Shopping is a major part of traveling. Not only will the things you buy remind you of your trip, but they give you a great insight into the culture. How you approach shopping depends on your goals, travel style and the variety of products available at your destination.
Buying brands overseas
Months before any trip to Europe, I begin pricing the items I think I would want to buy if the price is right. I enter these prices in a memo in a OneNote notebook on my Smartphone. That way, I know what the item costs at home and it’s easy to decide if it’s worth buying and carrying from overseas.
Supermarket and Drug store finds
A great option for finding low cost gifts and souvenirs, especially for the cooks and foodies in your life, is the supermarket. Supermarkets are a must stop on every trip I make for souvenirs, but also to get a feel for the country. You can also find unique products you didn’t know exist.
Some of my best finds at a fraction of the cost they are at home: vanilla beans in Mexico and Paris; sea salt, lentils and nut oils from France; Mexican salsas, coffee and chocolate; saffron, rice and smoked paprika from Spain; McVities cookies, Coleman’s mustard and Cadbury Flakes from England; dried porcini mushrooms, olive oil, and Limoncello from Italy; hot sauce, chocolate, and jams from Belize.
Outdoor (and indoor) food, crafts, flea and antique markets
A shopper’s dream. These are everywhere and can usually be found on area specific web sites, sorted by day of the week. Regardless of your interest you should be able to find something appealing at these markets, including low cost meals. Negotiating is usually the norm, except for food items.
In many countries in addition to food the markets will have cooking supplies. In Mexico you commonly find lime squeezers or tortilla presses; molcajetes (volcanic rock mortar and pestles); gorgeous pottery vessels (often with lead in the glaze – so ask if its not marked or use it for serving cool foods). In Europe usually table cloths, soaps and some clothing/funky items from exotic locales can also be found at the food markets. My most complimented scarf was 3 euros at Paris’ Sunday Bastille market.
In most cities, and many towns around the world, there are daily indoor food markets that are amazingly photogenic and worth visiting even if you don’t plan to shop.
Asian markets can be wet, and very photogenic. Wear shoes with traction so you’re not slipping all over the place to the amusement of the vendors.
Some antique and flea markets are destinations onto themselves. There are specific sites for that sort of travel, and if you’re an antique enthusiast, you probably know them all.
Shopping at the Source
It’s always best to buy items where they are made. In addition to cutting out middle people who mark up the price each step of the way, buying directly from the artisan insures you are finding a unique and special item you won’t see mass produced. It also supports and assures the sustainability of artists worldwide.
In France, and French colonies – don’t miss a trip to the pharmacy and parapharmacie. French pharmacies often sell products sold at top department stores in the United States. Biotherm and other skin care lines; Bourgois which is reportedly the same formulation as Chanel in different packaging; cheap Savon de Marseilles that’s 3 for 1 euro there and $10 bar in NYC.
There are a variety of medicines available in France that we don’t have in the US. When I twisted my ankle in a deep pot hole rushing to lunch, a pharmacist was able to give me a topical Ibuprophen gel. There is a homeopathic remedy called L52 that prevents colds if you catch them early. There are probably products like this all over the world worth trying. You should check with your physician and US customs web site before purchasing these products and importing them to the US as I am not a medical or customs authority.
I always have good intentions of going to outlet centers like La Vallee Village outside of Paris, and the ones outside of Barcelona and Madrid, but never find the time.
If you’re the type of person who prefers designer brands, even if they may be last season’s – outlet visits may be worth it for you. Most cities that have nearby outlets also have tour operators or transportation services that can get you to those outlets painlessly.
Always worth checking. You never know what you will find. In France, laws prohibit discounting for the most part, but you can find these bargain stores all over the place. Look for the storefronts crammed with household items. Small cocottes, paring knives, etc can be found. In NYC they’re great for wrapping paper, gift bags, those sturdy red-white-blue zippered bags to haul last minute purchases, bottled water, etc.
The Moscow Rule of Shopping
My most fashionable friend Risa reminded me of a key rule for any serious shopper. Coined by Suzy Gershman, the author of the Born to Shop series, this is a rule I was brought up with by parents who regaled us with stories of their trip to the Soviet Union in 1965. When you see something you like, buy it. You never know if you will find the item again – and you will likely regret not making the purchase later. Of course if you’re spending 5 days in the same spot, there is nothing wrong with doing a recon of the stores before purchasing, but take business cards from the places where you’ve found must-have items so you can easily find them.
Schlepping the Haul
Whether I’m going to NJ for the day, or Mexico for 2 weeks, I always have some sort of rollup or folding tote bag with me, because you never know when the urge to shop will strike. I usually pack a sturdy official-carry-on-sized folding duffel or suitcase. Baggalini or Longchamps make great ones depending on your style and budget – and I’ve even checked the Baggalini. Typically, I will expand my real carry-on and check it for the trip home with non-fragile and liquid items and bring the folding bag with the more valuable/fragile purchases on board.
If you think it’s likely that you will bring liquids home, fold and throw a few large plastic bags into a pocket in your bag. Or make sure to collect them at the destination. Before packing any liquids – even manufacturer sealed ones, I put them 2 separate plastic bags, knotting each one. If you’re going to a place known for pottery – and it’s the sort of thing you collect, also bring as much bubble wrap as you can fit in your suitcase. If you followed my packing tips you will have room. I traveled around SE Asia for 3 weeks in a carryon, and still had room for a kilo of coffee from Laos.