Take Only Photographs: Frugal Souvenirs

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.

More about...Frugality, Travel

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Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

Great ideas. When I was growing up we had no money for frivolities like souvenirs when we travelled. My mom would however buy me a charm for my charm bracelet so I could remember all the places we visited. (I wish I had been a journaler back then, its a great idea).

Nate
Nate
10 years ago

These are good ideas, but I would take them a step further.

Rather than bring people photographs of myself or the places I’ve been, I prefer to send them the photos in the mail from that location as a post card. You can write all over the back just like a post card, and they’ll get an authentic piece of your experience. Plus everyone likes to see stamps and postal processing marks from around the world.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

Interesting ideas 🙂 On my last trip, I did buy a fair number of postcards when I knew I couldn’t capture the shots as well as pro photographers (due to time of day, lighting, impossible angles, etc). Resolving myself to do so at the beginning of my trip meant that I could spend more time experiencing the place rather than trying to photograph it. Well worth it!

threeoutside
threeoutside
10 years ago

Great article! I got into the habit early on of writing detailed journal entries every night on a trip, no matter how tired I was. I included *everything* – what the curtains in my cabin looked like, how our footsteps sounded in the early morning as we stumbled around making a wood fire in the stove, the people we saw or met – anything that caught my attention. I drew little sketches sometimes. The reward comes later – maybe years later – when you go back and re-read your travel journals – you won’t regret a single minute’s lost sleep… Read more »

SSSimon
SSSimon
10 years ago

What I like to bring from trips is food (most often sweets or beverages). This gives my family a chance to taste something new and it doesn’t gather dust on a shelf later.

Rob
Rob
10 years ago

These are great ideas. It is always tempting to purchase a souvenir of some sort so you will remember a trip. But there is not reason photos cannot do the job for the most part. Why clutter your home with more stuff?

Luke
Luke
10 years ago

Also, for the super-frugal, keeping a travel journal is a great idea as it means that you can use consumer review sites to make some money when you get back from your travels 🙂

Ok, it won’t quite pay for the next trip, but every little helps.

Kingcrowing
Kingcrowing
10 years ago

I totally agree, I went to Europe for three weeks this summer and I took around 2,000 pictures and only bought myself four things. A T-shirt at the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels because I love their beer, it was a cool shirt and only €12 which is decent. I also bought some beer in Belgium because that’s what their known for! I bought a 2005 bottle of Bordeaux in Paris in a little bottle shop way off the beaten path, the guy hardly spoke English and it was only €7! Finally in Bavaria I bought a traditional Lodenhut – the… Read more »

Katie D
Katie D
10 years ago

When my hubby and I got married, we decided to have a “signature souvenir” that we collect when we travel. We try to get 1-2 (depending on the length of the trip) fridge magnets. Usually only a few $$, and we try to get ones that depict something we did/saw. Whenever I look at the fridge, I am reminded of all the fun trips we have had so far.

Leah
Leah
10 years ago

Postcards are one of my main travel expenses. I love to send them. Otherwise, I don’t really get anything — I try to pick one item per trip I’d like to buy, and some times I’d much rather spend the money on another experience than something to take home. Three weeks in New Zealand, and I brought home lots of pictures, lots of little pamphlets for my scrapbook . . . and that’s it. I wanted to buy a Maori necklace, but I didn’t. Interestingly, on the last day of my trip, I found a carved Maori necklace on the… Read more »

Cynthia
Cynthia
10 years ago

I’m a book lover and see things I’d like to buy while traveling, but given the upfront prices and luggage issues, I’ve trained myself to wait, and then to step back to the hotel and see if I can’t find the same thing in the second-hand online market. Usually, I can get a second-hand copy shipped to my house for half the money, have it waiting for me when I get home, and avoid foreign transaction fees/extra luggage costs. Also, agreeing with others . . . I’m a big fan of journaling. I do it via e-mail, though. I send… Read more »

Slackerjo
Slackerjo
10 years ago

In May, I went to visit my brother in The Hague and being a frugalista, I had a very strict budget for souvenirs (actually I had a very strict budget for everything) I mostly sent people postcards. The response was great. People hardly ever get snail mail any more so everyone was both surprised and delighted by a piece of mail in the mailbox that was not a bill.

