Why You Should Never Buy Souvenirs

by Kelly Kehoe on 14 May 2013 12 comments

Tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry and souvenir sales make up a significant portion of that pie. If you’ve traveled at all, you’ve likely noticed gift stores on almost every corner in high-traffic, touristy areas and smaller vendors in less-traveled areas that welcome out of town visitors. There are no limits to what you may find in a souvenir shop: stuffed animals, clothing, shot glasses, or even "souvenir water" from places like Niagara Falls. (See also: The Easiest Way to Save Money on Vacation)

Most of these items are pretty useless, but we feel good when we buy souvenirs because we’re certain our friends and family back home will love them. But if your friend isn’t an avid keychain collector and your kids are too old for stuffed animals, is it really worth paying all that extra money for the sake of bringing back souvenirs? Or, to take it a step further, should you buy souvenirs at all?

I’d say no.

Zero "Obligation"

There is little utility value to most souvenir items, and yet we still find ourselves buying impractical, overpriced trinkets out of some sense of obligation to the folks back home. Remember that tourism is a highly profit-driven industry and extreme markups on cheap items (sometimes in excess of 50-60% of the item’s actual value) are commonplace. Travel is expensive enough; why squander Euros, rupees, yuan, etc. on souvenirs that will inevitably find their way to the back of someone’s closet?

Travel Hassle

In 2010, I was returning to the US from a month in Europe with a group of other exchange students. One girl bought a snow globe for her parents on the way to the airport, as a last-minute, obligatory souvenir. Unfortunately, it was bigger than the allowable "tennis ball size" snow globe and airport security promptly confiscated it. Since 9/11, the number of limits on carry-on items has skyrocketed, particularly where liquid or "sharp" items are concerned. Souvenirs present another hassle to already-hectic air travel plans, and, sometimes, you could be encouraging illegal activities without even realizing it.

"If you come across people selling wildlife or wildlife products, be aware that those 'souvenirs' could very well be endangered species that have been poached from the wild and are being sold illegally," Senior Policy Officer for U.S. Government Relations Will Gartshore said in a World Wildlife Fund article. This is especially true of the fur and ivory industries, which are targeting tourists who may not be aware of these illegal activities. Why risk it? Not buying souvenirs at all is a simple way to avoid this problem.

Worker Exploitation and Scams

In addition to animal-related incidents, there have been reports of worker exploitation on the fringes of the tourism industry. Allegations of souvenir companies overworking their laborers and exposing them to toxic chemicals in the factories have come to light, and New Zealand’s tourism industry recently experienced scandals involving mislabeled and overpriced "Made in New Zealand" rugs (that were really made by cheap laborers in Peru). These are only a few instances amongst many, and as a frugal tourist, remember that getting a bargain on souvenirs may have some unforeseen consequences.

Alternatives

But if you don’t want to avoid buying souvenirs altogether, there are a few, frugal ways to bring a little something back for your friends and family. Photos and maps are inexpensive and probably last longer than a cheap keychain. You could also bring back coasters and pens from hotels you stayed at, and places like Disney World or Disneyland hand out freebies such as pins (for special occasions), character or princess stickers, and the Autopia "driver's license." If you're vacationing off the beaten path, consider taking home a pressed leaf (they make for great wall art) or a little jar of sand (though mind the rules about removing sea shells from the beach, especially if you're in an environmentally-sensitive area).

Saving the best for last, postcards are the true winners when it comes to souvenirs. They’re simple, personalized, and affordable (just pay for the postcard and postage). That way, your friends and family still get a piece of your vacation without cluttering their homes or overstretching your wallet like traditional souvenirs often do.

What about you? Do you like buying souvenirs or do you have something else you like to bring back home? Tell us in the comments below!

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Guest's picture

If you are entering Canada, bringing home a pressed leaf is probably illegal as it would qualify as a plant product under the Plant Protection Act by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. As someone who travels for a living, I've found that gifts of food are most appreciated as souvenirs. Items such as Jamaica rum cakes, Fauchon chocolates, canned goods such as jams ( not honey as it is also regulated) and even smoked fish are usually permissible. I only choose food items I love, that way if the intended recipient doesn't like the gift, I can always eat it myself!

Guest's picture
Vilma

Instead of buying souvenir t-shirts while on vacation, we buy a Christmas ornament. This way, the ornament is only out during the Christmas season. We can reminisce and talk about our trip to visitors to our home. If we really want to get something for family or friends, we usually try to go for something edible. It's still a thoughtful gift with virtually no worries about storage. Once you eat it, it's gone! It's a win-win!

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FrugalCat

I bought a lot of macadamia nuts to bring back from Hawaii when I went there on my honeymoon. I ended up eating all of them on the plane!

Guest's picture

Not much of a souvenir person myself. I'd much rather have some good photos and great stories to share with friends and family. Souvenirs usually end up in a closet collecting dust.

Guest's picture
Beckybeq

I typically buy a Tshirt for my kiddos. When they outgrow them, I have a box where they're all stored. (My daughter was *that* small when we sent to San Diego Zoo???) I plan on making a Tshirt quilt out of them one of these years.

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Jenny

I usually buy postcards for other people, one for myself to hang in my cubicle at work, and a local cookbook if I can find one.

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Tina in NJ

Folks back home only get something if we've been someplace exotic or if they helped us by watching a pet while we were gone. I usually get myself one of those enameled pins most places sell. One SIL does the same and another collects postcards. The kids buy their own junk.

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Liisa

I love to buy small items, for myself and friends/family, that are both useful and unique to the areas I've been. I love to decorate, so finding something I genuinely like enough to buy anyway is fun b/c when I see it around the house it reminds me of the trips I have taken. Vases, a dish towel from Finland that hangs on my kitchen wall as art, a leather wallet for a friend from Florence, etc. I love to shop but it has to be something I will actually use or that my friends will actually like! Thankfully I am pretty good at gift giving so usually my choices go over well. So far, so good! :)

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Patty

I like to buy local Junior League cookbooks or some other locally produced cookbook when we travel. They usually support worthwhile causes and definitely bring back memories of my trip. I also keep a trip journal and try to list as many things as I can as a way to remember and guide my future scrapbooking efforts. Photos and postcards are great, too.

Guest's picture

Agreed that its tough to tell the difference between legitimate locally sourced souvenirs that help the local economy vs cheap knock offs that aren't even made locally. Stay away from anything resembling a souvenir shop.

Guest's picture
Travel my world

I rarely buy actual souvenirs, but I keep the postcards I've sent and buy one or sometimes more pair of earrings, as typical as possible for that country. And also: sand from the beach, park or desert :)

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John@couponlawn.com

I am surprised no one has mentioned ebay in any of the comments as a much better way to shop for souveniers. Why buy the overexploited and overpriced souveniers when you can just log into ebay and get pretty much any souveneir without the hassle of buying it in another place. Great read still!