This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale at Childwild.com.

Souvenir Stand

Travel is a gift. We get to see new places and cultures, meet new people, and expand our lives. Most of us, when we’ve put the time and money into traveling somewhere special, want to treasure the memories.

There’s a large industry to support that desire. Gift and souvenir shops in the United States pull in over $17 billion a year, according to Hoovers. And gift shops are just the tip of the iceberg. Souvenirs range from cheap t-shirts with cheesy slogans to beautiful handcrafts made by local artisans.

Here in Buenos Aires, I can shop at an open air market for leather goods, a national speciality. Or I can cram my bag with the country’s signature cookie, the alfajore, on sale at the airport’s duty free shop.

J.D.’s note: Alfajores are amazing. A few weeks ago, I had my first alfajore at a popular Portland restaurant. I’m not joking when I say it was easily the best cookie I’ve ever eaten.

These options all have one thing in common: they cost money. Sometimes a lot of it. Prices are often marked up to take advantage of travelers’ relaxed grip on their pursestrings. In the seaside town my mother lives in, locals sneer about “tourist taxes” on the picturesque New England crafts and gifts visitors buy.

What’s a frugal traveler to do?

For starters, here are some simple, free ways to capture the magic of your experience:

  • Photographs: Most people these days have a camera, even if it’s only the one attached to your cell phone. If you’re taking a large or exotic trip, you might want to consider investing in a decent camera. Photographs last a lifetime, and with digital technology you can take as many as you want for no more cost than the initial investment in the camera. Better yet: They’ll bring back the memories of your personal trip, not the generic tourist scene a postcard or T-shirt conjures up.
  • Scrapbooks: The everyday stuff you pick up can be priceless scrapbook material. Like photographs, these are more personal than a published guidebook, because they show where you’ve been and what you’ve done. They don’t have to be elaborate works of art either. I’m not much of a scrapbooker, but in the weeks we’ve been in Argentina, I’ve collected bookmarks, cafe menus, and ticket stubs to paste into my journal from this trip. I still enjoy leafing through similar travel journals from trips I made ten years ago. I’m sure I’ll treasure this one too.
  • Journals: Journaling your trip can take many forms. I’ve kept daily diaries whenever I’ve traveled. Other travelers I’ve known have kept detailed itineraries of their trips, so they can look back and remember every play they saw and meal they ate. Still others use their spending logs to jog happy memories. A few created photojournals that are just a few lines of text around daily images.

If you’d like to do some shopping while you’re traveling, you can stretch your souvenir dollars to get the most value. One easy way to do that is to avoid shopping in the main tourist areas; step off the beaten path when it’s safe to do so. If you speak the local language or have local friends, you’ll have an easier time finding authentic deals and avoiding traps.

Remember, too, that in many parts of the world, haggling is the norm. The price you’re quoted for your treasure is probably higher than you’re expected to pay. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Guidebooks or friends can tell you if haggling is typical in the areas you’re visiting, and how to go about it.

Choose your souvenirs carefully. Ask yourself, is this something I’ll want to own, once I’m home? A box of beautiful artisan-made jewelry is just junk if it’s gathering dust in a closet. Only buy things that you’ll truly value and use, just like you would at home.

Travel can be a great place to take care of some shopping needs. Since my husband is badly in need of a new wallet, he’ll probably buy one here at the open air market this weekend. Visiting an open market is a lot more fun than visiting a mall, and he’ll save money by buying what he needs here where leather goods are relatively inexpensive.

Apply the same rule of thumb to gifts. We all want to bring a little something back for the loved ones we’ve missed while we were away. But there’s no law that says we have to take a pile of stuff with us. Choose something small that they’ll appreciate and use. I’m taking my mom some Argentine wool, for example. My mom is mad for knitting, and Argentina is famous for wool. It’s an ideal gift, and an inexpensive one.

Let the market work for you. Most places have a few products they’re well known for. Here in Argentina, those things include leather, wool and wine. Buying these local specialties can be a great value. You’ll get great quality, for less money than you’d pay for those goods if you bought them from an import shop at home. In many cases, you’ll be able to get things you can’t get back home for any money.

The trick, of course, is to shop just like you would at home: Seek out the best bargains on good quality items. Don’t go for overpriced, cheaply made junk just because it has “Made In The Country I Traveled To” stamped on it.

Choose quality over quantity. Whatever you buy on your trip, you’ll have to bring home with you. Rather than weighing down your suitcases with Stuff, choose a few simple, small gifts and souvenirs. Or just stick with the inexpensive, creative options I talked about first. I haven’t met a grandparent yet who wasn’t happy receiving a photo album of their grandchild’s recent adventures as a gift.

Finally, remember: Less is more. You’re unlikely to get home and wish you’d bought more of those adorable little carved wooden statues of pigeons. The less money you spend on souvenirs, the more money you’ll be able to put into savings for something really precious: your next trip.

Photo by Di the Huntress.

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