Meg
Meg
10 years ago

My DH and I make it a point to collect Christmas tree ornaments from places we visit. It’s a small, cheap souvenier, and it’s neat to see our tree every year!

I like the idea of taking pictures, too. I’m also like #5 – I tend to load up on candy and beverages and get something new for souveniers for folks. Obviously, they don’t last as long, but most folks I know would prefer candy over a knicknack.

Matthew
Matthew
10 years ago

Just a couple of months ago I tried to negotiate on a Sake set in Chinatown while my wife and I were on our honeymoon in San Francisco. I figured if there were one place I could negotiate it would be Chinatown, but no dice.

Sarah J.
Sarah J.
10 years ago

My favorite type of souvenir is similar to what @Katie D was mentioning– a signature souvenir. In my case, I make pressed pennies. There are machines in many popular tourist destinations that you put a penny and two quarters in and turn the crank, and a picture of the landmark is pressed onto the penny as the penny is flattened and elongated. I am not much of a collector (of ANYTHING, especially since I hate clutter!), but I like that pressed pennies are small, cheap, and interesting looking. I store my entire collection in a film canister, but I enjoy… Read more »

Panda
Panda
10 years ago

I often buy myself a souvenir from travels, but I generally pick it out in advance. Well before I’m there I ask myself “What one signature item from this place would I like?” These aren’t always super cheap, but I’ve put thought into it so that they aren’t thoughtless purchases. I have a pair of Highland dancing shoes from Scotland, hair sticks from China, etc. It’s easy to pass on all the tourist trinkets, t-shirts, etc when I’ve picked out something special for myself.

dan s.
dan s.
10 years ago

I like to buy things I use everyday. Soaps, dishwasher tablets, salt and similar things remind me of the trip when I get home.

mary b
mary b
10 years ago

I also tend to think of what to buy that is unique to the place I am visiting and would rather make a significant purchase rather than come home with a bag full of cheap tshirts. Our last family trip to Mexico my DH & I had matching silver rings made, I bought a great handwoven handbag and my 6 y.o. purchased a hand carved chess set, as that was a new hobby he was pursuing. My DH is a professional photographer, so we get stellar travel shots, and not the normal “hey go stand in front of this landmark”… Read more »

Brandon
Brandon
10 years ago

I just wanted to add that the editor inserting his/her comments in the middle of the text is quite obnoxious.

KC
KC
10 years ago

I look for free souvenirs. I attend a lot of baseball games and I always look for those little plastic ice cream helmets as a souvenir. After the game you can usually find a good one, wash it out and add it to my collection. Sometimes I’ll buy the ice cream (like when it was 98 the other day in Atlanta) and keep the helmet. Either way its a free/cheap souvenir and a great way to remember the parks I’ve been to. I like to take pictures, too. But I get so frustrated with travelers who are always posing for… Read more »

Money Smarts
Money Smarts
10 years ago

Before our trip to europe a couple of years ago I bought myself a nice digital camera. I ended up taking over 2000 photos on that trip and only buying a couple of souvenirs – a t-shirt. At this point in my life I don’t want a bunch of extra junk around the house, but the pictures help to conjure up good memories from the trip. Photographs all the way!

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

I agree with threeoutside (#4) about the journaling. I’ve also learned to take notes during tours–I hear such interesting things but then forget most of it otherwise.

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

I like the journaling idea.
I’ve never been into typical souvenirs BUT when I go to a foreign country the first thing I do is find fabric stores. It’s an obsession that leads me to great neighborhoods and interesting cultural experiences. Everyplace seems to have a different way to cut and purchase fabric. Oh, and it’s easy to pack!

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
10 years ago

I never buy souvenirs anymore, except for my mom who collect refrigerator magnets from different destinations.

I love blowing up my favorite pictures and framing them. Most my walls are decorated with great pictures from all over. I was just thinking today I needed to get a picture of the moon as it was sitting over the atlantic ocean and just reflecting beautifully on the water. I need to get that on my to-do list.

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

Travel is unique to each person. I would never leave the camera at home. I take tons of photos, and yes I can still enjoy the place we are visiting. I might be able to remember all of the places and the experiences my wife and I had but 20 years from now when our children are looking through our photos I will be nice to explain the photo to them or for them to see that we went here or there and did this or that. Part of it is for us to remember and part is to teach… Read more »

Frank B
Frank B
10 years ago

I love Andina.

