Vacation Shopping: How To Buy Only What You’ll Love

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but most of us can’t resist shopping for something tangible to take home in memory of an incredible vacation. But, space in your suitcase is limited. How can you be sure that whatever you plan on purchasing is worth eating up some of that prime real estate?

We’ve got a few simple tips and tricks to help you decide what’s worth hauling home from your next holiday—and what’s better left behind.

1. Do Some Research Before You Go

Traveling exposes you to new cultures, different ways of thinking—and some really beautiful handmade items that you may never have seen before! However, for every authentic, carved or woven on-location item you’ll find in a market stall, three times as many are made in China.

To make sure any memorabilia you bring back is authentic, it’s best to know your stuff before hopping on a plane. Do a little research in advance about the country and the regions you’ll be visiting and find out about the area’s history, culture and if they specialize in certain types of cuisine or artisanal skills. 

Peru, Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo Food and Souvenir MarketPeru, Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo Food and Souvenir Market. Image: World Wide Gifts.

Learning a bit about the local culture can also help you figure out what you might want to pass on, like anything made from exotic animals or plants—both of which can be illegal to transport and will be met with a lot of questions when you go through customs.

Check What You Can’t Bring Back Home

What illegal items could raise some eyebrows? While the complete list can be found at the Custom and Border Patrol website, frequent offenders include:

Food Items 

Go ahead and enjoy some fresh, ripe Mediterranean tomatoes while in Europe, but don’t plan on making spaghetti with them at home. CBP will allow certain fruits and vegetables, but only if it is from a certain place and it will also depend on where the traveler will be taking them after.


Thinking about getting a knock-off purse or wallet while traveling internationally? Destinations like Hong Kong and Shanghai have high-quality counterfeit and pirated goods that are very tempting to the tourist. But be aware—if you are caught with pirated or counterfeit items in your luggage when you come back, you will lose them and may have to pay a big fine.  

Counterfeit or trademark infringed items, like designer handbags, soccer jerseys and baseball caps, are some of the most frequently confiscated by the CBP. However, CBP says travelers coming back to the states may be allowed one item of each type if it is for personal use and not to be re-sold.

Exotic Animals

This might sound like a no-brainer—after all, can an exotic animal really qualify as vacation memorabilia? Yet, from a stuffed crocodile to live birds, CBP officers say they sometimes have to seize unusual items from passenger’s bags.


CBP states that some ceramic tableware—especially from Mexico, China, Hong Kong or India—could possibly contain dangerous levels of lead in the glaze, which it warns could possibly seep into food and drinks. 

If you simply must return home with that set of silverware, CBP recommends checking the lead levels on the item before putting them to daily use.

2. Know How To Tell Good Stuff From Junk

How do you know that what you’re buying is authentic to the region? Be sure to ask the right questions: who made the item, where, how and with what materials. That little bit of research you did about the area should help you snuff out whether the items you’re interested in are the real deal or imitation goods.

Bazar del Sabado, MexicoBazar del Sabado, Mexico. Image:

If you think shopping will be on your itinerary, it’s also helpful to read up on your destination’s market culture to ensure you’re conducting yourself appropriately. Knowing whether or not to haggle and what questions to ask about potential purchases help ensure you’re polite while working to get the best deal.

3. Avoid Shopping At Chain Stores

If you’re looking for a souvenir that won’t get dusty sitting on a shelf, clothing isn’t a bad bet. Whether a cozy alpaca sweater, nicely fitted leather jacket, or even some knitted socks—clothing souvenirs are great, simply because you’ll be buying something you can actually use! Plus, each time you wear it, the piece will bring back fun memories. 

That being said, you’re better off passing on shops that you can find at home—H&M, Zara and the like. Not only will you end up paying more for those products because of higher taxes in other countries, but you won’t find anything that isn’t already carried stateside. 

