To Souvenir or Not To Souvenir

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A corner of our travel wall collection includes a small watercolor of the Hong Kong harbor; a tiny print of the Seattle skyline; a postcard from Walt Disney World; a traditional Chinese landscape from the Forbidden City; a photo of the Oregon coast; and the Tokyo train and subway map I carried everywhere for 3 1/2 years during our last tour in Japan. The Chinese picture was created by a man using just the side of his hand – no fingers or brushes.

Brett returned a little over a week ago from his road trip through Oregon and California, and came home with some nice souvenirs from his trip. Some were for him, and others were gifts for the rest of us here.

It’s fun, and almost expected when you travel to find something to remind you of the good times you enjoyed, or to share a little of your experience with those back home.

Souvenirs don’t always need to be purchased though:

  • The best souvenirs can’t be seen or touched or heard. They’re the memories created during the journey, and the experiences shared with others.
  • Your own photos make absolutely fabulous souvenirs.
More travel wall photos: Flamingos from our time in Key West; and old photo of Opaekaa Falls on Kaua'i; and "Rainbow Row" in Charleston, South Carolina.

More of our travel collection: Flamingo print from our time in Key West; a vintage photo of Opaekaa Falls on Kaua’i; and “Rainbow Row” in Charleston, South Carolina.

Although I always take lots of pictures and create memories when I travel, I still often enjoying buying things from the places I visit. Over the years, and through trial and error, I have developed a set of personal rules for my souvenir purchases:

  • We always have a budgeted amount for souvenirs and we stick to it. I know I’ve felt disappointed that I couldn’t buy something because it would either blow up the budget or put us over or mean I couldn’t get something else I had my eye on, but in hindsight I have absolutely no regrets about anything I didn’t get to buy. I don’t even remember what those things were.
  • A useful souvenir is always best. So, no totchkes or knickknacks for us. Brett and I have often bought coffee cups from cities we’ve visited (yeah Starbucks!) that we use for our daily coffee. On my most recent trips to Japan I bought several tenugui, cotton hand towels that are printed with amazing designs, from traditional Japanese themes to the avant-garde. These towels get used daily in our kitchen, and seeing them provides wonderful reminders of when and where I bought them. I also look for things I can use in the kitchen – these items are usually affordable and connect me to a place and time whenever I use them. I’m still using the spoon rest I bought 36 years ago when we were in Coronado for Brett to attend some training, and I love the handmade bamboo spatulas I scored this past spring in Kyoto.
  • Local food makes a fabulous souvenir. Food items are not as permanent a souvenir as a coffee mug or kitchen towel, but they can help draw out the experience and memories as long as they last. And, food items are usually very affordable. We brought home an amazing selection of sauces and snacks from our trip to Japan last spring, including all those interesting flavors of KitKats, and Brett just brought back a bucket of delicious and much appreciated Danish butter cookies from Solvang (which did not last long at all).
  • Clothing items, carefully chosen, are also good souvenirs. I don’t do the t-shirt thing, but Brett came home this time with a nice collection of shirts from places he visited – they’ll get a lot of wear. He brought WenYu a shirt from Scripps College, her top choice school – she was thrilled. Sweatshirts we purchased on Disney World visits were worn by all three girls before they wore out – we more than got our money’s worth out of them.
  • Finally, we can always look for a picture to add to our travel wall. We started our collection back when Brett was in the navy, for reminders of places we were stationed or visited. We continued the tradition after he retired and sometimes still buy a picture that calls to us. We treasure every piece of our collection and every memory they recall. For example, the worn and broken creases in the folds of my Japanese train map remind me of the many times I pulled that map out and poured over it to find my way around Tokyo. The little watercolor of Hong Kong was purchased one evening from a street vendor in Kowloon, as Brett and I walked back to our hotel after dinner. The picture of the Golden Gate Bridge was from our trip to San Francisco for our 25th wedding anniversary, purchased on the day we decided to adopt one more time (adding YaYu to our family). Every one of the pictures is uniquely special to us.
Cross section of the Golden Gate bridge.

Cross section of the Golden Gate bridge.