I’m heading to England and France in a month. I think the only thing I’m buying are memory cards for my camera. Last thing I need is more stuff. The ones I’m traveling with….well that’s a different story.

Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things
Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things
10 years ago

Great tips Sierra.

This is something I’ve adopted in my own travels. Take tons of photos and only bring back souvenirs I’ll either use or consume [no more trinkets]. They’re cute the first few times, but after a bit, you just end up with a bunch of junk.

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

I save maps and buy postcards when I go places (I’m not a great photographer), but I also take a lot of photos of friends and family.

I tend not to appreciate travel gifts from others’ trips, although I loved getting unused coins, stamps, and hotel soaps from my grandparents’ trips around the world.

There aren’t that many items made other places that I can’t buy at home, thanks to chain stores, fair trade stores, World Market, etc. I try to find the unique, hand-made, locally-made items, but if I can’t, I don’t miss bringing more stuff home.

MaryR
MaryR
10 years ago

I like buying clothes when I travel. When you get home, they aren’t what everyone else is wearing. I find that overseas there tends to be more emphasis on quality, so I often do end up spending a bit more money than is strictly considered frugal. It runs in the family – my mother still wears a coat she bought in Austria thirty years ago. I’m looking to match that! As for things to bring back – I often pick up a local language gossip rag. Funny to see Brad and Angelina and Jen in a language you don’t know,… Read more »

Marie
Marie
10 years ago

Like Meg (#13) I also hunt for Christmas ornaments, but find them tricky to find sometimes.

On beach vacations with my husband, we always pick up a few shells and add them to a large glass vase we have at home. It’s become a reminder of the great places we’ve been together, without requiring a lot of money, room in our suitcases, or space for knick-knacks around the house.

RichHabits
RichHabits
10 years ago

Great Post !!!

I used to spend money on souvenirs but I did not use it after sometime and they were packed. Waste to money.

Now, I spend on Refrigerator Magnets. They are good because I see them everyday and reminds me of the place.

Next thing is, I have bought myself a good camera and I take lots and lots of pictures.

Jenzer
Jenzer
10 years ago

When I travel, I like to visit local grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Regional seasonings and condiments, in particular, tend to come in small packages and won’t take up much room in a suitcase. Plus, they’re consumable, so they don’t become clutter at home.

The most delicious salad dressings I’ve ever had came from a vendor at the farmers’ market in Hilo, Hawaii.

Josie
Josie
10 years ago

Picaresque means roguish, not quaint. I think you mean picturesque.

K-ro
K-ro
10 years ago

Hey Sierra – Instead of the word, picaresque, in the sentence, “…the picaresque New England crafts…” did you mean “picturesque”? Because when I think of New England crafts, I don’t typically think, “of, pertaining to, or resembling rogues”!

LOL!

Courtney Carver
Courtney Carver
10 years ago

Ahhh..If I had read this 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have spent the last year getting rid of all of things I “had to have” when traveling. From now on:

Fewer souvenirs, more traveling.

Gina
Gina
10 years ago

When I traveled overseas (this was pre-kids), I made a point to pick up a piece of jewelry at each exotic destination. Some were $15 US, some were more, but all have been worn many many times and bring back memories while being a useful part of my life and not a bunch of souvenirs stuck in a closet down the road.

Ren
Ren
10 years ago

All great ideas! I take a lot of pics on vacations and blog each night about what I did that day.

A friend is on vacation in the Pacific Northwest right now. He was lamenting in email that he had trouble with a video recorder so he couldn’t show me what some birds did that he was watching but then went on to describe it in such vivid detail that I could imagine it.

So emails, too, could be a great way to remember/document a trip.

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

My best souvenirs (besides pictures and journals): * England – dictionary (now when I get confused about a boot being on a car and then the character drives off in the car anyway, I can find out why) * Denver – refrigerator magnet with a picture of the beautiful Denver library (I use it to hold the receipt that shows when my library books are due) * Disney World – 2 t-shirts I really like that go well with jeans (oh, and I have a good t-shirt from the Denver aquarium, too) I used to collect patches, but I kept… Read more »

Justin King
Justin King
10 years ago

Yep, none of us need to pick up more stuff.

