The first time I traveled abroad, my proud father slipped me a handmade card as I boarded the plane, and told me to not open it until I was in the air. Inside was $50 to purchase something to remember my trip.
Over the next two weeks, I did what most tourists do… I bought trinkets. In my defense, there were countless opportunities to purchase crap, like museum gift shops, craft markets, and Hard Rock Cafes, and that’s what all my friends were doing.
I bought t-shirts. And jewelry (the cheap kind). And carvings. And wall hangings. And shot glasses. And souvenir booklets. Lots and lots and lots of cheap crap.
Twenty years later, I have no idea where most of the things I purchased went. The only thing I still have (in a drawer somewhere) is a tiny Swarovski piano, and that’s because my dad taught me how to play, and I can’t bear to part with it.
It took several more years and trips, and unknown amounts of money, before I realized how wrong my approach was. A souvenir should be a keepsake. Something that brings back memories of the trip. Not “Made in China” mass-produced kitsch. So step away from the cheap, touristy crap!
So what should you buy? My general philosophy is this: Buy something you will love for many years and that brings back wonderful memories. Buy something that, when you use or see it, reminds you of your trip. Buy fewer, but higher quality items. Buy something locally made to help support local economies and artists. If given a choice, bigger is generally better. Higher quality souvenirs do cost more, but the cost can be justified by buying fewer things.
- Something you will use:I’ve used my Baltic amber jewelry, Dutch tableware, and Korean chopsticks for years, and they still bring me joy. Also, jewelry is always useful and is easy to pack.
- Something you will consume:While they didn’t last as long, my Costa Rican coffee, Czech beer, and Lithuanian liquor brought back fond memories on the special occasions we decided to drink them.
- Decorations:The kinds of kitschy trinkets found in many tourist shops and markets are often a clue as to what kinds of items are associated with an area. Do yourself a favor and find the real version. For example, my hand-painted Swedish Dala horse and Russian Matryoshka dolls sit in a prominent place on my shelves, next to Mexican pottery and a Delft platter. I hate clutter.So having my shelves decorated with larger, special items will constantly remind me of my travels. We’ve also purchased local artwork over the years to hang on our walls, from a Mexican watercolor painting, to Bedouin needlework, to a beaded Maasai necklace.
- Music:Culture and music are intricately connected, and music can instantly transport us back on our travels. Touristy areas often have mass-produced, watered down versions of the good stuff, so when possible we venture off the beaten path to purchase the real deal. My husband is a professional musician, so he has occasionally purchased hand-made indigenous instruments, like an Australian digeridoo, an Irish bodhrán, and a Ugandan drum. We love to display these works of art in our home, and they occasionally get played in his concerts as well!
- There is one type of souvenir we purchase everywhere we go, and one that breaks all my other souvenir-buying rules: Christmas ornaments. Our first year together, at a Christmas market in Georgia, our friends gave us a silly ornament: A Santa in a sleigh being pulled by catfish. It started a tradition we continue to this day. At first, we purchased “real” ornaments from specialty Christmas shops, but over the years we learned how to save money by being creative. For example, keychains are cheap and can easily be converted to an ornament by replacing the chain with ribbon. But almost anything, if small enough, can be hung from a tree. One of my favorites is the pink golf ball I used to beat Hubby at golf in Ireland. Every year at Christmas, we reminisce as we hang ornaments from 20 years of travel on our tree.
Bottom line: A souvenir should be something special to remind you of your trip. So do yourself a favor and purchase something special. I didn’t get it at first, either. But I’ve learned the lesson my dad was trying to teach me, and I’m grateful for it.
What do you think? What souvenirs do you buy, and why? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!