5 Tips for Picking the Right Souvenir on Your Next Trip

Experts share tips for finding memorable (and affordable) mementos to take home.

By Kyle McCarthy, ContributorMarch 23, 2016
U.S. News & World Report

5 Tips for Picking the Right Souvenir on Your Next Trip

Young couple on vacation in Portofino

Seeking out locally crafted items and selecting meaningful objects are smart ways to ensure you bring home a memento that preserves positive memories of your trip.(Getty Images)

The best souvenirs instantly recall a travel moment, so it's no wonder they comprise about 30 percent of the products sold by the country's lucrative gift industry, which comprises roughly $17 billion in annual revenue according to First Research. Picking the right souvenir is challenging; travelers, spellbound by the magic of a new place, may buy junk that ends up at a white elephant sale instead of a memento that appreciates over time.

To help you avoid the former and invest in the latter, here are tips from the experts on how to bag the best souvenir on your next trip.

Avoid Duty-Free Shops

Many travelers are tempted to spend the last of their local currency on Toblerone, the Swiss-made, prism-shaped chocolate – even if they didn't visit Switzerland. But according to Susan Noonan, general manager of product design and development at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a much better way to spend extra currency is at exclusive branded airport stores, which stock merchandise relevant to the destination. "Our airport locations always have a good selection of utility products from packable totes, travel notepad, pencil, activities for kids to do on planes, plus best-selling jewelry, textiles and home gifts," she says. "These stores showcase pieces [that] are easy to travel with and can also speak to an international audience whether as gifts or souvenirs of a trip to our museum locations," she adds.

Buy Something Local

According to Eileen Ogintz, who interviews children for her syndicated column "Taking the Kids" and nine "The Kid's Guide" books (interactive travel guides that make good souvenirs), “The consensus from kids all over the country is to get something you can't get at home: a mini Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or an Eiffel Tower in Paris." Give kids a souvenir allowance and encourage them to buy a Statue of Liberty pencil sharpener, Mt. Rushmore fridge magnet or decorative shot glass – cheap, unique and easy to transport souvenirs.

Make it Useful

Practical souvenirs have greater lasting value, says Sandy Sobelman, chief marketing officer at Fairway Manufacturing Company, a wholesale souvenirs distributor for 61 years. "Things that have a use and a specific visual, like a keychain, pencil or pen, that's what triggers a memory," Sobelman says. For example, at the Lagunitas Brewing Company located in Petaluma, California, just north of San Francisco, families who come to meet farm animals and tour the brewery buy Mason jars, durable drinking glasses which sport the popular craft beer's famous dog logo. Sobelman adds that if you're buying a plush teddy bear, make sure it's wearing a Yellowstone T-shirt or you'll never remember where it came from. Picking up souvenirs made in the U.S.  is a growing trend, a potential bonanza for local craftspeople despite an estimated 200 percent higher cost than goods made in China.

Make it a Good Story

The word "souvenir" comes from the French phrase for memory or remembrance. For instance, when you toured a maple sugaring house in Vermont, didn't sap get stuck on your jeans? Commemorate the experience with a maple leaf-shaped glass bottle full of syrup and every time you refill it, you'll recall that day. At the National Park Service's Blue Ridge Music Center outside of Galax, Virginia, visitors can mix lyrics and melodies from the museum's rich collection of bluegrass, gospel, blues and mountain music, and burn a commemorative CD.

Make it Personal

Remember finding just the right miniature license plate on a revolving rack or making your first ID bracelet with alphabet beads at a farmers market in Los Angeles. Technology has taken personalization to new heights – to a new galaxy – in fact.

These days, you can move beyond embroidering your name on a hat with the "Build Your Own Lightsaber" experience found only at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris shops. “Guests love [it] as they have lots of choices to make a lightsaber that is truly unique," says Cody Hampton, a merchandiser with Disney Theme Park Merchandise who develops Star Wars products. According to Hampton, it's not uncommon to see dads helping little girls in "Self-Rescuing Princess" T-shirts assemble customized Astromech droid action figures and other items at D-Tech on Demand stations in the U.S. "We like to create products that are unique to the Disney Parks experience," Hampton adds. "A great example is the Starspeeder 1000 Vehicle Playset which was inspired by the Star Tours – The Adventures Continue [ride]… a fun way to continue the adventure at home," he says.

If you were too busy having fun on vacation to buy anything, never fret: Online retailer HappyMall.com sells more than 2,000 authentic souvenir items across all 50 states and international countries, such as Canada and Russia. They're used to shipping everything from British "Keep Calm and Carry On" mugs and Japanese Kokeshi dolls to collectors and travelers who couldn't take home their purchases or simply forgot to get something for their mother-in-law. What about the HappyMall.com shoppers who fill a cart with souvenirs before they go, and have them shipped to their hotel? These travelers can bring home memories, without wasting any time making them.

Now that would make a good story. 

Kyle McCarthy, Contributor

Kyle McCarthy, author of a dozen Frommer's guidebooks and contributor to many publications, is ...  Read more

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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