Taking travel home with you: buying souvenirs abroad

Sapa, Vietnam

Vagabond travel is about the experience. It’s less focused on the “stuff” you bring and buy, and more about the freedoms as an open minded traveler with a light backpack. Rolf shows us the pros of traveling stuff-less in his Round The World challenge trip, but if you know what you’re looking for and have some extra space, souvenir hunting abroad can lead to some extraordinary experiences.

I’m not talking about toting Portuguese ceramics around Europe or filling your backpack with I Love (insert city name) t-shirts at every stop. I’m talking about small pieces that will always remind you of your time away from home. In many places, you can get a beautiful local print for less than what a mass produced picture would cost at a Linens ‘N Things.

Here are some rules I like to live by on the road:

1.) Even if you don’t buy, interacting with shopkeepers is a great way to glimpse into local life. Window shopping is free, and can lead to some hysterical experiences, seen here as Rolf explores a market in Morocco on his No Baggage Challenge.

2.) Research what kinds of things your destination has to offer. Know the price range for a Nepali cashmere scarf before hitting the streets, and also look into potential scams. Bangkok is known for luring tourists to faux gem stores, charging customers competitive prices for lookalike gems.

3.) Analyze the quality of the item in question. Not only do most local vendors not have return policies, but you’ll likely be onto a new city or even home before you notice it’s cheaply made or broken.

Kathmandu storefront

4.) Look for fair trade shops when purchasing handicrafts, which ensure that the artists earn fair wages and work in good conditions. Friends International shop in Phnom Penh is one of my favorite examples.

5.) Watch out for breakables…If you’re browsing the Czech glass shops of Prague, don’t stand too close…If you break, you buy.

6.) It’s fun to say “I got this in Laos!” But make sure you’re buying for the right reasons. Do you love what you see? Is it unique to the region? Is it something that’s truly worth carrying in a backpack until you return home?

If room in my backpack permits, here are my favorite things to look for abroad:

Postcards and stationary: These are great reminders of world travel, and can also be shared with others! Each postcard or letter sent means less “stuff” in your backpack.

Handcrafted jewelry: I look for something that is unique, wearable and won’t break the bank. One of my favorite things is a small silver bracelet from the Black Hmong woman who walked with me for 5 hours while trekking in Sapa, Vietnam.

Handwoven crafts: Travels in South America and Southeast Asia have brought me to incredible villages where handwoven products often take weeks to make and cost less than 10 dollars.

Artwork: most small prints can lay flat in a suitcase or fit between a book, and can then be framed at home.

What do you think? Have you fallen into the tourist trap of useless “stuff?” Where have you gotten your favorite souvenirs? Do you have any tips for other travelers who are interested in picking up a souvenir or two?

unnecessary purchase...

Posted by | Comments (6)  | February 28, 2012
Category: General, Travel Bargains

6 Responses to “Taking travel home with you: buying souvenirs abroad”

  1. Rolf Potts Says:

    Thanks for this, Sarah! To add to this, here are some of my road-won souvenir tips:

    1) Don’t confine the notion of what a souvenir is. Souvenir boutiques will be found in abundance in any major tourist area, but that doesn’t mean you must confine your souvenir-hunt to specialty shops. Any token of your trip — from restaurant place mats to pressed leaves to local candy — can serve as a personal keepsake. If seeking gifts for loved ones at home, check department stores and supermarkets before you hit the souvenir shop — odds are you’ll find something cheaper (and just as authentic) in these types of places.

    2) Save souvenir shopping until the end of the journey. Let a souvenir be a souvenir — a keepsake of experience — and don’t go off shopping for knickknacks before you’ve had some real travel adventures. Not only will this give you a social context for your destination before you start commemorating it with collectibles, but it will also save you the hassle of dragging this new found loot around with you as your journey progresses. An added bonus is that, as a shopper, you will have a better sense for the price and quality of your souvenirs once you’ve traveled and made some comparisons.

    3) The experience is more important than the keepsake. In the end, shopping anywhere is still just shopping. Don’t let the hunt for souvenirs get in the way of amazing travel experiences.

  2. Susan Martin Says:

    Sarah great advice..I’ve been known to purchase souvenirs of questionable quality that sit on a shelf in our basement. Thanks Susan

  3. Hannah Says:

    I could probably fill an entire library bookshelf with junk that I have purchased on various trips that have little to no meaning. Thank you for these helpful tips that I will keep in mind when traveling – no more useless souvenir buying!

  4. Ted Beatie Says:

    I am a total sucker for pieces of interesting art while traveling, such that after moving into a smaller place there isn’t room for everything, but nonetheless, feel like every piece is worth it and a memory. Most times, I try to find something small – a hand-painted tile from Costa Rica or the Netherlands, a wooden mask from Haiti or Mexico, a boomerang from Australia..

    Clothes are another great thing, I have a dive tshirt from Fiji, an elephant tshirt from Thailand, a Beer Lao tshirt from Laos, and a djellaba from Morocco.

    Very occasionally, something bigger will seize onto my consciousness. I hand-carried a large 2’x3′ mirror across Morocco, and it is pretty much my favorite travel souvenir.

    I like having these reminders of places, which keep the memories and emotions alive.

  5. Amandah Says:

    I think it’s easy to fall into the ‘souvenir trap’ when you travel with kids because they may want everything they see. It’s best to point them in the direction of memorable souvenirs like a book, map, etc. This way they’ll have unforgettable mementos from family travels.

  6. Souvenirs: To Buy Or Not To Buy? A guide to travel shopping. Says:

    […] at Vagablogging, have a read of the useful rules when it comes to buying worthwhile souvenirs and fitting them in […]