The combination of kids and souvenirs can be both tricky and trying. Kids love stuff, and sometimes it seems they want you to buy them everything they set their eyes on. Our solution has been to give each child a set amount of spending money the first day of travel (to be added to whatever they have saved on their own and want to bring along). They can do whatever they want with the money we give them, buy whatever they want whenever they want. But . . . they are not allowed to ask for any more money during the trip nor can they ask us to buy something for them, including snacks. We started all of them out with this at a fairly young age, around five years old. Typically there was a quick, impulsive purchase that was almost instantly regretted when they saw how their money dwindled, but for the rest of that vacation and future ones every purchase was carefully considered, even when they were just five or six years old. This system even worked at Disney World, where there’s a souvenir store every couple of feet and more temptation than can be counted. More often than not, all four of our children usually have/had money left over at the end of each trip. This past spring, YaYu bought very little in Japan, then saved up a bit more after she got home and bought herself a new (inexpensive) computer – totally her choice of what to do with the money we gave her for the trip. With this system, Brett and I have found ourselves able to enjoy our time with the kids and not feel like cash registers or pressured to buy, buy, buy when we travel. The kids like the system too, and the control they have over their purchases.

The underside of the US 101 bridge in Florence, Oregon. We camped with other adoptive families in Florence every summer for over 10 years.

The underside of the US 101 bridge in Florence, Oregon. We camped with other adoptive families in Florence every summer for over 10 years.

Souvenirs are an intensely personal and usually fun part of any travel experience, and whether they’re a planned purchase or a spontaneous find, you don’t have to break your travel budget in order to bring home something special from a memorable journey.

So, what do you like to buy when you travel? How do you handle souvenir shopping? What’s your most treasured souvenir?

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26 thoughts on “To Souvenir or Not To Souvenir

  1. Snoskred says:

    My last few trips have mostly been to Oahu and from Australia the shopping is absolutely fantastic over there, eg sneakers which would cost $160 here for $20-30 and the clothes are incredible bargains compared to buying here in Australia.. Pretty much 99% of the days I get dressed, I am wearing at least one item I brought back from Hawaii – on the last two trips I went on a huge underwear spending spree, easy when every item is on the Macys clearance rack at $2-3 instead of $15-20.

    One of my favourite souvenirs from Hawaii originates from Kauai – the Island Soap and Candle Works range of body lotions, lip balms and body wash. When we were there in 2013 I brought home a huge amount of the Hawaiian Sunrise flavour of Shea Butter Body Cream. I love it because it has a happy citrus scent. 🙂

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    • Laura says:

      I have family in Australia (Townesville and Bribane in Queensland) and when they come to the States they SHOP! We’d try to show them around town and they wanted to hit the mall. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was until this last time when they explained the difference in prices. Then it all made sense. Maybe the difference in prices would keep me from buying much in Australia ;-).

      Hawaiian Sunrise is my favorite! I have tubes of the Shea Butter Body creme in several strategic places around the house! I love the soaps, etc. from Island Soap and Candle Works, and one of my favorite things from there is the little pumice stone carved in the shape of a foot – that I use to exfoliate my feet!

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  2. Denise says:

    We have a lot of Christmas ornaments too! And Laura, I did the same thing with my kids on vacation – it’s funny how they don’t NEED something quite so bad when they’re spending their own money.

    One tiny little way I keep vacations with me is to use pictures on my phone, The main one I have right now is from last January when we visited you! There’s a store by the coffee shop with really pretty little items, as well as some costly ones. I fell in love with a large picture of plumeria on a gilt background. It was absolutely not affordable, so I discreetly took a picture with my phone, and I see it every day. I hope artists are okay with this? I’m not disseminating their work, just enjoying it. Hopefully I’ve not committed some heinous act!

    Before the plumeria, I had a shot from Disneyland of a picture of Minnie applying lipstick in a mirror. I’m not a huge Mickey or Minnie fan, but I just loved that picture – again, completely unaffordable. And my “art collection” all started with a gorgeous print on Maui when I was their with my best friend.

    Speaking of that little store by you, there were some adorable plump yoga figures that I fell in love with. I didn’t buy one, and I think of them often. I hope they will still be there when we visit next year!

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    • Laura says:

      Letting my kids control their own money on vacation was a revelation. The first time I did it our son was 10 years old. He wasn’t really a beggar or whiner when it came to souvenirs or buying things, but I found we always seemed to be spending a bit more on him than we had budgeted. The first time he had his own money he spent it all on the first day . . . on junk food. I didn’t say a word, but he figured out very fast that he didn’t have anything left for the rest of the vacation and was miserable. But, he knew the rules and didn’t say anything. He came home with money every vacation afterwards. We started much earlier with the girls; they caught on very quickly.

