Top travel shopping tips
Helping you bring home the best gifts and souvenirs from your travels at the best price
- Check out American prices on items you think you may want to buy before you leave home. This way, you'll know whether you're getting a bargain by buying it abroad.
- The main shopping drag in any city offers some of the best window shopping, but be prepared to drop a huge chunk of change if you want to purchase anything. You may find the same item in another shop on a lower-rent street for less.
- Shop in street markets for the best prices, most open haggling, and most fun. The quality of the merchandise is iffier than that of shops, but you can get great deals on everything from designer knockoffs to bootleg tapes.
- Shop around. (I know; I get paid to come up with brilliant stuff like that.) Prices vary dramatically from shop to shop, stall to market stall, and they usually vary inversely with their distance from any major tourist sight. Let the store owners know you're comparing prices, and the asking rate may go down on the spot.
- Designer clothing is not any cheaper in Paris or Florence boutiques than it is in Big City, USA. There are bargain-basement fashion outlets in European fashion capitals, of course, but they usually offer no better deals than you'll find in the United States. Of course, there's always that cachet of having bought those shoes in Florence or that dress in Paris.
- Shop selectively. Don't gobble up every trinket you see. Go for the items that truly bring out a country's spirit, style, or culture. It may be a beautiful museum book, chunky Irish sweater, a compilation CD of the greatest (local) pop hits of the year (personal favorite), or a kitschy British Beefeater guard doll to hang on the Christmas tree. Just make sure it's memorable to you.
- Everything becomes cheaper as you move south. You could buy twice as much in Greece as you could in Paris or Oslo for the same money.
- Make sure any DVDs you purchase are either Zone 1 (U.S./Canada) or Zone 0 (zoneless), because you can't view European discs on a U.S. machine (most videos at tourist sights are available in many formats or that "zoneless" one).
- If it's at all expected in a given situation, always haggle (more on that on the "How to Bargain" page).
- On most escorted tours, the guide will take or direct you to shops that offer "special prices" to people on your tour. Ninety percent of the time, the shop is feeding the guide a kickback. (Guides are so scandalously underpaid, this is often the only way they can scrape by.) Usually, the store passes this percentage along to you by jacking up the prices. Although some guides do give honest recommendations, and even some of those kickback arrangements don't adversely affect you via markups, it's impossible to know when a recommendation is on the level. I'd take the cynical route and ignore any guides' suggestions.
- Scrutinize labels, kick the proverbial tires, and otherwise show that (or look like) you know what you're doing. Shopkeepers who see a savvy customer are less likely to try to pull the wool over your eyes—even when you're trying on sweaters.
- Dress respectably, but not too well. You want merchants to know you're a paying customer and not tourist riffraff who's just window shopping, but you don't want to give them the idea that you're loaded. Prices will go up on the spot if they think you're capable of paying them, especially in markets but even in stores.
- Know the VAT refund minimum for the country you're in, and if your budget and plans are going to allow you to spend near or over that amount, try to do all your shopping in one store so you can get that refund—it's like getting an automatic 20% (or so) discount.
- Count your change, and make sure the receipt is complete and accurate. Don't be rude about it, but make sure you haven't gotten a rotten shopkeeper who's trying to scam or shortchange you.
- Always get a receipt. The receipt is important because you will need it for any VAT refund, plus in some countries, you must carry your receipts for any purchase (even a cup of coffee) away from the store with you (it has to do with the local government trying to foil tax cheats, but the laws affect you as well).
- Ship breakables home. It may cost a bit more, but the longer you keep your more fragile purchases with you bouncing down the road of your trip, the greater the chances that your Waterford crystal will end up Waterford shards.
- You can save yourself time and hassle should something go wrong with a purchase being shipped home if you snap a photo of your purchases before they're wrapped up. This photo makes excellent proof of purchase when it comes to insurance claims. If you find that you're running out of room in your luggage, ship those fragile items home first, then mail home your personal stuff you don't need, like dirty laundry, rather than entrusting all your purchases to the postal system.
- And finally, perhaps most important, shop for souvenirs, not tchotchkies. Bring home real mementoes of your trip and of the destination, not ready-made and mass-produced memories. Shop flea markets and the local equivalent of a K-Mart and take home some of those everyday objects that you only find in their home countries.
Get a "Beware the Dog" sign in French, or pop into an Italian hardware store to pick up one of those lopsided hourglass-shaped carafes they use to serve table wine in osterie. That way, instead of going in a shoe box or display case once you get home, your souvenirs become part of your daily routine, and every time you open the back gate or have wine with dinner, you have a reminder of that great vacation.