Well readers, summer sure is the ideal time to vacation by a lake, stroll aimlessly through flea markets, or to travel abroad. And in my experience, you always seem to find those unique treasures or absolute must-haves while away of vacation. Whenever I’m traveling to a new place, whether it be a weekend getaway or a week long extravaganza I always Google “best shopping in ….” While I rarely end up visiting the exact stores I find through this search, it gives me a good idea of what the area is known for (e.g. in Alaska ulu knives were absolutely everywhere!) so I know what to expect when I arrive.
If you’re not the type to buy into all the “touristy” souvenirs available, and are willing to do a bit of digging, I promise you, you will find some absolutely amazing merchandise to take home with you. Things that remind you of your travels, but fit seamlessly into your life at home. I’ve been fortunate to have done a fair bit of traveling for my age, and I’ve engaged in many types from backpacking to cruising, to week long stays in the same city. All these different vacation types allow you to shop in slightly different ways.
Backpacking is truly a unique experience. Last summer I backpacked Western Europe (and Prague!) for 2.5 months. But, as you can imagine when you need to carry everything on your back from place to place, and are operating on a limited budget, you have little space or cash to spend on souvenirs. As such, the only items I brought home were scarves from Sevilla (which had the benefit of adding variety to my very limited wardrobe), a ring from Brussels, coasters from Munich, a postcard from Neuschwanstein castle, and an abundance of photographs. Shopping on this type of vacation will be limited naturally, so when you think souvenirs, think small. Items may include scarves (this give you a worldly look at home!), jewellery (a personal way to remember a place), magnets, coasters (keep those from the beers you love – have you tried Delirium Tremens?), postcards, shot glasses, or small works of art. Luckily, in Europe there is an abundance of talented street artists who offer amazing pieces at reasonable prices!
Unlike backpacking, when you cruise you have a lot more space to fit souvenirs, meaning size matters much less. However, with this type of trip you have very little time in each port of call especially when you’ve also booked an excursion for that day. If this is your way to travel and you want to shop, be sure to do your “Googling” ahead of time to know what items to look for with such limited time. It would be a travesty to go to Italy and not at least look at their leather goods! Many excursions will give you time to shop at a specific place, e.g. a leather shop, but often the prices here are much higher than you can get elsewhere. So if you have the time, find another shop.
The fun with shopping abroad is in the hunt, finding that gem in a foreign locale. So please give yourself some free time to wander the cobblestone streets in Europe, or visit that local market in Alaska (the 2 places I’ve cruised). My best shopping experience while cruising was a day spent in Ravenna, Italy (a seemingly boring stop for other cruisers we spoke to). My companion and I, spent the morning wandering throughout this shopping destination and picked up 3 pairs of genuine leather boots for a fraction of what they would cost back home in Canada. My companion also purchased a locally made dress, and a couple of gelatos to round off the experience. When I cruise, I don’t purchase items at every port of call. I make purchases on the best days – the days I wish to remember for a long time. A picture may be worth 1000 words, but a necklace from Croatia, that’s something I can wear frequently to remember the occasion.
Extended City Stays
When you spend an extended period of time in the same place, such as staying a week in New York or San Diego, you get the best of both backpacking (immersing yourself fully into a location), and cruising (extra luggage space). With this type of vacation, you can visit many of the shops and hotspots that make a city or town unique. The best clothing shopping can happen on this type of vacation (since you have time to try things on) so be prepared :). Research ahead of time the best neighbourhoods for shopping – whether you are looking for shoes, trendy finds, designer duds, or markets, there is sure to be some key information on the web. Just know the general areas you wish to explore – e.g. Gastown district in Vancouver is a can’t miss, and just wander.
Key Shopping Tips
Use these tips to ensure a smooth shopping experience abroad:
- Always Bring an Empty Bag: as most savvy shoppers will tell you, they always try to travel light and bring an extra bag for souvenirs. On most international flights you get one piece of luggage, a purse, and a carry-on for free. Even if in doubt, bring the carry-on (I always use a spacious beach bag that is both compact and resembles a purse).
- Don’t be Afraid to Haggle: while this is not the custom in Canada, unless you are at a market – haggling is part of the culture in many locations. Know who will do the haggling before entering the store, and stick with that.
- Find Authentic Local Goods: this is not only fun but always supports local communities (e.g. artisans, jewelers, designers, etc.). There can be huge fines if you’re caught buying designer knock-offs in places like Paris and Milan, so if you’re going there hit up the outlet versions of these stores for amazing deals but genuine merchandise. Buying local is also the best way to get some unique pieces for home! Everyone will be jealous.
- Check the Airline Restrictions: know how much your bags can weigh and if possible weigh before getting to the airport for a smoother check-in experience. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve worn my extra purchases on the plane home (think leather jacket, leather boots, layered shirts in the middle of summer). As a rule of thumb, I always wear my heaviest items rather than pack them.
- Buy What You Love: as a test before you buy those fabulous pumps ask yourself if you love them. If you do, go ahead, purchase them – you’re on vacation. If not, keep moving, you will be sure to find something brilliant later on.
As said by Ray Bradbury, “half the fun of travel is the esthetic of lostness.” Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track a bit, that’s where the magic of a place truly sets in. So enjoy your summer travels readers, “sail away from the safe harbour,” and when you’re doing it “Explore. Dream. Discover.”
All the best.