What is our obsession with generic garbage anyway? “Ohhh, shiny!”

KarenJ
KarenJ
10 years ago

We go on a special trip at least once a year. When we get home, I put several pictures in a photo collage, mark it with the destination and date, and hang it on the “vacation wall.” I’ve been doing this since our first trip in 1999. We love looking at the wall and all the special memories the pictures bring back for us.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

DH and I like to find a good refrigerator magnet, a postcard or two (there are often views that newcomers on the ground simply can’t get), a book, and gifts. I recap our adventures by email to my Mom. I also try to find a bead or a stone of some kind to use in my art.

Primarily, though, it’s photos. Thousands of photos.

The first time we went to Mazatlan, we found a shop selling handmade copper sinks. When we have a house, we are definitely going back to get one.

Kristi Wachter
Kristi Wachter
10 years ago

I got to go to France with my French class in high school. On the day we went souvenir shopping in Paris, I thought a bit about what I’d like to bring home. I got a 3″ Eiffel Tower to fulfill my obligatory tchotchke quota. But I loved music as much then as I do now, so I went into a record shop and picked up a single and a music magazine. I’d never heard of Francis Lalanne, but I liked the look of the record sleeve. As it turned out, I loved both songs (the A side and the… Read more »

Marie-Claire
Marie-Claire
10 years ago

It’s been years ago that I stopped bringing home souvenirs, except photos and maybe candy or chocolates (consumables). My problem is what to bring from the US to relatives when I visit my home country in Europe–nothing at all comes to mind! one year I brought maple syrup but that was heavy and they didn’t know what to do with it. U.S. candy/chocolates are not appreciated there, and so many of the small, cute things are made in China–any ideas? I have four nieces and their families!

Wes
Wes
10 years ago

Good advice. One thing you can do, if you want to limit your spending and have something tangible besides photos, is pick an item to collect on your travels. I like coffee mugs, because they’re cheap, ubiquitous, and I can use them forever.

I had a friend who traveled to several countries one summer, and she just bought a cheap t-shirt from every country. When she got back, she cut out the fronts of the shirt and sewed them into a quilt, creating one super souvenir for the whole trip. I thought it was a pretty cool idea.

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

I agree that photographs make the absolute best souvenirs, but I also buy a knick-knack almost every time to comemorate the trip. On our last cruise, I brought back 4 water-proof cameras to develop and a $9 wooden stingray to sit on my dresser…I love seeing it and remembering our stingray/snorkeling tour. 🙂

Jennifer
Jennifer
10 years ago

We just got back from vacation and I did what I always do – I bought a Christmas ornament to remember it by. Every time we go anywhere special like vacation we pick out an ornament that captures some of what we did on that trip. Putting up the Christmas tree is a fun experience loaded with memories each year. I don’t have a ton of junk taking up space in my house, but once a year we get to relive our trips over the years. Love it! And fairly cheap too.

Tom
Tom
10 years ago

Aflajores are amazingly delicious! They are similar to moon-pies, but actually edible.

bethh
bethh
10 years ago

I keep my souvenir shopping to a minimum, and try to purchase mainly useful items: I have one little glass object from Italy, earrings from Scotland, a woven blanket (purchased at the mill!) from Ireland, and carved-wood coasters and a sweater from New Zealand. I take LOTS of pictures, and every year I make a photo calendar for myself and a few other people, with my best shots from the previous year. What I love to do when I travel is find some unique food experience and try to recreate it on my return to share with my friends. When… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I use to buy a lot on my travels, art, jewelry, t-shirts, etc., etc., etc. Now I limit myself to one small, unique item, and only if I love it, to remember the trip. But there have been recent trips where I have bought nothing, because nothing really moved me. Most of the time, I do not buy on the first round, but rather will go back to the store on the last day which again gives me more time to decide. I do like to buy gifts on my travels for others, but again, I only do so if… Read more »

Emily
Emily
10 years ago

I’m terrible about actually putting items into a scrapbook after traveling, so I finally just started “scrap-boxing” – putting theater tickets and tour guide pamphlets and plane ticket stubs into a small box or bag. Everytime I look inside, I sort through everything and remember what I did on that trip.

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