Souvenirs– when to buy them, how much to spend on them, where to pack them in an already-full bag, even whether to get them at all– they’re one of those tricky aspects of travel that everyone does differently.
I’m the kind of traveller who has high hopes of buying something amazing for every single person I know yet is brought crashing down to earth when I realize that I’ve already spent all my money on my own adventures.
M. is the best at balancing me out in these times. On our last trip, he said to me, “No one expects you to bring them anything.”
He’s right! No one does expect anything, so there’s no point in trying to meet expectations of lavish gifts that no one actually has. Our friends and family know us– they know we travel fast, cheap, and light, and they know we often have to ship their presents across oceans once we do buy anything for them.
But when we really want to buy a little something for a close friend or family member– and we do, because exploring little markets and souvenir shops is part of the adventure for us– what kind of things can be bought that won’t break the bank or the backpack?
My tradition for my grandma is to send her a tiny little elephant (or similar animal like a kangaroo or camel) from each of my travels. This type of figurine is inexpensive for me to buy and ship and usually readily available in markets in most countries. The whole collection doesn’t take up much room on the dresser in her retirement home bedroom so I don’t feel like I’m cluttering up her life too much. The half-dozen little elephants could even be marched across the top of a framed photo if she ran out of space on a surface.
Earrings and brooches are another good small option, and the cheapest minuscule souvenir you can bring back is to attach a magnet to a bottle top from some interesting local beer or soda.
Every country has a traditional fibre or textile art that you can pick up for someone and stash easily in all but the most stuffed-full backpack. M. has purchased full tapestries as a gift before, but if you’re short on money or space, things like dainty scarves, socks, handkerchiefs, or embroidered pouches tend to be affordable and simple to transport.
If you’re buying for the kiddos, small stuffed toys, bibs, or soft hats can crumple up to be crammed into the front pocket of a full suitcase.
Both M.’s and my family celebrate Christmas, so we have occasionally send home ornaments to be put on their trees in December. Then if we happen to be spending the Christmas holidays with them, we get to enjoy the reminder of our trip hung on the tree just as they get to see the reminder that we thought of them during our travels.
This idea would work just as well for things like candles for Hanukkah (though you’d have to wrap them carefully to avoid breakage) or paper lanterns for Ramadan. Even silk flowers or leaves could be brought out to celebrate the beginning of a spring or autumn, and as long as you’re careful about cultural appropriation, a visit to a country like Mexico might result in some new Halloween decorations.
It sounds ridiculous, but one of the best souvenirs I’ve ever gotten for myself is a pair of fingernail clippers from Portugal. Though it was one of those last-minute purchases bought because I needed them, I’m pleased that I thought to buy them from a cheesy tourist store instead of a regular drugstore. Now when I do something boring and gross like cutting my nails, I’m reminded of the amazing trip I took in Portugal years ago.
Other portable, affordable, useful souvenirs to pick up include bottle openers, corkscrews, and those tackily awesome decorative spoons to stir your morning coffee.
I’m not talking artisanal chocolate that costs as much as a night of accommodation here. One of our favourite things to do is hit up an ordinary grocery store on our last day and pick up local jars of jam or honey, packets of cookies, or bags of candy to bring back to friends. They won’t have to worry about storing or displaying a memento and they’ll get to enjoy a delicious treat.
This is an especially easy choice if you want to bring something back for a group of people. When I went to Hawaii, I grabbed a $3 bag of Macadamia nut Hershey Kisses and brought that back for my workmates to enjoy. They were more affordable and easier to pack than a fancy box of similar chocolates and my colleagues were just as touched that I remembered them.
Our latest trip was Mongolia, so of course we couldn’t come back without a daypack full of vodka. Get around your duty free limits by buying several smaller bottles of the local specialty for various people. Bonus points if you taste-test all your options before buying anything for someone else! (we did…. liberally)
Those are our go-to options for inexpensive and packable souvenirs… what are yours?