Unless you are on a world tour with a backpack and no space to spare, shopping for souvenirs and buying gifts have become an essential part of traveling. But in many cases, those items end up catching dust on a shelf, unless they were broken during the journey back home. On your next trip, wouldn’t you like to know how to improve your shopping experience abroad?
Improving the quality or safety of the items you buy while on holiday starts with better understanding the options and the problems. So here are, before you fly out, a few simple reminders of how you can go shopping abroad and make the most of it.
Food, drinks & culinary specialities
The first thing to remember is that a lot of countries have strict biosecurity requirements. If you planned on traveling back home with that delicious Italian cheese, depending on your destination, it may bring you way more inconvenience than just smelly luggage. The same goes with alcohol. There are strict limitations to how many bottles of wine or spirits you are allowed to take back. Buy one too many bottles and you have to officially declare them and pay cost of duty.
You can, however, maximise the amount you bring back. Start by checking the authorised amount for both checked luggage and hand luggage, as you can almost invariably buy liquors and wine in the duty free shops in airports. This said, being greedy and playing at the limit of the rules is seldom a good idea. Putting a nice local bottle of wine, safely wrapped, in your checked suitcase, and buying an other bottle or 2 at the airport Duty Free, should leave you within a comfortable margin of acceptability with most countries and airlines around the world. And if in doubt, check the airline website before traveling. In this regard you may also want to check the authorised items per country.
Another problem you are likely to encounter, is transporting the item(s) securely. Pots break, food leaks, bags pierce. Buying food or beverages abroad needs to be done wisely. If you decide to do so, ensure the items bought are not just wrapped, but sealed. The serious and reliable places that sell items such as spices or cakes to tourists (for example while you are visiting Istanbul or Marrakech) often have systems to seal efficiently the items bought. Stopping in supermarkets where the locals buy their weekly food is, also, a good way to get some local specialities, usually at a reasonable price, but mainly completely sealed for transport. And if you happen to be one of those people that buy with intent, a collector of nice bottles or pretty objects, you can anticipate on the wrapping problems by packing a small roll of bubble wrap in your suitcase before leaving home.
Shoes, clothes, bags and other jewellery
Most of us have done it or have faced the temptation: a tartan kilt, a cowboy hat or a colourful djellaba, some of us cannot resist. You may be among those who invested some money into a traditional and often locally crafted piece of garment. But the end of the story is almost always the same: we never quite find circumstances befitting the piece of clothing. Eventually, it just ends up forgotten in a drawer (because who wears a cowboy hat to go to work in Helsinki?) .
Yet shopping for clothes or items we can wear is a good idea. A nice pair of Italian shoes or a Shetland pullover are easier to transport than a bottle of whiskey or a Montepulciano. This said, in a world of apparel essentially produced en masse in South East Asia, if you want to bring back a special item that will remind you of your trip and be wearable and affordable, you will soon realise that it isn’t such a simple or easy task.
If shopping is your thing, and you like that world vibe in your wardrobe, better start with a little internet research for local designers, styles, and local factory shops. Each country has its own speciality, from woollen items to quality leather, trendy urban styles or modern takes on traditional clothes, open a web browser, connect to Pinterest, open your Instagram, or check Etsy.
Many big cities around the world have a shopping area/centre dedicated to presenting or highlighting local designers, mixing regional influence with quality and wearability. An ethnical leather handbag or wallet, a scarf, a nice shirt with a discrete logo/pattern that makes it wearable anywhere around the world, a crossover design of modern mixed with traditional design, those types of garments exist in more and more countries. Moving the slider down from typical (or stereotypical) to discretely influenced will allow you to bring back really interesting and often unique clothes that you can wear proudly to remember your trip so far away from home.
If you are hesitant regarding clothes, jewellery is often, especially for women, the easiest go-to option. From a pair of earrings to a crafted bracelet, bought on a market or in a more upscale shop, it’s a no-brainer: light, easy to take back or gift, the world is a full of craft jewellery, belts and other small cotton or leather goods that will fill half your suitcase for a very moderate cost.
Last but not least, for the fashionistas… if your holiday destination is France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and you do not quite know how to approach the more high-end style, look up the shopping outlets. A place like Bicester, easily accessible from London and Oxford, will offer you a large selection of discounts on designer brands, including some very iconic British ones. The same applies to the various designer outlets in France and Italy, and this could be your chance to get back home with a real Italian pair of stiletto at a more affordable price.
Objects and other decorations
Who hasn’t bought a little Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty during a school trip, or brought back a pottery from a holiday in Mexico or Greece? Objects have three big inconveniences: they break, they are heavy, and if they survive the journey, most of them end up first on a shelf, but eventually catching dust and relegated to a box or upstairs in the attic.
This is not to say it is a bad idea to bring back a decoration for your home, a calendar for your grandmother or a pretty candle holder for your living room. Buying a pretty and decorative item for your home is actually a great way to collect a long lasting memory, one you can enjoy daily, and share with friends visiting you. Three of my lamps were bought in foreign countries. Two were spontaneous decisions although I took my time to ponder on my options of transport. The third was actually a calculated one, bought in a souk in Morocco, with space and wrapping in my case, a budget for it, in order to bring back a very nicely crafted item.
Although the shopping experience is often a more feminine one, hunting for a home decor item can be a nicely shared experience for a couple. Choosing a print for the living room, a throw for the sofa, a representation of an Aztec calendar for the study, all those items can be chosen together during a nice holiday.
The ideal solution is to keep your home in mind, your style, the dominant colours, and pick an item that will nicely enhance the atmosphere and the style.
All in all, if you enjoy shopping and intend to do so while you are on holiday, or more generally while traveling, why not prepare for it in the same way you prepare your clothes in your suitcase? Besides a towel to wrap a fragile object or a bottle of local alcohol, you can look up your shopping options on line just like you look for sights to visit and their opening hours. For example, Istanbul has more than the Grand Bazaar, you may want to try the Egyptian Bazaar or the more tranquil Arasta bazaar for example… Many shopping tips videos exist also on youtube, guiding you through bustle of markets, guiding you on prices to expect.
Last but not least, treat shopping is part of a cultural experience. Haggling is the norm in many countries, on many markets. In other countries, sellers proudly explain to you the meaning or the making of the object you are looking at, teeshirt made of hemp, print made of dried elephant dung, raw silk made in Cambodia. Just enjoy!