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.

(Adapted from an October 2015 post)

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 training, and I love the handmade bamboo spatulas I scored when we visited Kyoto two years ago.
  • 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 last trip to Japan, including all those interesting flavors of KitKats, and Brett brought back a bucket of delicious and much appreciated Danish butter cookies from his visit to Solvang in 2015 (those did not last long at all). We’re planning to send WenYu and Meiling each a box of their favorite Japanese snacks following our upcoming trip.
  • Clothing items, carefully chosen, are also good souvenirs. I don’t do the t-shirt thing, but Brett came home from his 2015 California trip with a nice collection of shirts from places he visited – they get a lot of wear. Sweatshirts we purchased on Disney World visits when the girls were little were were worn by all three girls before they wore out – we more than got our money’s worth out of them.
  • Finally, we used to 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 bought a few more, although these days we’re trying not to add to our possessions. 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 (to add 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 quickly 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. On our trip to Japan in 2015, YaYu bought very little, 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.

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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17 thoughts on “To Souvenir or Not To Souvenir

  1. Janette says:

    Thank you for sharing your treasures. We. like you, collect art. Pieces range from large to small. I can walk into any room of my house and tell you where the art is from and the artist we purchased it from. I can sleep on a floor as long as the walls are able to take me to a loved time and place!

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    • Laura says:

      I’m the same way – I can walk in a room and tell you where the art is from, the artist or at least why we bought it. We took several pieces of art to auction before we moved over here (and did quite well, thank you!) – the pieces we kept are the ones that carry the most meaning to us. We’ve run out of wall space though, so these days we’re just admiring versus buying.

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  2. Hawaii Planner says:

    No souvenirs for the adults. When we were in Hawaii, the boys each chose a hoodie as their “souvenir”. Nick wears his pretty much every day. Sam’s was “taken” from school after one day. It’s pretty crazy how the name brand hoodies go missing so frequently, even with names on the inside. Now he’s back to wearing the red zip up that he hates. It keeps turning up in the lost & found – a true sign that no one else wants it. 😉

    Love your art work souvenirs!

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    • Laura says:

      Brett and I only sometimes buy souvenirs these days – I got a Navajo silver bracelet last year on our trip to the Southwest, but only because I’ve been wanting one for a while and found one I liked and that was affordable. Brett likes to buy t-shirts because he gets a lot of use out of them here, and I try and stick with practical things, like kitchen goods that will get frequent use. But we often don’t buy anything these days – it depends where we’re going. I’m thinking we may only bring back food from our upcoming Japan trip.

      That’s awful that your son’s sweatshirt was stolen.

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  3. Laurel says:

    I love your artwork and the stories that you shared about it! We, too, buy art and have several favorite pieces from Hawaii. When we were working and had more discretionary money, DH bought a (very small) George Allen painting that hangs in our bedroom. He also loves the Hawaiian quilts that decorated the walkways of one of the Hyatts we stayed at with points (boy, those were the days…) and bought one framed in Kona wood that hangs in my favorite reading space. We also have a few others with great (to us) stories. Like you, we have limited wall space left. We feel lucky to have our art pieces – they hold such special memories.

    DH loves his shirts, too, and nothing makes him happier than visiting a lighthouse with a great T-shirt shop. 🙂 On our recent Hawaii trip, I bought a small piece of pottery and DH found a great T-shirt, but we don’t buy a lot of physical souvenirs anymore. We’re more likely to take a lot of pictures and enjoy those.

    Your vacation money plan for your children is genius. I wish I’d thought of it when my kids were young.

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    • Laura says:

      I LOVE Hawaiian quilts, but the “real” ones are so expensive that I don’t know if we’ll ever own one. We gave a small one to our granddaughter when she was born – maybe that’s the way we should go, although I don’t know where we’d put it.

      I came up with the “kid’s money” idea when our son was little. He and I went on a trip with some friends in Japan, and all he did was whine and ask me to buy him things. So the next time we went somewhere I game him money upfront and told him he couldn’t ask me for anything and he agreed. He spent it all the first day on junk food and was miserable the two remaining days, but never asked me for money. And, he never made that mistake again – he became VERY careful about how he spent his money. It’s been fun to see how different the girls are as well. WenYu will spend almost everything, YaYu will hardly spend anything, and Meiling is somewhere in the middle, but also the most likely to make an impulse purchase she regrets later.

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      • Laurel says:

        Yes, they’re pricey! This is actually a cut paper piece of art made from one of the traditional patterns and then matted and framed. I used to quilt when I was younger and thought of buying a quilting kit while there, but then decided I was too lazy. SO much work. 🙂

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      • Laura says:

        I used to (hand quilt) too, but decided there was no way I was going to attempt a Hawaiian quilt, even a pillow! Applique was not a strong skill for me, and my eyes and motor skills are no longer what they once they were. So, although I made our grandson’s baby quilt (I actually made it years ago, and had it put away), we decided to purchase one that someone else had made for our granddaughter (it is handmade though).

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  4. UnwrittenLifeBlog says:

    I figured out the “giving the kids their own money” in their teens and it does make life a lot easier! A few years back I was on Maui with my BFF and saw a print in a store that I fell in love with. I absolutely could not afford it, so I surreptitiously took a cell phone picture of it and used it as my background for a long time. Same with a picture of Buddha and plumerias in that expensive little shop near where we met to get coffee. I hope it’s not considered stealing! I do also like to buy postcards to frame, and a mouse pad of the Maui print I loved so much. Then I see them, use them, and love them every day.

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    • Laura says:

      That’s actually a genius idea, to take a picture of something you can afford and make it your screensaver, or a mousepad, or something where you can still enjoy it every day.

      Traveling with kids is so much nicer when they’re not bugging you for money or asking you to buy them something.

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  5. anexactinglife says:

    I really like all your prints and framed items! When I travel, I like to buy tea towels and earrings. I shop for clothes when I’m travelling instead of when I’m at home, to get a different selection.And I buy small gifts that would not be available locally.

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    • Laura says:

      I buy earrings too! I can always find something I like at an affordable (to me) price, and they’re easy to bring home. They also remind me of our trip whenever I wear them. I also love the idea of shopping for clothes, although that would be hard to do in Japan because the sizes are so small :(. I look for small gifts too, especially for the girls.

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  6. Mona McGinnis says:

    I like to find aprons on my travels. A favorite ” souvenir” is the driftwood eagle I found on Vancouver Island many years ago.

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    • Laura says:

      Aprons – what a great idea! I think it’s very helpful to have one thing in particular to look for while you’re traveling; it helps keep you focused.

      We purchased one item in China on each of the girls’ adoption trips – an antique box, a tea pot, and a roof tile. They are favorites for us, and remind us of those trips and where we bought them.

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