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Tuesday, 5 November, 2002, 11:07 GMT
We're all going on a 'booze-cruise' holiday
Swapping the corner shop for a Calais hyper-mart
Even Coronation St has set a spin-off in Calais

More booze-cruisers than ever are expected to cross the Channel to stock up on cheap cigarettes and alcohol this festive season.
The cross-Channel shopping trip - be it in a hired white van, well-laden car or ferry - has long been a British institution.

And as the nights draw in, thoughts turn to Christmas and New Year parties - and how to quench those festive thirsts without breaking the bank.

Kylie shopping in France
Other bargains besides booze are to be had
In the past decade, the strong pound, pleasing price tags (for excise duty is far lower in Europe), and generous allowances for personal use have encouraged many a bargain-hunter to make a day of it in France or Belgium.

Calais has responded with gusto, opening up vast emporia of cheap fags 'n' booze within easy reach of the ferry terminals and the Channel tunnel. The ferry companies too, offer myriad deals to on-board shoppers.

What can I bring in?
As much as you like for personal use
But may stop anyone with:
3,200+ cigarettes
90 litres+ wine
10 litres+ spirits
110 litres+ beer
And now Britons will be able to bring back four times as much tobacco without risking customs officials' attention. Under new guidelines issued by the Treasury, instead of 800 cigarettes, travellers can now bring back 3,200 - enough to supply the average smoker for six months.

Thus Hoverspeed is expecting record numbers for the festive season this year, according to a company spokesman.

"With half-term over, the pre-Christmas rush has now started. It's going to be boom-time over the next six or seven weeks."

Stretch the pension

Fredrick Patten, of Enfield in north London, is one of four retired friends who take the ferry to Calais every six weeks to stock up.

Drivers at Calais
Expect queues this festive season
"I go for the company and the day out as much as the shopping - and if you drink or smoke, it's a big saving as everything is half the price.

"I usually buy a bottle of brandy, some Baileys, maybe some vodka or Martini, and a couple of decent bottles of wine. I don't smoke myself but I always pick up 50 worth of cigarettes for my daughter-in-law's father."

Mr Patten says he has never had any problem with customs officers: "That's possibly because we always walk on, walk off. There's only so much you can carry."

'It's our right'

In another remarkable turn-around, the Government also announced that no longer will the shopper have to prove that such a stash is for personal use - instead Customs will have to show that the items are for resale.

Calais shopping mall
The French rarely venture into Calais booze barns
The moves came after pressure to go easy on bargain hunters while cracking down on smugglers.

Cross-Channel smuggling has boomed for much the same reasons as legitimate shopping. In 2001 more than one-fifth of all cigarettes sold in the UK were black market, amounting to more than 3.5bn a year in lost taxes. The cut-price beer arriving from across the Channel each day is said to equal the weekly sales of 1,000 pubs.

Last August, a group of day-trippers sponsored by Hoverspeed won a test case against HM Customs and Excise over the seizure of their goods in a random search.

How much for cigs?
4.50 a pack in UK
Barely half that in Europe
17bn cigarettes smuggled in a year
The High Court criticised the service for its "draconian" tactics - a ruling it is appealing against on Tuesday.

The day-trippers are not alone in their complaints. In the past two years, about 20,000 cars have been seized. Shoppers have complained of steep fines, of intrusive questioning. One told how Customs seized his hugely valuable wine collection - only to tip the lot down the drain.

Calais shopper
Just how full can you fill that trolley?
The Sun newspaper, which has campaigned vigorously for Customs to lay off booze-cruisers, claimed victory after the Treasury climb-down.

And it seems as if they have an unlikely ally in the European Commission, whose normally vilified bureaucrats have complained that the UK could be in breach of the EU's single market rules; Britain has until 23 November to prove its commitment to consumers' rights.

Yes, consumer rights. For cross-border shopping is regarded not as tax evasion but as a fundamental right by the EU.

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