      I think your idea of taking a picture of what would be an over-priced or too expensive souvenir is a great one! I am going to start doing that. I might not be able to afford something, but I can appreciate the item or picture forever with my own picture (BTW, I don’t think there’s any problem taking a picture of someone else’s picture).

      And, now I am going to have to go up to Kilauea and look at those little yoga figures! If we’re thinking about the same shop, nothing in there is affordable ;-).

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  3. Karyn says:

    I love your travel wall! Beautiful memories!
    I buy a piece of jewelry for myself from each place I visit. When I go to put it on, I recall the wonderful trip we had. Trouble is, since I’ve been doing this for 30 years or so, I have now forgotten where I got some of my pieces!! But they still have happy memories attached to them.
    I allow my daughter (now 15) one souvenir from the trip. (with a $ limit, of course!) She can buy whatever she wants, but once the purchase is made, that’s it!

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    • Laura says:

      Jewelry is a great idea – sometimes I buy myself a pair of earrings for a souvenir.

      Brett and I still always buy something for our children when we travel, but more as a surprise. Usually it’s something we can tell they’d really like to have but don’t have enough to purchase, or if they did purchase would have nothing left for later. We love being able to do that for them.

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  4. M'Shell says:

    We had a year where we bought a mug at every weekend trip we took. I love to travel and it is wonderful to enjoy a cup of tea and remember the good memories from the places we visited. I’d like to get some hooks and hang the mugs from under the cabinet as a display.

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    • Laura says:

      I think the cups we have bought over the years might really be our favorite souvenirs. I’m having my coffee this morning in one of the Tokyo mugs we bought when we went to Japan to meet our new grandson, and as always it makes me pause to remember that special trip. Same for all the other cups we’ve bought over the years. Some have the name of the city, others don’t, but I know when and where we bought each one.

      I think hanging them up would be a great idea, and another way for you to see them more often!

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      • Laura says:

        LOL. Yes, they would definitely be called “toothpick holders” by Disney.

        One thing I liked about our Disneyland/Disney World visits was that I was never tempted to buy anything because I personally don’t care for Disney-themed items, and the non-Disney items over in Epcot were always w-a-y over-priced. All I ever seemed to come home with were chocolates and maybe some tea from the British area in Epcot.

        Back in the day though Disney had shops that sold non-Disney items. There was a Pendleton shop in Frontierland, and we are still using the pepper mill we bought 35+ years ago at a kitchenware shop that was located around the corner from the Haunted Mansion. We have beautiful, well-crafted European wooden train ornaments on our tree from a shop in Fantasyland. It was very disappointing when all of that disappeared and everything became Disney-fied.

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  5. Libby says:

    It took me a while to figure out that the practical/useful souvenirs were my favorites. I brought home a set of everyday plates from France 22 years ago that I used until they gave up the ghost.

    I’ve bought fabric on some trips…..including Hawaii and Mexico and had it made into cloth napkins, duvet cover, and a quilt.

    Me too with the Xmas ornaments from around the world – a man in Morocco who took date palm leaves and wove into a camel ornament, an Eiffel Tower key chain/ornament, hand-painted blown eggs from Hungary, etc. such a lovely trip down memory lane each Xmas.

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    • Laura says:

      I admit to buying knickknacks and totchkes in the past, but they have long disappeared. The practical things we bought we still have and still use, and they still bring pleasure and good memories.

      Your travel ornaments sound beautiful! Our tree is already loaded with ornaments, but we’ll have to make room for more when we finally get ourselves over to Europe.

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  6. Hawaii Planner says:

    We’re not big souvenir purchasers. . . I did buy M a nice Adidas golf shirt with the Fairmont Kea Lani in very small letters on the sleeve. Something he will wear often, and not a visible marketing for the hotel. 😉

    Also, I went to Claremont McKenna, so super familiar with Scripps. Small world! 🙂

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    • Laura says:

      Small world indeed! Brett’s sister took him over there to look it over when he was in LA, and he picked up the t-shirt for WenYu. Our oldest daughter was waitlisted there last year, but Scripps never takes anyone off their waitlist, and she is very happy now where she’s at. We’ve got our fingers crossed for WenYu though! One of the things that excites her about Scripps is that she can take classes at the other Claremont schools, like Claremont McKenna. My uncle went there, back when it was Claremont Men’s.

