound flights from popular shopping destinations, such as New York, Dubai and Hong Kong, and may demand to see receipts for goods bought abroad.

For any individual item that is worth more than the limit of £145, duty and VAT are payable on the full price, not just the value above £145. Pooling individual allowances to bring in an item worth more than the limit is not allowed. In addition, the value of any goods bought duty- or tax-free at UK airports on the outbound journey must be added to those acquired abroad.

EU ministers have debated easing these long-standing limits, which look increasingly parsimonious, but have yet to take action. The falling dollar could also cut air fares, or at least reduce the rate at which they increase. Key elements of airlines' costs - notably fuel and the purchase or lease of aircraft - are denominated in US currency.

Sunday trading laws in France mean that hypermarkets are normally closed, but a number of large stores in Calais have once again been granted special dispensation to open on specific dates this month.

Champion at the commercial centre Les 4 Boulevards will be open every Sunday this month, including Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. The Carrefour hypermarket at Cite de l'Europe will be open tomorrow and on 10, 17 and 24 December. And Auchan in Calais will open on 17, 24 and 31 December.

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