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 a few special items to remember my trip by, but I didn't want to get take advantage of by unscrupulous vendors, or, even worse, waste money voluntarily.
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*post updated July, 2019
1. How to survive shopping at tourist traps
First things first: how do we define a "tourist trap shop?" Well, generally a small shop, full to the brim of souvenirs - Pinocchio Christmas ornaments, tiny maple-leaf-shaped jars of maple syrup, replicas of the local cathedral, and t-shirts with jaunty slogans. They're located near train stations, in airports, on the "main drag" where all the tourists are congregated, and most commonly, surrounding the biggest tourist attraction in town - the Duomo, the Colosseum, or the Tower of London. That said, I would not include shops run by most tourist destinations in this group. Many churches have lovely gift shops, as do the Royal Palaces in the U.K. More on this, later on.
And second things second: admit that even you, my sensible luxury traveler, will buy junk at a tourist trap and that's just part of it. In fact, some of these items will probably become some of your favorite souvenirs! 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 all of these types of shops have the same products in a given city, so you may find a better price on the same piece, or you may find it at a time that's more convenient to carry back to your hotel - there's generally no rush.
That said, a tourist trap shops, I would not recommend spending a lot of money on any specific item. Also, be skeptical about "local" or "handmade" claims. I would pick up a small Christmas ornament or a t-shirt for your baby niece, perhaps costing a couple of dollars/pounds/Euros. But, don't buy the number one souvenir from your trip at a shop like this - it probably was not made in the country you're in and it's probably not worth the price you're about to pay.
2. Buying souvenirs *at* tourist attractions
One of my top recommendations is to shop at historic churches and palaces. Some of the most tasteful souvenirs I've purchased came from the gift shops of historic churches, including Winchester Cathedral, St. Paul's, St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Canterbury Cathedral, and Bath Abbey. They often have nice tea towels and mugs, with the entire city on them, not just that specific attraction and, of course, Christmas ornaments. And, naturally, it's nice to use your spending to support the upkeep of the historic (and expensive) buildings.
Many of the larger tourist destinations have gorgeous gift shops. I often spend quite a while in art museums' shops, and I think my "favourite" gift shop of all time is that of Buckingham Palace.
3. Buying prints on vacation
In my book, it's hard to beat a souvenir image of the place you've visited. I'd count these as pictures taken by a real photographer, that is, not by me! Though of course I have plenty of those, too. That said, photographs or paintings can be extremely expensive and can be prime real estate for ripping off tourists.
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. This can be a money-saving approach and, it falls into the category of no-one-knows-this-came-from-a-tourist-shop. 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. Finding the best Christmas ornaments on vacation
While traveling, I've often found tasteful Christmas ornaments that are reasonably priced. Ornaments are always a nice way to remember your trips, each year as you pull them out of their storage box, one-by-one, and set-up your tree! It's one of my favorite parts of the holidays.
And, perhaps the most significant attribute of Christmas ornaments is that they're small and are often packaged in their own, individual boxes, which keep them safe not only for travel, but also for storage in the years to come. Or often the ornaments themselves are flat, metal, and impossible to break in your suitcase.
5. Know what you will do with your souvenir before you buy
Avoiding heat-of-the-moment buys is one of the hardest parts of making smart vacation purchases. Don't buy an item unless you know specifically where it will go in your house or what you will do with it, once you get it home. The quintessentially bad "vacation purchase" is the $250, weirdly shaped vase that is difficult to transport home, does not match your home, isn't "handmade," and ends up in a closet and then a charity shop when you move home 15 years after that trip.
6. Thinking about taxes when shopping on vacation
In fairness, taxes are the last thing anyone wants to think about on vacation! However, if you're considering a luxury purchase, remember that, depending on where you are, you may pay extremely high sales tax.
For example, in Europe, the VAT (which stands for "value added tax") is often 20% of the price of your new luxury item. Non-Europeans are not required to pay it, so you can get it refunded. Ok, this sounds like good news - but be mindful: this can be a time-consuming process and it occurs during the worst possible time in your trip: at the airport, before you go through security, by waiting in a VERY LONG and often inefficient line. I repeat: you have to get through this line, with the forms and the language barrier before you go through security. To be safe, you should factor this into the amount of time you allow at the airport before your flight. Many a traveler has left hundreds of dollars of unnecessary taxes behind for fear of missing their international flight home. Additionally, you need to have very specific documentation to get the refund - be sure you have everything before you leave the store when you make your purchase in the first place. The store employees know what to give you, but it's best to confirm with them a couple of times that you have it all, as depending on what store you're in, they might be used to dealing with local shoppers who have to pay the taxes and don't require all of this documentation.
If you're a true big spender, you can get special treatment - ask about this at a luxury store before you leave.
7. Splurging on vacation purchases
Splurge on items that are *worth it to you.* Well, that sort of goes without saying, right? But, it's incredibly hard to decide in the moment whether something is worth a splurge! Of course, this is a very personal choice. For me, a Ferragamo purse from Florence was an absolute must, as I love Ferragamo and have always dreamed of visiting their original shop and making a special purchase. And you better bet I waited in that VAT line in Rome's airport, which was chaos. The reverse is that, for me personally, 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. Navigating duty free shopping at the airport
Don't forget about the option of duty free! If owning a specific item from a country is more important than the experience, remember that in the massive, luxurious international terminals across Europe, you can get your items duty free, while you wait for your plane, without having to wait in the VAT line for the refund, as you'll never pay it in the first place.
The duty free areas often contain every brand you can imagine - from Hermes in Paris to Harrod's in Heathrow. They also have more "normal" items, such as alcohol, perfume, and make-up and of course a few of those tourist-trap type shops with t-shirts and Christmas ornaments. Duty free shopping can be especially convenient for gifts, since the recipients won't know that you picked it up at the airport! That said, of course the experience is not the same as buying a Louis Vuitton bag after too much wine in the City of Lights. And, of course, I would not recommend this approach for an item you truly have your heart set upon, as you do not have control over which terminal you will leave from, and not all terminals have the same duty free options. It can be difficult, or impossible, to travel to another terminal to complete your duty free shopping. And don't get too excited about the alcohol sales - they package it up very tightly, so that it can't be consumed in the airport or on the plane.
9. Online shopping after you return home
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. For example, I found several lovely tartan blankets on Amazon after we returned from Edinburgh.
10. Don't get scammed
Always remember: 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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