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  7. Vivian says:

    My favorite souvenir is a “Sgian Dubh” a Scottish kilt knife that I bought in the gift shop at the foot of Windsor Castle. I have all the souvenir Playbills from the plays I saw in London. Mostly I get books and pamphlets as souvenirs. They take up too much space but all the pictures bring back so many memories.

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    • Laura says:

      You and Brett are two of a kind! He also saves all sorts of books, pamphlets, maps, tickets and such whenever he travels. They do take up a lot of space, but he goes through them every so often to thin them out, and get rid of ones he decides he doesn’t need or want to keep.

      One of our favorite souvenirs from when we lived in Japan were the books we filled with stamps that are available at train stations (“stamp rally”), or with seals and calligraphy done by priests at the Buddhist and Shinto shrines (go shuin). The calligraphy is exquisite. Stamps at the stations are free, but you have to make a small donation at a shrine or temple.

      P.S. Your comment also made me go look up what a Scottish kilt knife is. And now I know!

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  8. Moonwaves says:

    I love this post. I may have to do a similar one soon with some of my favourite souvenirs. I have to admit that I do still kind of love all of the tacky, pointless stuff you can get – part of that comes from having worked two seasons in a sounvenir shop in the Black Forest. Even knowing that the vast majority of the stuff is Made in China. But nonetheless, when I was about twenty I decided that I only wanted souvenirs that are practical. It took me another few years to figure out what that meant for me. I have quite a few shot glasses, for example, but almost never drink shots or have much use for them. So shot glasses mostly got crossed off the list. At this stage, I have plenty of mugs, too. One of my favourites is one I bought in Gothenburg in Sweden – it’s not a souvenir mug, just a really nice one that I saw in a Depot-type shop. The thing is that I would never have spent that much on a cup or mug if I had been at home, so I use my souvenir budget to sometimes buy individual items that are a bit more expensive than I might normally spend. These days, it’s mostly christmas ornaments. I allow myself to buy one good one every year and most often buy something while travelling. It is lovely to pull each one out every year and remember all the various trips.

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    • Laura says:

      I agree that a souvenir doesn’t have to be a “souvenir,” if you know what I mean. Your mug from Gothenburg is a good example. It maybe doesn’t scream “I’ve been to Sweden!” to anyone else, but for you it brings back memories. That’s why I like kitchen utensils and the kitchen towels we bought in Japan. They probably don’t look like anything special to anyone else, but they’re loaded with memories and good feelings for me.

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  9. Kris says:

    It takes a while to realize there is no place to put the stuff once home. A t shirt you wear a few years and then it gets donated or tossed if full of holes or outgrown in the case of kids. A tshirt means you can pack one or two less items in your bag coming over and you usually have room going back if you usually pack a few snacks or consumables to the destination or didn’t fill the bag entirely going over having a lighter bag one way.

    To remember a trip you have photos.

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    • Laura says:

      And, clothing souvenirs don’t have to be t-shirts! A sweater you buy because it gets chilly is just as good a souvenir as a t-shirt. Or a pair of shoes. Or a nightgown or robe. Maybe no one else knows where you got that piece of clothing or why, but you will. Same for things like a wine opener, or something else that bears no name or direct relation to the place for anyone else, but for you is loaded with memory.

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  10. Kris says:

    We also have a map of the world, Pacific centered instead of Atlantic centered and colored pins based on who in the family travelled/lived to for each destination pinned.

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      • Kris says:

        Husband was born in Hawaii, son was born in China, I was born in Chicago and the pacific centered map really shows us all spread out across the globe instead of us on either end of the thing. Also Husband spent some time in the Army before we met so we have quite a few pins. We should travel to the Southern Hemisphere at some point. No one has been there yet. If only it didn’t take so long to travel so far.

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      • Laura says:

        A Pacific-centered map would work best for us too.

        Brett has been to Australia a couple of times courtesy of the navy, as well as Africa and all over Europe. The only two continents he’s missing are South America and Antartica. My travel has all either been in North America or Asia.

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