The word souvenir is French and means “memory”. I love bringing back something physical as a memory of the place I’ve visited, apart from lots of photographs. I also love picking up small gifts for family and friends. Of course, a lot people either prefer to bring back nothing at all or bring back plenty of things that no one really wants. If not done right, souvenir shopping can become a total hassle. I learnt through years of making many mistakes and am now a confident souvenir-shopper.
This is a complete guide on the What, When and Where of souvenir shopping and it can easily guide you through the otherwise tedious process of picking up gifts from your travels while being easy on your wallet.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BUY?
· Stay away from the usual suspects - Ditch the fridge magnets, keyrings, snow globes and mugs (the only thing mugs and snow globes do is take up baggage space). They’re impersonal, often of low quality and serve no purpose. I know these are the easiest options, especially if you need to buy for people who don’t really count as family and close friends but there are so many more options you can explore that would probably cost lesser and would still be more authentic than these typical souvenirs! Read further to find out.
· Think/Plan – There is no point in mindlessly buying something for the sake of buying. The art of gifting is wonderfully satisfying, provided you take some personal interest in it. Planning in advance and noting the kind of souvenirs that your loved ones would appreciate can save a lot of time when you’re doing the actual shopping bit.
· Go Local - As far as possible, try and buy locally produced, plastic-free products – this not only helps the local artisans, but also results in you taking back an authentic souvenir. Local products may be more expensive than buying a fridge magnet or a keyring (which is often likely to be mass produced in a different country), and I’m often tempted to buy whatever is economically feasible especially if I’m expected to bring back goodies for a large group of people including colleagues and neighbours. However, I still try to find locally produced souvenirs that don’t burn a hole in my pocket and am often successful in finding really cool locally produced gifts.
· Set a Tradition - Find the one thing that can work as a souvenir for your home. Every member of your home can pick that up every time they travel and make it your home’s unique tradition. At my home, it’s bells! You’d find bells from different countries and towns. For a lot of people, it’s fridge magnets (although I’m not the biggest fan of these, if it’s your thing then go for it!). You’d often find refrigerators buried beneath a vertical sea of magnets depicting various parts of the world. Postcards are an absolute treasure as well. You can create a wall of postcards for your home.
· Get a Customised Souvenir – If possible, try and get one customised gift from each of your travel, especially for yourself. Something with your name or image on it – like a hand-painted portrait/caricature from street artists (something you can easily do for as less as $5 in most of Europe and South America).
· Alternative Souvenir Ideas - Spices, Olives, Olive Oil, Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, Maple Syrup – small packs of these specialty foods (or even non-perishables like locally made body soaps) work as great gifts. These are locally produced, useful, easily available in any supermarket (you don’t even have to visit the souvenir stores and markets) and are often easier to carry. This is ideal for gifting to people who don’t require a “memory” of the place they personally haven’t visited. But, please be cautious with seeded fruits and some food items that the law may not permit you to transport outside the country.
· Gifting Experiences – If buying a product in memory of your travel is not your cup of tea, then gift yourself an experience (say, an Opera performance or a Sky-Diving experience) and keep the tickets in a scrapbook or a memory box. I do this often and now have various files and boxes filled with tickets, passes, information slips and even safety warnings. Despite this, I also buy souvenirs. What can I say? I’m an unapologetic collectibles junkie.
· Free Souvenirs – So what does one do if they’re completely broke or have had absolutely no time to buy a souvenir for themselves and others? Fear not, you have multiple options. For example, you can scout for things in your hotel room and if you spot sachets of local tea (if you don’t, just ask for some – this is usually free), pick that up and use it as a souvenir. It’s not ideal but it’s better than heading back empty-handed. You can also pick seashells from the beach or prettily shaped fallen leaves and paste them on to a plain card with a nice message for your loved ones. Sometimes, museums give small freebies as promotion and these can work as your rainy-day souvenir. Therefore, the next time do not smile and politely refuse something being given away for free, it can come in handy.
WHERE SHOULD YOU BUY?
· Never Airports - I think I’ll start this one with where one should not buy. Airports! It’s hard to believe that people still buy souvenirs at airports. It’s expensive, difficult to pack inside your already stuffed bag and your options rarely go beyond the usual magnets, keyrings and snow globes.
· No Duty Free - Also, do not buy anything at the Airport Duty Free shops, especially chocolates. Contrary to popular opinion, chocolates are not cheaper at Airport Duty Free shops! Very few goods are cheaper at Airport Duty Free shops when compared to the regular market. South-Asians including myself have a habit of bringing back chocolates as gifts for people and the biggest mistake we make is picking them up at airports. The chocolates are neither locally produced nor cheap. Essentially, you’d be a gifting something made in the UAE when your trip was to Greece!
· Avoid Stores Outside Tourist Spots – These are often not the cheapest and offer only the stereotypical range of products that are mass produced in a different country. Having said this, if you are pressed for time and cannot scout around for better options, there’s no harm in buying a few essential pieces from such stores.
· Try Local Markets and Supermarkets - The easiest places to buy from are the markets and supermarkets (for food souvenirs). They offer a wider range and you can often bargain for better deals.
· Ask Locals – Always ask your friendly hotel staff or taxi driver for advice on buying authentic gifts. They will guide you to the best places depending on your requirements.
WHEN SHOULD YOU BUY?
· Last Day - Always buy your souvenirs on the last day of your vacation i.e. the day before you leave the place, not the day you’d be leaving the town (that can get super-stressful). Reserve some time for this depending on how many souvenirs you want to buy.
· What if I spot something earlier? - Observe and enquire about rates for various souvenirs every time you see some in stores, but do not buy it until the last day – this way you can be sure you’ve bought it from the most fair-priced shop. However, if you’re convinced that you probably aren’t going to return to that area again and surely want this product you’ve been eyeing, it’s okay to buy it at that point.
There you go! I hope these tips make your souvenir shopping simple, easy and happy.