The Easiest Way to Save Money on Vacation

Photo: Nora Dunn

You are enjoying a sunny vacation on the beaches of Mexico. Some of the locals are wearing native garb, or at least peddling it. Vendors walk up and down the beaches selling their wares, from coconut shell jewelry, to crocheted sundresses, to key chains.

You want something to remember this moment with. The smells of pina coladas and sun tan lotion, the feeling of the soft white sand, and the sound of gentle ocean waves splashing on the beach. Those crocheted sundresses are beautiful, and you’d look stunning in one. You could use it as a cover up at the beach, and you could also accessorize it up nicely for dressy-casual dinners. It’s perfect.

You swear up and down that you’ll wear it at home too. That’s the reason you’re getting it of course – there are people everywhere down here wearing these beautiful garments – why wouldn’t you wow people at home with it too?

So after shelling out your precious pennies for the beautiful (read: tacky) sundress, getting gitchy key chains as souvenirs for people at home, wacky t-shirts, and coconut shell necklaces, you have just blown your vacation budget.

What’s worse: you get the beautiful (read: tacky) sundress home, and it in turn finds a home in the back corner of your closet, only to be rediscovered months or even years later. You try it on, hopeful that it won’t look as bad as you think it will. It really does look that bad. So it gets disposed of or given away to a poor unsuspecting victim.

The key chains are accepted by friends with a genuinely appreciative smile, only to be tossed into their overflowing bowl of key chains that they’ll never use.

The t-shirts were cool and reflected a uniquely cultural flair when you saw them in Mexico, but they seem a little too out of place at home. They become very expensive cleaning rags.

And the coconut shell necklace went nicely with the sundress, but it is horribly tacky up close, not to mention falling apart; it is a marginal step above macaroni and white glue. The necklace your kid made in grade two beats this one you paid money for.


What’s the best way to save money on vacation, and not sacrifice the experience?

Leave the souvenirs in the store.

The best intentions of stimulating the local economy by purchasing souvenirs are more often than not misguided. Many “authentic” crafts and souvenirs are mass-produced in another country entirely. The local girl selling them isn’t seeing nearly the profit margins you may think – in fact she could even be getting a meager hourly wage from a foreigner who is the actual “boss”.

The items you think you’ll use at home rarely get used. They collect dust, either in your cupboards, or in the cupboards of the poor folks you bestow these gifts upon. The local fashion looked great while you were visiting, but just doesn’t seem to work when you try to wear it at home.

Impulse shopping, especially while on vacation, is an easy trap to fall into; that’s why heavily touristy areas are littered with concession stands. But rarely will it produce the overall satisfaction that you expect when you shell out your sheckles for that "must-have" souvenir. You won’t use that purse. Wallet. T-shirt. Key chain. 150th mug. Lampshade. Chances are you really won’t.


But having a souvenir to remember your trip with is a legitimate desire, and can be satisfied without breaking the budget.

As suggested in another recent article, instead of leaving yourself to impulse, try to select an item that you want to remember the trip by – just one. One that you can either use regularly (like a hand-carved kitchen tool), or that has a spot on a blank wall that will compliment your current décor and bring fond memories every time you look at it.

If you can, select this item before you even leave home. Then instead of being sidetracked in souvenir shops and concession stands, you can instead be on a mission to find the perfect kind of item you are specifically looking for. It actually becomes part of the adventure of your trip, and depending on the availability of your chosen souvenir, you may meet some interesting folks searching for it.

You will start to see the difference between the mass-produced souvenir shop fakes, and the real deal. And yes – in some cases you may spend a little extra money on it; but since you’re only buying one thing, you can afford it. It’s in the budget.


Trust me – this is the voice of experience here, with a drawer full of “who can I possibly give this to” items – both your wallet and your wardrobe will appreciate it.

Additional photo credit: Nora Dunn
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Guest's picture

I buy a refrigerator magnet when I go somewhere new. They're cheap (less than $5), don't take up space in my suitcase, and when I get home, I can pop it on my fridge and see it every time I get a snack.

Guest's picture

I also stick to refrigerator magnets! There's plenty of room on the refrigerator, they're handy when you need to hang a reminder there, and it's a fun way to showcase the places you've been!

Guest's picture

We went on a never to be repeated trip several years ago to Italy. I was looking for a small painted ceramic, perhaps a tile or piece of fruit to remember the trip from, but when confronted with the cost and translated into euros I balked. (A lemon for $30). So I went home with nothing but photos and a few postcards. Then a few month's later while at our local thrift store, on a shelf, was a pomegranate shaped ceramic box, Made in Italy, for THIRTY FIVE cents. Well it's on our fireplace mantel and reminds me of our trip AND the joys of patience.

One enterprising mom mentioning hitting her local thrift store and buying up a bunch of Disney souvenirs before their family trip to Disneyworld. Each day there the kids got to choose one from the stash to "remember" their vacation by.

