For most of us, shopping is an expected and anticipated part of traveling to another country. Whether it’s the perfect souvenir, a promised gift for a friend, or an impulsive “got-to-have-it” item, purchases overseas will be long remembered, for the good or the bad.
First time visitors to a country sometimes return home as dissatisfied customers. Their expectations of what was available in that country and how much it would cost proved inaccurate and will forever cloud their evaluation and feelings about the trip. That’s why knowing as much as you can about a place, talking with people who have been there, and reading about where to shop and what to buy before you leave are a critical part of any trip preparation.
Lots of general information is now available on the World Wide Web, but it usually lacks the personal, insider secrets that entice true “shoppers.” For those of us who experience shopping as entertainment, researching the options is as critical as selecting theater or sports tickets. So unless you know someone who lives in the place you’re going, and has similar interests as your own, you need to go to a large library, or better yet, a bookstore and take notes.
I’ll usually buy one book about the place I’m going—the one with beautiful pictures. I’ll fill a notebook with addresses, phone numbers, and times, but the photographs will inspire me before, during, and after the trip. Look through travel magazines, as well. If your destination is featured, buy the magazine and tear out the pertinent pages to take along with you. All your research will make you an informed traveler who can converse with the nationals and assist fellow tourists.
When you pack, take along a fold-up bag in your suitcase for an extra carry-on. (Since you’re only allowed two carry-ones, be sure your purse, camera bag, or computer will fit into one of your two bags, or can be used in reverse as your second carry-on.) A measuring tape and a list of sizes for friends and family members you might be tempted to shop for is also a good idea. Many countries don’t use our standards of measure, and if a conversion chart is not available, the measuring tape will come in handy.
I’ve found that shopping for Christmas and birthdays, even shower gifts, is best done while I’m away on a trip. I don’t have to take time out from my at-home schedule to go and look for something at the last minute. The gifts I buy overseas are unique and have a story attached to their purchase, and I enjoy spending the money more when it’s for someone else.
One of the best places to shop in any country is a hardware store. Think about the hardware stores in your town, especially the independent “Mom and Pop” variety. Every place has these kinds of stores that sell every day gadgets, small, inexpensive household items, from toys to tools. In the United States, we used to call these shops, “variety stores.” Other countries still have them right on the most fashionable streets and readily accessible.
Bookstores are also great places to buy souvenirs and gifts. Sometimes they are overlooked because of their non-English titles, but that can be a novelty in itself. I often buy preschool, “board” books of familiar children’s stories, or alphabet books, which are primarily pictures anyway.
The best books about any country are found in that country. Often I’ll find a beautiful book with photographs of the particular town I’m in with an English text, or at least, bilingual captions. Great maps, both old and new, can be found in bookstores. Unusual post cards, art cards, bookmarks, pens and pencils, stationery, posters, and wonderful prints can also be found there.
Usually, cookbooks from the region can only be found locally. Of course, you’ll probably need an English version, but they are easier to find than you might imagine. Make sure the measurements have also been translated into “cups” and “tablespoons,” etc., or buy their measurement devices for “grams, liters, and ounces” for an adventuresome cook at home.
Packaged, processed foods are a typical purchase for tourists, and they are usually available in duty-free shops at the airport, as well as in local shops. There is usually not a problem getting them into the States although you must declare them when you reenter the country. Fresh produce, homemade items, and opened packages are almost impossible to bring back, but I was surprised several years ago when I successfully brought home cut flowers (orchids) as a very special gift. The hassle of keeping them wet and uncrushed and the extra time in Customs was a part of the gift. Remember, customs agents have the right to take anything away from you.
Don’t forget about the “free” (or free for the asking) shopping available. Some hotels have beautifully wrapped soaps, creams, and slippers that you can take home. Colorful menus or placemats from restaurants are often complimentary, if you ask. I have even inquired about the dishes in restaurants, and purchased cups, platters, and condiment containers very reasonably.
My favorite purchases are handmade linens and embroidered pieces. Placemats, napkins, handkerchiefs, towels, and pillowcases are lightweight, malleable to any bag, relatively inexpensive, very practical, indicative of the culture, and unique for Americans. Unusual Christmas ornaments are also great finds and easy to pack. Stamps and coins from the visited country make for distinctive displays and memorable souvenirs, as well. If something is really inexpensive, I’ll get two, just so I’m not tempted to keep it for my self.
