Like most travelers, something that puzzled me when I first started traveling extensively was how to "beat the system" when it comes to souvenirs. I wanted items to remember my trip by, but I didn't want to get gauged or, even worse, waste money voluntarily.
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1. Tourist traps are part of it
Admit that even you, my sensible luxury traveler, will buy junk at a tourist trap and that's just part of it. A bit of advice - if you select a tasteful item, no one needs to know it came from a junk shop. Another piece of advice - if you see something you like and you're in town for a while, peek around. Often these types of shops have the same products, so you may find a better price on the same piece!
2. Gift shops at churches
Shop at historic churches. Some of the most tasteful souvenirs I've purchased came from the gift shops of historic churches (Winchester Cathedral, St. Paul's, St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Canterbury Cathedral, Bath Abbey). And, it's nice to support the upkeep of the historic (and expensive) buildings.
In my book, it's hard to beat pictures of the place you've visited (pictures taken by a real photographer, that is, not by me! Though of course I have plenty of those, too).
I'm of two minds when it comes to this - often, I commit the cardinal travel "sin" of buying a mass printed picture (not framed, obviously) at a tourist shop for a few dollars and framing it at home. Or, if I'm not in a major city, I like to splurge on an antique picture or architectural sketch (small), that I can easily fit in my suitcase.
4. Christmas Ornaments
I've often found tasteful Christmas ornaments that are reasonably priced. Always a nice way to remember your trips, each year as you set up the tree! And, even better, they're small and often come in boxes (or are flat, metal, and impossible to break).
5. Know what you will do with it
Don't buy it unless you know where it will go in your house or what you will do with it. The quintessentially bad "vacation purchase" is the $250, weirdly shaped vase that does not match your home and ends up in a closet.
If you're considering a luxury purchase, remember that, depending on where you are, you may pay very high sales tax. For example, in Europe, the VAT (which stands for value added tax) is often 20% of the price of your item. Non-Europeans are not required to pay it, so you can get it refunded at the airport by waiting in a VERY LONG and very inefficient line. Many a traveler has left hundreds of dollars behind for fear of missing their flight. Additionally, you need particular documentation to get the refund - be sure you have everything before you leave the store. If you're a true big spender, you can get special treatment - ask about this at a luxury store before you leave.
Splurge on items that are worth it. Well, duh, right? This goes without saying. However, keep that in mind. This is personal choice. For me, a Ferragamo purse from Florence was an absolute must. And you better bet I waited in that VAT line. The reverse is that, for me, I'd rather buy my Prada in the U.S. and not deal with the crowds, as I don't have the same attachment to the brand.
8. Duty Free
Don't forget duty free. If the item is more important than the experience (which can especially be true for items that will be gifts), remember that in the massive, luxurious international terminals across Europe, you can get your Louis Vuitton, duty free, while you wait for your plane, without having to wait in the VAT line for the refund. That said, of course the experience is not the same as buying it after too much wine in the City of Lights.
9. Online Shopping
Remember - if you can't find a gift for someone on your list, you can always buy something online when you get home. Your friends and family would prefer that you enjoy your trip, rather than spending too much time looking for a gift. I found several lovely tartan blankets on Amazon after we returned from Edinburgh.
10. Don't get scammed
If it seems too good to be true, it is. Many traditionally made local products are quite expensive. If you find a version that's "designed in [Country X]," that means it's mass produced in a factory, often not in the country you're visiting.
If you're looking to make a luxury purchase and you're not sure where to do it, ask the concierge at your hotel to recommend a boutique. The best example of this is wool products in Edinburgh. If you're looking to drop a few quid on a wool blanket, ask the concierge to recommend a reputable dealer. If it's anything like my experience, they may even recommend a personal friend, which is always a special treat.
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