This blog post was updated on August 12, 2021.
Raise your hand if most of your souvenirs end up tucked back in a cupboard somewhere or tossed in the corner of the closet. While most of us aren’t keen on throwing money away, we often do when we’re traveling. Some of us buy souvenirs for sentimental reasons, others to show off, but some of us buy them out of desperation because we feel like we need something, anything to remind us and others that we actually visited the place (Cue my husband strolling through the airport in Jamaica to find something that wasn’t completely tacky to display in our home. Spoiler: he failed).
Since that fateful moment in the airport, I’ve thought a lot about souvenirs, eager to create a method to selecting them. I’ve also spoken to avid travelers I know who have their own methods of shopping for meaningful souvenirs, and with their answers, came up with these five questions to ask yourself before you make a souvenir purchase.
1. Is This Meaningful?
To me, this is the most important question to ask yourself. If a souvenir really means something to you, it’s probably worth purchasing. Chances are, you will find yourself bringing it out of its box or displaying it somewhere you can see it all the time. Everywhere we go, I try to find a children’s book from that country. I write a few notes about the place in the front cover and have a special shelf full of these books. To me, it’s an inexpensive, yet meaningful way to collect stories and illustrations from different cultures and languages.
2. Is It Useful?
Just because you toured the Jim Thompson house in Bangkok doesn’t mean that $250 silk scarf is necessary. If, however, you connected deeply with Thompson’s story, and want to display the high-quality silk somewhere in your home, or feel that you will wear it often, it may be worth it to you. *Note – all items don’t need to be useful. But if it’s not meaningful, it should at least be useful. Otherwise it turns into clutter.
3. Is This a Tourist Item?
There’s nothing wrong with buying a souvenir from a touristy shop in a high-traffic tourist area (read: small Eiffel tower from any shop in Paris) if you find meaning in it or find it useful. But a lot of touristy shops sell cheap items that are not even made in the country you are visiting. I purchased said Eiffel tower in Paris, and on the bottom it read “Made in Taiwan.” Cheap knick-knacks can be fun to bring home as gifts to kids or relatives, but don’t make for lasting souvenirs. You may need to venture off the beaten path to find that perfect item.
4. Does This Spark Joy?
Marie Kondo’s bestseller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up …” says that the things you own should spark joy. Ask yourself that before making a purchase. A friend of mine collects cookbooks from the countries she visits (even though she can’t read some of them) because “They just make me happy.” That should be your response before buying a souvenir, whether it be a clothing item, a piece of art, a book, or a decoration.
5. Where Will I Put This?
Knowing where it will go in your home upon your return should be an important factor in your decision. “I collect spoons and have a special rack for them,” a friend told me. Another traveler I met on a tour in New Zealand said that he collects maps from each place he’s been – just the free guidebook maps available at tourist centers. He stores them in a binder in his home, categorized by country. Another friend said he collects currency and has a display case for his coin collection.
Hopefully, this saves you from an overload of stuffed animals and plastic leis and trinkets that inevitably end up in your junk drawer – only to be thrown out a few years later when you deep clean. Cheap and quick is not the end goal here: souvenirs can be beautiful reminders of the places we’ve been when carefully chosen.
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