Monday, 24 Jun 2024

The British booze cruise to France is booming despite Remoaners’ Brexit forecast

Dan Compton and Nick Binney are harbouring a secret. It’s one they’ve known about for years. They’ve tried telling their friends about it, but none of them buy it – it sounds too good to be true.

The secret? The great British booze cruise, which once saw hordes of thirsty Brits dashing across the Channel in pursuit of high-end wines at bargain basement prices, is back.

In fact, it appears it never went away and reports of its demise were somewhat premature.

We meet Dan and Nick in the queue for a ferry from Dover to Calais standing by Dan’s rather luxurious looking Jaguar XE. He clearly has expensive tastes.

Dan, who has been travelling to France to top up his collection of tipples since the early 1990s, explains how he and Nick became booze-cruising mates.

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He says: “Our kids went to school together. I’ve done it for decades, I always used to come over.

“I just said to Nick ‘oh, I do this booze run’ and everyone always used to go to me ‘oh, why do you bother?’ and I’d say well ‘I save fifty per cent’.”

Unlike many of Dan’s other friends, Nick, who’s now retired but was a wealthy foreign exchange trader, knows good value when he sees it. It was, after all, his job.

And good value booze-cruising appears to be alive and well – despite countless death notices over the last 15 years where a weak pound, cheap prices in British supermarkets and then Brexit were all credited with having rendered the exercise pointless.

One store the Express visited, the aptly named Calais Wine Superstore, is at such pains to remind its Anglo customer base of the savings on offer, that it prints how much you’ve avoided paying on your receipt.

For Hampshire resident Dan, 24 bottles of wine and 12 bottles of fizz comes to £321.48 (€374.88).

Back in Blighty, such a hefty haul would have set him back a hell of a lot more. £601.74 more, to be precise. Dan’s well-kept secret has saved him a small fortune.

Scepticism about the viability of the booze cruise, which admittedly is probably some 30 years past its heyday, may well be down to Brexit myth-making.

In January 2021, the rules on how much you could take back across the Channel were tightened. Hard-core wine guzzlers could no longer carry back as much as their car suspensions would allow.

Customers are now limited to 24 bottles of wine, 12 bottles of bubbles, 42 litres of beer – that’s 14 cases of 12 25cl cans – and four litres of spirits and liquors.

That’s still enough to keep most of us going for weeks, if not months, and the quota is personal rather than for the whole party.

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Anne and Mark from Wokingham in Berkshire, who are stopping off at the store on the way home from Spain, point out that for anyone vaguely resembling your average drinker the personal allowance of cut-price poison is plenty.

Asked if the quota was unduly restrictive, Mark explains: “It’s not, especially as it’s per person, so if four people came over you could take home 100 bottles of wine – 96 actually.”

Savvy booze cruisers from further afield than the south of England are also lapping up the discounts.

Michael Strother, 48, and his wife Suzanne, 45, have travelled to Calais from Blackpool to make the most of the cheap and cheerful prices and aren’t at all put off by the personal allowance.

Suzanne, who works in adult education, says: “This was a trial run and we’re staying here until Saturday, then we’re heading back. It’s worth the trip.”

Michael, who works for the city’s famous illuminations, adds: “You might just sit there thinking ‘shall I? Shall I?’ – just go and do it.”

The pair said they were incorporating the booze run into their holiday and next time would bring their children.

“We’ll come back and we’ll make more of a holiday of it with the kids, maybe branch out a bit further to somewhere else, maybe to Dunkirk.”

Suzanne chimed in: “As we’re getting older, the kids are grown up now, it’s a chance to come out.”

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The couple, who have arrived at the wine mecca in their Winnebago, spend £111 on their fill, which would have cost them £269 back home, according to their receipt.

As well as couples, groups of lads also take the time to pop in to stock up.

Rob, unlike many of the other punters Express speaks to, wasn’t planning on stopping in, but he and his mates, en route back from a cycling tour of the Alps, are early for their train and they decide to take the opportunity to pick up some bargains.

He reveals that despite not planning a trip to the wine vendor, he’s been booze-hunting here before.

Rob, from Tadworth in Surrey, says from the superstore car park as his friend loads their orange Ford van: “I was probably anywhere from 20 to 25-years-old coming over for a gold trip actually… and decided to stop in here. I can’t even remember what I bought it was that long ago. But, yeah it was a while back, but the layout is exactly the same.

“I’d completely forgotten it was here and the lads were like ‘where are we going to stop’ and I Google mapped it. I didn’t know it at the time until we pulled up [and] I thought ‘hold on a minute, I recognise that’.

Showing off his haul he says: “I’ve got 10 bottles of wine and my friend’s got two cases.”

He adds that the savings are “really good” and that he “certainly can’t complain”, suggesting Brits should think about making a trip over the Channel if they’re “having a party” or dropping by if they’re heading somewhere else in France.

Thierry Leprêtre, a director and shareholder of the superstore admits that the summer immediately after the Brexit vote was the biggest his company, established in 1993, had ever seen.

Such was the anxiety among price-conscious alcohol aficionados that the vote to leave would see the great British booze cruise sink, that many flocked to the French ports to grab as much plonk as they could.

But Thierry insists that the post-Brexit restrictions really are all bark and no bite, and fears Brits put off by the prospect of curbs on their carry-home are “missing out”.

For those that are hell-bent on loading a car or van full of booze, Thierry’s advice is to “come with more people” as the restrictions are “easy to get around” with enough manpower.

What’s more, punters can take advantage of the “free ferry” fare which the superstore provides for those spending more than £300.

Shoppers can then reclaim the 15 per cent VAT when they cross back into Britain, providing they’ve spent over £100.

Thierry speculates that the most anyone has spent in the store was around £2,000, which would have saved that big spender “about £800 compared to UK prices”.

He accepts the number of Brits cashing in is a far cry from what the likes of Calais and Boulogne experienced pre-millennium.

Besides the Superstore and local rivals Pidou, the Euro Discount Liquor Store and other smaller operators, the big players have long since upped sticks and moved on, without enough Brits able to quench their combined financial thirst.

Tesco and Sainsbury’s both closed their French doors in 2010 due to the relative strength of the euro.

But Thierry says during summer weekends between 60 and 80 shoppers still come through the door, “95 per cent” from the UK. He estimates that some 250 to 300 customers, by comparison, would have made the trip each equivalent weekend at the height of the booze cruise craze.

Despite the reduction in customers, the shelves remain as well-stocked as ever.

And Thierry and his competitors will be hoping the secret won’t stay a secret for long.

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