Travel Shopping Rules for Bringing Home Your Treasures

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Updated: 12.01.2015

Last week in her article, Travel shopping brings your journey home with you, Brette Sember discussed how to plan your shopping and where to find the best shops. Today she focuses on how to get the most out of your shopping and how to bring those treasures home.

Shopping at Hong Kong’s Jade Market

Travel Shopping Rules

Follow these rules when you are in the stores:

  • Ask questions. Ask where items were made. This can completely change your shopping mindset. In Venice, for example, there are many shops with lace (and Burano, an island near Venice, is historically known for lace-making), however nearly all of the lace in shops is mass produced in Asia and is not locally produced.
  • Hone in on unusual items. If you spot something in a shop that you’ve never seen before, ask what it is. You will stumble upon interesting local products. I spotted a unique two-necked vase in a pueblo shop in Taos, New Mexico and learned it was a traditional wedding vase used in the marriage ceremony to symbolize two-into-one.
  • If you see it; buy it. This is a rule I have learned through many disappointments! If there is a specific item you are hoping to find, buy the first one you see that is close to being right. You may never find another one and you will always regret passing it up. The subset of this rule is that if you have already bought something, but see a similar item that is much better, buy it too. You’ll regret coming home without it. You can give the first item as a gift.
  • Know the rules about bargaining. It is rarely acceptable to bargain in an established shop, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask for a discount if you are buying a lot or purchasing an item that is damaged in some way. When shopping at outdoor vendors you often are expected to bargain.

Tips for Shopping Abroad

Before you go, research the taxes. Many countries charge a tax that is refundable if you spent a certain amount in one store. You can get an automatic refund at the store or may have to present your receipt at the airport or border.

Use a credit card that does not charge a fee for foreign transactions. Many do charge a small amount each time you buy something and it really adds up. If you wish to pay in cash, it often makes more sense to withdraw local currency from an ATM (where you’ll pay a dollar or two for the transaction) than to bring cash and pay a fee to convert it at a currency exchange.

If you do not understand the amount you are being told to pay, look at the cash register display or ask the clerk to write it down. Count your change carefully, since it will be unfamiliar to you.

Keep all of your receipts in one place (an envelope or section of your wallet or purse) since you may be asked to show them when you go through customs.

Getting It All Home

Getting all of your purchases home can be a challenge with airline luggage restrictions. I have several solutions:

  • Pack a suitcase within a suitcase. You’ll pay for the extra bag on the way home, but you’ll have space for everything.
  • Bring a lightweight fabric duffel or tote in your luggage. You are always allowed one carry on and one “personal item” on a flight. Depending on what else you are carrying on and the size of the extra bag you choose, this may qualify as either item and will allow you to carry home items that will not fit in your suitcase (or which would put your suitcase over the weight limit). This is also a good way to transport items that are very breakable, as long as you wrap them carefully and make sure the bag is not smushed in the overhead compartment.
  • Pack lightly in the biggest suitcase you have, even for a short trip. This ensures plenty of room for purchases.
  • Lighten your load before coming home. Toss guidebooks, mostly empty bottles of bathroom products, magazines, and any cheap clothing you planned to be disposable.
  • Ship it. Many stores will pack and ship items for you. Take them up on their offer, but always get tracking information.
  • Ship it yourself. If you are traveling within the U.S., bring a few flat fee Priority Mail boxes with you. You can fill these (there is no weight limit) and pay the flat fee to ship them home. It’s much cheaper than paying for an extra suitcase.
  • Bring bubble wrap. Most stores do a very good job wrapping items if you ask them to ship; but if you are shipping it yourself, or planning to get it home in your luggage, bubble wrap will make sure your new treasure gets there in one piece.

Shopping Remorse

I have never regretted buying something, but I have regretted NOT buying some items. In fact, I have an entire museum in my mind of things I loved and should have bought. Sometimes you get confused about what you really want or you get scared away by a price tag and don’t buy something on your trip. And sometimes you make that cardinal mistake of being sure you’ll find something better later in the trip.

Fortunately, the internet is your friend. I failed to buy a beautiful vase I saw in a museum shop on one trip. When I got home, I realized that I should have bought it. I found the museum online and emailed the store. I described the vase and where it was in the store. They gave me the artist’s name. I Googled her and was able to buy one directly from her, using the photos she emailed me. One less item in the museum of my mind. Be aware that some artisans are just hard to pin down. I saw some driftwood artwork in Aruba that wasn’t quite right. I managed to find the artist online. She promised to send me a link or photos of other pieces she had available. She dropped off the face of the earth and never answered another email. If you are in a store and can’t decide about something, always take their business card so that you can contact them later if you change your mind.

Travel shopping is the best part of a trip in my opinion, because it allows you to bring your travels home with you.

Do you have tips to add to Brette’s list of travel shopping rules?Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email.

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