Guest's picture

Everytime I go to another country to enjoy the new environment, I make sure I spend money wisely by enjoying the experience (e.g meeting people, sight seeing etc) and not buying stuffs which I probably won't need in the future.

One more tip, if you really should buy stuffs, buy it not in souvineer shops as they cost a LOT more expensive than in other place. For instance, buy stuffs in a flee market than in airports when buy that cute budah object in Thailand. You'll save a lot!

Fix My Personal Finance

Guest's picture

I decided to get a Snowglobe from every place I travel to. Its the only souvenir I buy and I have a beautiful collection of them. That way it is cohesive, and I'm not tempted to get other things. My parents do the same with Christmas ornaments.

Guest's picture

My favorite souvenir is to go to the grocery store and buy something that's commonly found in that area. And sometimes it's cheaper than here in the States anyway. For example, in France dijon mustard is crazy cheap. And I don't end up with clutter, because ultimately I use it up and rely on my pictures for my souvenirs.

Guest's picture

I like to pick up a cookbook of local recipes--I can revisit at any time just by flipping through it, and often make recipes from them. Even better if it's at a used bookstore--sometimes you'll have notes from a local penned in!

Guest's picture

i love this idea. I collect cookbooks anyways, amazed this never dawned on me before.

Guest's picture

Similar to the cookbook idea, every time I eat something local and really yummy, I jot down what I think the ingredients are and how I think it might have been made. Then when I get home, I experiment until I get the recipes right (or equally as good but maybe with different ingredients). As a result, I feel almost like I'm extending my trip, and my friends love coming over to be my taste judges!

Guest's picture

On my first trip to another country, my parents asked me to bring home a Christmas tree ornament, or something that could be used as one (the above maligned key chain items work for this). I kept this up, and then they gave me the collection when I had my own home, and now have a nice collection to pull out every year to remind me of many trips all over the world over the last 20 years.

Guest's picture

my favorite! send to friends with descriptions of your adventure, send to yourself as a way to capture memories, or use blank ones to draw, sketch or color your impressions of a place.

Guest's picture
Kate in NY

When I was a kid, we traveled almost every summer throughout Europe - - - on a dime (or less!). My mom was the queen of finding fun, educational, cheap mementos for us to collect. For many years, my sister and I collected business cards! Every place we went, every store we went into, we would take a free card! Our friends started collecting as well and eventually - this is how geeky we were, but OK - we started trading them like baseball cards.

Mom also had the idea of buying us 3 or 4 postcards at the gift shop of every church and museum we went into - before we actually even started walking around. Then we would have to find the object on the postcard, which would keep us busy throughout the visit. We would also keep the ticket stubs, metro cards, etc. for the day's adventures, and at the end of the day we would paste them into a journal and write about the day. I still have some of those journals, and now my kids love to read them as well ("Gee Mom, you sure loved the word "splendid" the summer you were 9").

I can't even remember any of the "stuff" we bought on those trips - but I do remember with great fondness all the fun we had on the cheap!


Guest's picture

Your story just made my day! Trading business cards! You must have had wonderful friends. When I left the country for the first time and went to Italy, I kept all my subway stubs and various tickets, but I never thought to keep them in a journal. One day when I have kids, I'll certainly take a cue from your mum!


Guest's picture

I collect the tickets (to the local transport, to the parks museums etc) and receipts from my trips. In most tourist places you get really colorful tickets and receipts and they usually have pictures of local attractions on them. When I get back, we just make a nice colorful collage of all those and scan it. We get a wonderful summary of all that we did on that trip. We don't spend any money and we don't clutter our house. I always feel good when I flip through the images of these collages.

Guest's picture

I have too many magnets so I by a post card from the places I visit, and when I come back home I buy a photo album and stick the postcard in the picture slots. I write something on the back about when I was there and a short blurb at what I did.

Guest's picture
Rob Williams

Hey! I've noticed another way to save money is to scout out those great deals on hotels (of course), but I’m an ambassador for Hampton Inns, and we’re running huge deals right now, I thought I’d let you know about it.

Hampton Inn is offering 10% off the best available rate until September 1st. We’re also giving away bikes, vacations and a lot of other stuff for the Olympic Games!

Check it out here:

Check out this video also and let me know what you think! Hope I didn’t bother or cross any boundaries by contacting you.

Rob Williams
Official Hampton Inn Ambassador

Guest's picture

Before our trip to Disneyland this summer, I purchased several items beforehand. I picked up some books, stickers, small toys and other items that would keep them busy for our road trip but also give them out as souveniers during the trip. Saved a ton, as prices at Disneyland are pricey. We still did buy a few items at the Park, but it save a lot and gave them something to remember the trip.

Guest's picture

When I travel, I generally stay far away from those cloned souvenir shops. I do like to stretch my legs a bit and go shopping, though, since I don't go out shopping much where I live. I tend to buy stuff that I've been looking for at home or meaning to get anyway.

For example, while in Charleston, my husband and I visited a kitchen store that we don't have back home and found a few things that we had been wanting to get for some time now. Sure, it's not very creative, but we got things that we use on a regular basis and that remind us of our trip. My husband also bought a hat since he's been needing one for work. And in a used book store, I happened to find some books I had been wanting to get.

