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Shopping On The Road – Getting The Most From Your Retail Therapy

Shopping can be a real dilemma for people traveling on long trips, especially if you already have a weakness for hitting the rack. Retail therapy is an extremely satisfying passtime on a blue day at home, but on the road it can ruin a perfectly good pack-job, as well as your back if you have to carry that stuff around.

I’ve put together a few ideas on how to decide what and what not to buy when you’re traveling in foreign countries:

The idea is to purchase things that will contribute to your trip in some way.

While that antique Nepalese lock might seem like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it will be extremely difficult to put to good use on the remainder of your trip, unless of course you’ll be needing to weigh some papers down when in India.And once you break the large-item seal, you can’t go back.

Think practical—you’ll need to carry it.

Pick up clothing items, pocket-sized souvenirs, food or travel gear. In clothing, you can find immediate gratification, and it gives you something fun to wear when the trip is over. With cheap, lightweight souvenirs, you won’t lose too much space in your bags and their value increases exponentially after you get home. Food is a delicious reminder of where you were but sadly, a fleeting delight. Make sure it’s a non-perishable food item lest you wake up to a great stench. Travel gear provides you with something practical, such as a flash drive picked up on the cheap in a Taipei mall.

This goes without saying but try not to buy fragile items or paper products.

They will be destroyed, no matter how hard you try to keep it from happening. If you simply must have a larger, heavier, or delicate item, you can always ship it back to your home address. Be advised though, shipping costs can make this prohibitively expensive, and, if the thing is of any value to the local small town postmaster, it may never make it to its destination.

Buy from shops and markets, not the gangs of hawkers on the streets

The guys roaming around at major tourist sites selling plastic toys and tiny Eiffel Towers. They’re not genuine businesses and only hurt the local community. Plus they’ll inevitably rip you off. Patronizing them encourages this and only contributes to the problem. Not to mention leaving genuine businesspeople struggling for the same dollar.

What to bring back for those at home

You may be tempted to bring gifts back for loved ones at home. I’m a major advocate of gift giving! While the tchotchkes sold in tourist shops may be super cheap, many times they aren’t made in the city or even country you’re visiting. Buy small handmade items from locals to get the best karmic payback. You also may even be able to grab a photo of the craftsperson to go along with those fancy hand-knit gloves.


You can get the amazing deal you’ve always heard about if you’re willing to haggle a little. It’s almost expected in marketplaces around the world and also the reason the prices seem so high at first glance. The common idea is that if you’re willing the pay the asking price, you deserve to pay too much.

There’s a couple of rules of thumb for haggling that should be remembered if you’re interested in shopping like a seasoned pro.

  • Set your ceiling and stick with it – once you go above that, it’s a slippery slope to full price.
  • Know your product – it’s hard to set a realistic price goal if you don’t know the item’s true value. If you know what you want, do a little research before you get there, or check around in various shops for similar items. Carpets in Turkey for example are worth researching before you even walk into the rug-seller’s shop. Prices can vary wildly depending on what you look like.
  • Be willing to walk away – chances are you can live without that camel-skin wallet. If the seller isn’t budging on the price, turn and head out the door, they may even shout that perfect final offer before you’re gone for good. If he doesn’t deal and the item just won’t stop nagging at you, you can always go back and pick up where you left off.
  • Be reasonable – it’s okay not getting the rock bottom, insanely cheap deal you wanted. Really. Most likely the extra few dollars you’ll spend will be worth more to the seller than to you.
  • Use a smaller shop – large operations usually equal immovable proprietors. A little shop may give you a unique cultural experience and perhaps a cool deal too.
  • Double up – you may be able to get that discount if you buy more than one item from the same shop. If they’ve got any sense the sellers should be willing to come down to get rid of more items from the stock.

Bartering can be an exhausting proposition, especially if you’ve been at it all day. But don’t give in. It’s satisfying to get what you think is a great deal, even if the price on your 50%-off piece was marked up 200%. Locals definitely expect bartering to take place and most likely enjoy it, even if you don’t. Don’t forget, a cultural experience waits for you at every purchase.

Also, some countries are less interested in the haggle. If the proprietor isn’t budging, don’t push it. Shops owners are less likely to haggle than market booths and in some under-developed countries, haggling is just not the order of the day.

* images by clurr, Ed Yourdon and dynamosquito

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