Say 'I do' to a booze cruise
Tanya Sweeney spoke to one savvy bride who stocked up on the good stuff in France for her wedding party without suffering any bad debt hangovers
It's a truth universally acknowledged that Ireland is an expensive place to live; even more expensive if you want to live the good life. And when it comes to momentous events such as weddings, christenings and 21st birthdays, taking to the open sea is a great way of keeping budgets from going overboard.
Due in part to the economic climate, buying alcohol in bulk abroad is fast becoming a tactic that a growing number of Irish people planning big events are warming to. Ferry towns including Calais, Roscoff and Cherbourg provide easy access points for Irish travellers on the hunt for bargains galore.
Back in 2006, the Celtic Tiger was still some way off from getting stuffed and mounted, but bride-to-be Elanor King still had a firm hand on the purse strings.
As she planned her wedding with husband James at the family home in Killiney, Co Dublin, the London-based 35-year-old opted for a marquee in the back garden for 100 guests.
"The marquee service was all-inclusive, which cut down the cost on things such as plates and cutlery," she recalls. "We wanted to spend more on the party than on the 'fringes'. I decorated the cake myself and made the invites and table decorations. My dress was €73. Because we were having it at home in a marquee, it definitely had more a 'we're hosting a party' feel."
Despite her budget, generosity was high on Elanor's list of priorities, and she opted for an open bar all day and night. Even so, Elanor promptly decided on another wily cost- slashing measure.
"My dad's long been insanely generous, so we figured on about three bottles of red and white for each table," she says. "We broke the guest list into beer and wine drinkers and then we just doubled the figures."
In lieu of Champagne proper, Elanor went for Cremant de Bourgogne, a sparkling wine that's known for being every bit as delicious as its more expensive counterpart.
"With Champagne, you're only ever really paying for the label anyway," she says. "The Cremant ended up being less than the white wine – around €5 a bottle. We went for a white wine that was €5.49 a bottle and a red that was €6 a bottle, and we ended up paying no corkage with the marquee."
Says Arwen Foley of AA (Automobile Association) Ireland: "If you're providing the wine, Champagne and other alcohol for your wedding then a trip to France could save you a lot of money. Even if you're not planning a big day out and you're simply on a driving holiday in France, it's worth stocking up."
Scratch the surface, in fact, and the savings can be rather significant, she says.
"Say for example you're buying yourself a bottle of Guigal Cotes Du Rhone Blanc Vintage 2011 in one of Ireland's leading off-licences, it will cost about €14.99," explains Arwen. "However, the same bottle can be bought in a French off-licence for just €7.39. There's also the Champagne – a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut NV costs an astonishing €55 per bottle here, while in France you can buy it for €33.89.
"Using these bottles of wine as examples, if you're buying at home for a wedding that size, it can cost as much as €5,998.
"Taking a small van on a ferry and adding that to the cost of buying the wine and Champagne in France, you could make a saving of around €2,500. If you know your wines, you can choose even cheaper options than these or buy your alcohol in the local hypermarket to save more."
With her own cost-saving plan very much intact, Elanor dispatched her brother Tom and his friend Brendan, both of whom had access to a van, down to Burgundy one weekend to pick up the consignment.
Leaving Rosslare on an overnight ferry, the two had planned to pick up the order that Elanor had previously placed with a hypermarket in Burgundy. Alas, they hadn't factored in one small blip.
"The hypermarket was closed on Sundays, meaning that they had to go to an off-licence instead," explains Elanor. "I don't think it occurred to anyone to stay on an extra day and wait for the hypermarket to open, as the ferry tickets had been booked. But I trusted my brother in picking out alternatives as he's pretty good at that."
Taking a scenic trip to France and making a weekend out of it is one thing, but a certain degree of planning and preparation is still very much needed.
"The French have all sorts of requirements for motorists," explains Arwen. "If you break down, you're required to have a warning triangle and a reflective jacket. You also have to be wearing the jacket when you get out of your broken-down car, so keeping it in the boot won't suffice.
"You'll also need the original registration document (not a copy) or a Vehicle on Hire Certificate and your Motor Insurance Certificate. Under French law, you're also required to BYOB – that's bring your own breathalyser – although you won't be fined for not having one."
Breaking down on a foreign motorway is probably every traveller's worst nightmare – made all the worse, no doubt, when there's precious cargo involved.
"Breaking down in France can be extremely expensive; it can cost as much as €179 just to tow you off the motorway, which doesn't even include the price of fixing your car," says Arwen. "If you do break down, we at the AA have our own emergency call centre in Lyon and can attend to you just as well as if you were in Ireland. Cover can include replacement car and recovery of your own car all the way back to Ireland if that's what you need."
Heading home with their 10 cases of wine, beers and spirits, Brendan and Tom encountered yet another roadblock: the customs men at Cherbourg. As neither of them were getting married, and they were not the ones who were paying for the alcohol, they were without proof that the consignment was indeed for a family wedding.
"The men in customs kept asking them, 'where are you born?'" says Elanor. "They kept saying 'Dublin', but of course on the passport it said 'Baile Atha Cliath'. So that caused some confusion. They simply wanted to know why they had so much alcohol.
"I'm pretty sure we'd have had to pay duty if they thought they weren't buying the wine for personal reasons. Happily, they were able to blag their way through – they probably looked so stunned that it worked."
According to Arwen, this is an oversight that could easily put paid to your wine- buying savings.
"There are limits to the amount you can import from France," she explains. "You are limited to 90 litres of wine, which is 120 bottles, or 60 litres of sparkling wine. The more sparkling wine you buy, the less non-sparkling wine you will be entitled to bring in. The limit for spirits is significantly less, at 10 litres.
"If you are planning a wedding or any other party, you can exceed these quantities so long as you can demonstrate at customs that the goods are for your personal use and not for resale. This means that at least one of the people transporting the alcohol will need to be the bride or groom or the person paying for it, the father of the bride for example.
"You will need to convince the customs officer that the alcohol is for a wedding, so bring any documentation you have related to the big day, perhaps a receipt for the wedding reception. It's also very important to hold on to your receipts as customs may also ask you to prove that the duty and VAT have been paid for."
In all, Elanor believes that she saved at least 50pc of her party budget by buying the wedding alcohol in France. Best of all, the imbibing continues long after the big day.
"Believe it or not, we were still drinking the wedding wine for five years at home afterwards," she laughs. "The red wine lasted a year, and the white wine lasted another couple of years. In fact, I still think we might even have some of the dessert wine left. Definitely money well spent."
Adding European Breakdown Cover to your AA Membership costs €119 for more than two weeks cover. See theaa.ie for details. Irish Ferries sail to Roscoff and Cherbourg from Rosslare daily. See irishferries.com for information