Food is also usually a good bet. We bought some locally grown tea there since we're big time tea drinkers. Unfortunately, we just recently finished it :( It was very good stuff and we've been talking of ordering some if we're not in the area again soon.

We ended up spending quite a bit on our trip, but all in all, we felt like the money was well spent since as I said, they were all things we were planning to buy at some point.

Guest's picture

I do something similar to this -- after realizing I never got any satisfaction out of the souvenirs I brought back from my first trip abroad. Now, I try to get something useful that has significant local meaning. My favorites (so far) are my crystal wine glasses (Prague) - now every time I pour myself a glass of wine I remember that trip.

Guest's picture
Amy K.

I haven't done this personally, but the author of one knitting blog I've read would buy yarn at each destination. The memories were there in both the knitting of the project, and the final use (or gift).

I don't knit that much, but I like the "something I'd use anyways" idea, like the dijon mustard above.

Guest's picture

I travel... a lot. My entire wardrobe consists of things from abroad - a pashmina from India, bikinis from coastal towns, jeans and fashion student projects from massive metropoles like NYC, knitted winter hats from the Netherlands, gloves from Paris, dresses and jewelry from Africa, artisanal leather purses from central America. I get compliments on all of it and wear all of it frequently. All of it was purchased for less than what I'd pay at home, all of it is better quality than what I would find at home.

The key is that I don't buy souvenirs to 'remember the moment.' I make myself aware of what is 'local' in an area I'm visiting and spend my normal clothing budget abroad. It generally has to be made in the country (or proximate trading partner) I'm visiting (beware souvenirs from China in quaint central American boutiques!) and I prefer shops that at least appear to support the local economy, which isn't actually that difficult to figure out. My style is international but the cost is budget. I, also, bring back enjoyable food items (curry!) AND interesting magazines as my only home-decor items (ex. French Vogue? Gorgeous.)

(1) shop where locals shop, not tourist markets. For some people this will be really uncomfortable. If so, stick to the above article.
(2) destination names stamped on items: automatic NO
(3) high quality, local materials (that would exclude coconuts and/or straw, but include silk/leather/wool...)
(4) probably avoid roadside stands in most countries where attractiveness of an item becomes relative amongst a bunch of ugly garbage
(5) items should reflect your style at home, not your style as 'you on vacation'
(6) get used to a country, it's prices and fashion before making purchases, but also don't leave it to the last minute and end up 'airported' i.e. trying to replicate finds at the airport - always a bad deal.
(7) don't bring back gifts unless you're really, really sure. As in, it's someone you would buy clothes for at home, or it's something like a pashmina that you would give as a birthday gift.

Guest's picture

I buy food when I travel.

The liter of olive oil I purchased in Spain was a joy each time I cooked dinner with it. Herbs de Provence. Fancy mustard, as someone else mentioned.

Or, I buy jewelry because that is small and portable.

Guest's picture

I usually buy two kinds of souvenirs. I live in a smaller city where I can't usually find the kind of clothing I'm looking for. So whenever I go somewhere, I do a little investigating beforehand and find out if there are any shops I want to check out. They're usually small local shops that you'd never find if you weren't looking for them. This is kind of an accidental souvenir because it's not really meant as one, but works anyway.

The second thing I do is buy a shot glass or two from my favorite places I visited. I often use them for sipping a nice liqueur rather than use a large glass. Not very classy I suppose, but a shot is usually all I'm going to drink anyway. I try to avoid the straight out tourist ones that just say the city. For instance, in Vegas I bought a Ferengi shot glass from the Star Trek experience and one from the Luxor hotel, in Disney I bought one that says Star Wars academy (I think my geek is showing here). I try to find unique ones that are fun to pull out for parties.

Guest's picture

What i'm going to get from my vacation- you're right it's best that way because then you get to hunt for your treasure as part of your trip and the tshirts don't look so appealing!


Guest's picture

We made a quilt out of old jeans, and for only $2.99 or so, we can buy a patch to iron on it.

Everytime we travel, we buy a new patch and now we have a fun memory quilt!

Guest's picture

Great post, thanks for sharing.

I'm often indirectly guilty of doing buying too many souvenirs - rarely for myself, but usually for my friends. If I don't purchase small tidbits for my friends during a trip, I often feel guilty.

However, I'm starting to wean myself off of this guilt, though - because I always end up overbuying and when I come home I'm stuck with 30 extra magnets that are never appreciated. What I find much handier are postcards - send them off to friends for a couple bucks... your friends love receiving them, and you don't have to be stuck carrying more items in your handbags.

Guest's picture

Send yourself a postcard from wherever you go. Even cheaper!

Guest's picture

Since I only buy souvenirs for my parents and a very few close friends, I buy either fridge magnets, shot glasses, or decorative little spoons...neither of them are expensive, don't take up a lot of space, in the luggage or at home and everyone is happy!