So you’ve successfully packed everything you need for your trip into your carry-on and now you’re off galavanting around at your destination. As happens very often, you find yourself in a store, and your eyes glaze over as you start thinking about all the wonderful things you can buy and take home for your living room, or for your loved ones back home.
Before you shell out any of your tourist dollars, think carefully about what you’re going to buy. Sure, the shopkeeper will gladly bag up that big ceramic vase for you, but how are you going to get it home?
If you can choose between a big item and a small one, get the smallest one you can get. Oftentimes, that means you can also get a much nicer item. For example, forgo the shoebox-sized music box and instead, get the tiny pocket version. And by going small, maybe you can afford the more expensive one that’s been handcrafted by the master craftsman instead of imported from a developing nation with questionable labor laws.
When given a choice, get something flat. You will likely be able to slide it into a pocket in your carry-on, or tuck it in between your clothing when you are packing for home. Instead of buying people in your office each tacky tiki wood carvings, consider picking everyone up flat desk calendars for the coming year that showcases famous local sites.
Find a (small) theme
If the souvenir is for yourself, see if you can come up with a theme or particular item that you can start collecting. For example, my husband and I collect refrigerator magnets whenever we travel. We follow a strict set of rules (we both have to be there, the magnet has to say the location we visited, and the tackier the better). The magnets are typically very small and barely take up any room in our carry-ons, and we get to enjoy the memory of our trip when we put them up on our fridge at home, and we get to see a tangible reminder of our trips every time we go to the fridge. Most places also sell things like key chains or postcards; find one that works for you! Postcards have some tremendous added benefits: Photos are usually professionally done, so your snapshots will rarely surpass them in quality. You can mail them home so you don’t even have to pack them! But whether you mail them or not, use the space on the back to write something down. What did you do that day? Why is this postcard significant?
Don’t buy stuff—make stuff (or make special memories)
One way to avoid having to pack extra stuff is to simply not buy anything! Instead, spend your money creating memories, whether it be trying out new foods or bringing home recorded memories instead. Try eating food from a stand, or try a locally famous dish that you might normally never try at home. Watching a guy squeeze pomegranates and drinking it straight out of the paper cup he serves it in is so much more memorable than just grabbing a soft drink from a convenience store (tip: pure, unadulterated pomegranate juice is as tart as lemons; if they offer it, ask for a blend with another fruit, like orange).
If you travel with a video camera (easy to do these days with gadgets like the Flip camera), some of the best souvenirs are of just filming “you are there” moments. Unlike a still camera where people have to stand and pose, the video camera lets you be alive and animated. Talk while you’re filming. If you have someone in your group that likes to be on camera, follow them around and have them talk their thoughts out loud. These days you can even upload some of your more interesting videos to places like YouTube to share.
Even if you’re not into videos or cameras, consider setting up a blog for your trip and publish as you go along, or write a long trip report that you can post when you get home.
Ship the item home
If you absolutely cannot pass up something, and the item is too big to easily put in your carry-on, consider shipping it home. Many stores (especially those that deal with tourists) provide shipping services. Or if you’re staying in a nicer hotel, this may be something your concierge desk can help you with.
Just remember to ask yourself if the item is truly worth the extra hassle.