Splurge-worthy souvenirs while the dollar is strong

If you’re traveling abroad, your dollar buys a lot more this year. But that favorable exchange rate doesn’t always translate to a “sale” for those hoping to use it to their advantage on high-end souvenirs.

The U.S. dollar has gained against other currencies over the past year, most recently amid investor worries over the Greek debt crisis and a market plunge in China. Among other gains, a dollar buys 23 percent more euros, 62 percent more rubles and 21 percent more yen than a year ago, according to OANDA.

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That’s made it a great time to travel, experts say—your on-the-ground costs such as hotel and meals will be that much cheaper. Souvenirs, too. “This is such a good year for the dollar, even big-ticket items that need to be shipped may end up being cheaper,” said Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s.

But don’t assume every purchase will be a steal. (Check out the video above for some of the potential pitfalls of shopping abroad, including foreign transaction fees on credit card, fraud and airline exclusions on lost-bag reimbursement.) Here’s what’s worth bringing home:

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Fine wine and spirits. The strong dollar provides a great opportunity to bring home a standout bottle or two. “I would look for the rare bottle,” said wine reviewer Natalie MacLean, “the mature bottles, the older vintages.” Hunt at the upper end of your price range to maximize currency savings, she said. French wine merchant Millesimes lists a 2009 Lafite Rothschild for 876 euros, or about $963 at current exchange rates; at New York retailer Sherry-Lehman, the bottle sells for $1,595 before tax. It’s also smart to look for bottles that aren’t available at home, regardless of price, MacLean said.

Jewelry and gemstones. “Even with the strong dollar, the cost of diamonds is relatively stable,” said Antoinette Matlins, author of several diamond and gemstone buying guides. While there may be the occasional price break on such popular stones, shoppers are better off focusing on gems that aren’t as common or widely available stateside. Those markets are more likely to reflect pricing difference from the stronger dollar, and make for a more unique souvenir. For example, sapphires in colors other than blue, or spinel, she said.

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Designer clothing and accessories. “Americans should be traveling to Europe… basically to scoop up designer deals, for sure,” said Allison Berlin, co-founder and stylist at Le Curate. The stronger dollar and rebates for the value-added tax can mean substantial savings. For example, Louis Vuitton lists its Alma MM handbag on the French version of its site at 1,350 euros, or about $1,483; on the U.S. version of its site, the bag costs $1,810 before tax. But some designers, including Chanel, have “harmonized” prices in Europe to bring them more in line with U.S. prices, so price compare before you buy, Berlin said.

Shoppers should also be on the lookout for local designers, as well as items from big designers’ lines that aren’t available here. “Part of the beauty of shopping in Europe, you’ll have access to styles that you won’t in the United States,” she said.

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