I’m not much of a clothes shopper, except for baby clothes, which I find irresistible and so different from the manufactured things found in U.S. department stores. I always have a stock of booties, sweater sets, and hand knitted blankets for baby shower gifts. Most of the adult ready-to-wear is not locally made and is no different from what is sold in America, and is usually no bargain. Some exceptions might more likely be found in shoes and accessories (perfume, too) where the local manufacturer is selling a unique design (fragrance) not exported and offered in the States.
Unlike American apparel retailers, European shopkeepers do not want you to serve yourself. They do not want you unfolding, or even touching the merchandise. Virtually every style they have is in their shop window, which is usually half or three-fourths of their total store space. Sometimes I’ll buy something that looks so right for the country where I’ve purchased it, but when I get it home, it just doesn’t fit into my wardrobe, climate, or color scheme.
All countries have special products for which they are famous. These are usually collector items, which are expensive and often breakable. If you know you want to purchase such an item, you might consider having the store ship it home for you. Of course, you will have to pay for this service, but you won’t have to hassle with carrying it, and it will be insured. Send it the slowest, cheapest way possible so that it will arrive after you have returned home. You can sometimes avoid paying the duty on the items sent home separately. Every U.S. traveler is allowed to bring home in their luggage four hundred dollars’ worth of goods, duty free.
Speaking of duty free, perhaps you have heard of the VAT (Value Added Tax) rebate. Most countries price an item with the tax included, unlike the U.S. where a separate sales tax is added to the marked price. This tax is for residents of the country only, but getting your money back requires some forethought and effort.
Minimum purchases are required in each store and they vary from country to country, as do the percentages for the taxes. You must get the refund forms in each store, fill them out in detail, and take them to the customs agents, along with the items you purchased, when you leave the country in order to get the forms stamped. Match each form with its self-addressed, stamped envelope. If your purchases won’t fit into your carry-ones, you must do this before your luggage is checked.
In Europe now it’s even more complicated because EU member nations will not always stamp non-member nation’s forms. (Switzerland, Hungary, and Norway are not EU countries.) Mail in the envelopes when you get home, but remember there are deadlines. Then, wait five to ten months for your check, if you paid in cash, or a credit on your charge card.
Don’t take a lot of American currency, if any. Charging on a credit card usually gives you the best rate, but in small shops and remote villages this may prove to be a problem. Travelers Checks are getting harder and harder to cash. Stores won’t do it, and banks are not open when I usually need them, and are sometimes difficult to find. I think the best way to get cash in the local currency is through ATM machines. Remember your password in numerical form because the letter keys don’t always match up with those in the U.S. Make sure you can recognize such words as “checking, savings, withdrawal” in the local language.
By far, the best souvenirs from any trip are the photographs I’ve taken. Film, extra batteries, and camera accessories are cheaper in the United States than anywhere in the world although they can usually be purchased in most places. With the new high-powered x-ray machines, it is never advisable to pack film of any kind in checked bags. I put mine, along with the entire camera, if loaded, in a lead pouch, which I carry on. The lead bag is easily opened for inspection, if required. In some countries you can get your film developed quickly and take home the finished pictures. Digital cameras are also a solution to the “film problem.”
The final hurdle to bringing your bargains back is the Declaration Form, which you must fill out for the Customs agent in the U.S. If you haven’t collected more than the duty free maximum, you can lump things together in categories, including “miscellaneous.” But, you are required to pay tax on things you didn’t buy like gifts and found items. Just estimate their value, but be prepared to give them up or pay the tax on the value assigned by Customs. Ideally you should have receipts for all your purchases, but, in any case, have a list of what you bought and its value in dollars.
Shopping overseas is one of the best ways to get to know another country. I wander into grocery stores, pet stores, and service providers like dry cleaners and barber shops just to observe. It’s a great way to practice a language in an environment where people are trying to understand and please you. Besides, it’s fun! The treasures you bring back will remind you of your own experiences, or communicate to a recipient that they were a part of your trip. You remembered them while you were away. What better way to say, “Wish you were here?”