You likely wouldn’t shop for souvenirs in a store called “Thoughtless n’ Overpriced.”
But chances are a lot of the trinkets you’ve brought home from trips say just that. It’s not what you intended, of course. You were busy, you didn’t particularly know where to shop or what to get, and you desperately grabbed for whatever you could find downtown or at the airport.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Have a souvenir strategy.
If part of the point of trip planning is to save money, time, and aggravation once you reach your destination, it pays to incorporate souvenirs into that plan. “Have a total shopping budget in mind and be sure to take a list with you,” suggests Ann Lombardi, a tour leader and co-owner of The Trip Chicks. Also resist adding people to the list as you go just because you feel obligated, she says.
It pays to invest a few minutes in thinking about your audience. ”I love to purchase Christmas ornaments during my travels,” says Traveling Mamas blogger and former flight attendant Beth Blair, “but such a gift wouldn’t be that special for my parents. Instead, knowing they love coffee, I search for a bag of local beans.”
Local is the simple key to a lot of successful souvenir buys, concurs New York-based shopping writer Jennifer Paull, especially when your selections reflect your experiences on the trip.”My rule of thumb is to find something not easily found back at home and preferably something with a story behind it,” Paull says. “Even a beer mug becomes a more meaningful gift when you tell the recipient about the brewery visit or crazy bar night behind it.”
Shop where locals do.
Some of the more inexpensive and local souvenirs in your destination can be found in places you may take for granted at home – local craft fairs, farmers markets, and a favorite of the experts interviewed, flea markets, which Lombardi notes are particularly fertile sources of “vintage postcards, neat prints, or old watercolors which can be framed.”
And if you’re overseas, Paull suggests that ordinary stores can yield extraordinary gifts. “In grocery stores, I look for interesting sweets, snacks, and condiments,” especially those with cool, eye-catching, and sturdy packaging,” she says. “In pharmacies, you can find fun, unusual variations on basic toiletries —green tea-flavored toothpaste, for instance. And in stationery stores you can find pens, calendars, and note cards with fresh-to-us designs.”
Don’t flock to the schlock.
In the 67-plus countries she’s visited, Lombardi has seen her share of cheesy, meaningless gifts as well as the tour guides that push them. At tour bus stops and other tourist centers, “impulse buying along with expensive pricing is rampant,” Lombardi says, leading to what she calls a “flock effect,” buying recklessly because that’s what’s expected. Paull adds that clusters of shops with competing merchandise should be avoided at all costs. “Even if their prices are competitive (and that’s a big if), the souvenirs are often shopworn, over familiar, or wobbly knockoffs prone to Sudden Disintegration In Your Suitcase Syndrome,” she says.
If you’re partial to gift shops, Paull adds, “make it one in a museum or other cultural institution you’ve enjoyed [on the trip] — you’ll be supporting the place twice over.” Likewise, Lombardi likes to seek out gifts that support causes, such as “bread dough Christmas decorations and pins made by orphaned children in South America, spice potpourri kits sold by local scout troops, or baked items made by students raising money to combat world hunger.”
Help build a collection.
Buying keepsakes that loved ones can add to collections can make all of your lives easier and won’t necessarily take a toll on your budget. Frequent business traveler and AllBusiness.com blogger Ken Walker scopes local shops for inexpensive but classy animal figurines for his wife and picks up unusual shot glasses for himself. Looking for quirkier? Try socks. Lombardi has seen collections built from “socks with symbols of other countries, for instance Edelweiss in Austria, alphorns in Switzerland, and leprechauns in Ireland.”
Stuck for what to buy for your child under two? Before plunging into the land of overpriced and silly baby gifts, keep in mind that your little one doesn’t have to receive his souvenir the year you buy it; take it upon yourself to make that funky, locally-carved pencil you found the start of his pencil collection. Blair has also taken to “searching for small maps of where I’ve been. My travels are a wonderful geography lesson for the kids.”
Consider these free or almost-free gifts.
Assuming it’s legal to scoop up and transport what’s growing in your destination, some souvenirs can be dirt cheap. Walker knows a guy “who collects a test-tube full of dirt from everywhere he goes, labels them, and keeps them in a drawer in his home.” Memorable for Paull was the “virtual beach” a friend once brought back for her — “some sand and shells, dried grasses and flowers from a bluff, and a little container of seawater. It was thoughtful, evocative, and didn’t cost a dime.”
One of the more successful souvenirs Blair picked up was a simple packet of sunflower seeds from Kansas City. “My kids and I planted them a couple of months ago [and] they’re blooming beautifully right now. This is probably the best ‘souvenir’ I have ever brought back. You don’t see sunflowers growing very often here in Arizona.”
Know when to buy.
If you see a trinket that’s truly special, especially if you want it for yourself, trust your instincts, as “you might not see it later on during the trip,” Lombardi says. But for the most part there’s an advantage to waiting. Shopping too early in the trip usually means you’ll find similar, less expensive items later. Adapt your strategy to how much you’ll be moving around. “Keep in mind your overall travel plans when buying any souvenir that's physically bigger and heavier than a bagel,” Paull suggests. “Are you switching hotels almost every night? Then save more of your souvenir shopping for the end of your trip if possible. Are you comfortably ensconced in one place? Then it's usually more fun to spread the shopping around—-just don't forget the limits of your luggage.”
As for packing, weigh the costs of extra bag and heavy bag surcharges against shipping. If an item is fragile and inexpensive, you might stow it in your carry-on – throw a little bubble wrap into your suitcase for that purpose, Lombardi suggests. And if you can’t avoid the tricky combination of fragile and expensive, Blair urges letting the seller “pack and ship the item insured. Hoping the item doesn’t get damaged going through security and on the airplane is simply asking for heartache if something does happen.”