Instead, support local businesses by seeking out local designers and boutiques. You’ll take home a more one-of-a-kind creation that will give your wardrobe a unique, personalized flair.

Central Market, Kuala Lumpur, MalaysiaCentral Market, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image:

How To Seek Out Local Makers

Discovering the artists and craftsmen who create pieces with real local flavor can be incredibly rewarding. But how do you go about finding them?

Markets aren’t a bad place to start. You’re likely to find at least a few members of the crafty crew selling their wares there, but independent boutiques are a pretty good bet too.

While it takes a little foresight, try to find any bloggers based in the area, then check out if they have any recommendations or favorite local haunts. Another option is using Etsy to scope out area artisans. And if you are part of the Couchsurfing network, be sure to ask locals if they know of any must-visit shops.

4. Remember You Have To Repack

You’ve fallen in love with a stunning tapestry, a one-of-a-kind piece of art or a pair of impeccably handcrafted shoes, but there’s just one problem: There’s no space in your suitcase.

As a general rule, you should skip anything that you don’t have room for in your bag. Not only will this make you think more carefully about how you spend your money during your trip, but you won’t have to deal with that last-minute scramble to find an extra carry-on duffel.

But, what if you do go a bit overboard? Ask the shop if they offer shipping. If they don’t, you can always ship the item yourself via FedEx, DHL or a similar shipping company that is reliable and allows you to easily track your package. Situations such as these are also a fantastic opportunity to enlist the help of your hotel’s concierge.

5. Skip the Cheesy Souvenirs

Your shot glass collection is already robust and cheesy souvenir T-shirts are so 90s. So, what does the savvy world traveler purchase that isn’t destined to be dumped in the back of your drawer?

Eiffel Tower souvenirsBazar del Sabado, Mexico. Image:

Instead of collecting kitsch, think of shopping for souvenirs as a great way to build on your personal style. Consider what you regularly wear or use around your home—the sort of things that speak to your personality and lifestyle—and use these as inspiration for your getaway buys.

If you’re still feeling stuck, here are three options for great place-specific souvenirs:

  • Local Honey: Available in gourmet shops and supermarkets, good, local honey is something that’s easy to enjoy once back home. The best I’ve acquired came from West Cork, Ireland; almost as memorable (and far easier to access from home) is honey from California’s valley. Just one important note: The TSA considers honey a liquid, so if you're not checking a bag, you'll need to ship it home.
  • Chocolate: Chocolate is a growth industry, which means new local companies pop up all the time. The quest to discover them before they go national justifies ongoing visits to candy stores and the gourmet sections of supermarkets—a nice fringe benefit. Whether locating boutique sweets or regional brands for their quirky labels, it’s hard to regret slipping a few chocolate bars in your return bag.
  • Music: One great way to experience life as a local is to seek out live music—bands on the rise that haven't attained prominence beyond their home base. Buying a CD at a concert can commemorate the experience and support the local arts scene. Plus, you can listen to it in the car or on your laptop during your trip.

While we’re on the topic of good eats, it’s a great place to mention that some of traveling’s most memorable moments can be found at the bottom of a plate or bowl. To ensure you get to enjoy your entire vacation (not falling prey to any tummy troubles), check out our article “Eating Internationally: How To Enjoy Street Food Safely.”

6. Make a Budget

Because you still need to eat and pay bills when you get back home, it’s not a bad idea to make a vacation budget. In addition to things like dining out, museums, transportation and the like, you should also decide how much you’re willing to spend on gifts or souvenirs.

Figure out who you want to buy for (don’t forget yourself!) and what they might like, then estimate how much the items will cost and try not to go over that amount. And if you don’t feel like dropping a lot of dough, go for something more sentimental in nature like a nice card or cool prints from a local artist. Remember, it’s the thought that counts!

What’s the best thing you’ve ever bought on vacation? Have you had any less-than-perfect shopping experiences abroad? Tell us in the comments!

  • October 20, 2015

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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