We all have that drawer inside our desk or the shoebox in our closet that is full stuff that we barely—if ever—use. For me, the items that bother me the most in these piles are the ones that I’ve picked up from my travels. Not only did I spend hard-earned money on these things but I lugged them halfway around the world. Now they just sit in a dark corner of my house somewhere.
We buy things when we travel to remind ourselves of the adventure we had. So why do we buy things that we just tuck into drawers? Here my guide to skip the snow globes, the t-shirts, and keychains. I’ve made a few guidelines to follow when bringing back souvenirs that can help you decide if you should buy something or leave it sitting on the store shelf.
Souvenir Shops Are Off Limits
This first part is the most important. In fact, it’s more like a rule than a guideline. Don’t set foot inside a souvenir shop. There are enough trinkets inscribed with a location’s name floating around the world, please don’t encourage the creation of more of them by purchasing these sort of things.
You don’t need some with a city’s name on it to prove you were; your stories will do that. Instead of buying the refrigerator magnet, take a photo of yourself in front of a city’s welcome sign or standing by a famous monument, make a print, and put that on your fridge.
If you’re the sort that usually likes to buy shirts or hats with location names on them try this: go to the tourism office and ask if there are any local art centers in the area and find something made by a local craftsperson. I picked up my now-favorite scarf in Donegal, Ireland knitted by a local artist named Clare O’Presco. There is even a tag on the scarf with her name embroidered on it—along with the town’s name.
If you’re avoiding souvenir shops, where else can you find things to remind you of your trip? A lot of items that I pick up are from antique and art markets, as well as more common sort of stores like kitchen stores, hardware stores, bookshops, and farmers markets.
Decide on Decorations Ahead of Time
Before you even leave for a trip, make a list of missing decorations around your house and projects for which you need supplies. Record the dimensions of that space on your wall that you want to get art hung on. Take note of the size of the pictures that you’ve meant to frame. Take a photo with your phone of that empty area on your shelf that needs a little something to balance it out.
Are there small items that you’ve recently thought would be handy to have around the house? Imagine how much more you’d enjoy a set of hooks for your coats that you picked up in Germany than a pack of hooks bought at Lowe’s and you see in everyone else’s kitchen.
Even highly-specific items can be fun to hunt for and end up being part of the adventure of your trip, encouraging you to go into stores that you’d usually never enter. For instance, the door to get into my camper/office is very short, so whenever I travel to the British Isles, I’m on the lookout for one of those Victorian-era “Mind Your Head” signs that used to hang above train doors in England. This hunt has not just brought me inside posh boutiques and antique stores but dingy thrift stores as well.
Only Buy Items You Will Really Use
I love useful things, so this guideline is my favorite out of the bunch. When I’m about to purchase something while traveling I ask myself, will I use this at least once a week.
When I was in Iringa, Tanzania, I visited a Maasai market where vendors were selling a seemingly endless number of trinkets. Everything for sale was hand-carved out of African Blackwood; I wanted to buy it all! I even had a carved wood giraffe in my hand until I remembered this guideline. So instead I purchased a wooden spoon made out of the same wood. We use this spoon every week to cook and serve meals with, and I think about being in the market every time we do.
My family loves to cook, so kitchen items are our go-to travel souvenir. While we were in Italy, we bought a copper sauce pot from an antique market in Lucca and a pepper mill from a kitchen store in Rome. I’ve bought another wooden spoon (I’m a sucker for these) from a hippie on Lasqueti Island, Canada, and some serving bowls on a quick trip up to Kansas City. Each time we use these items, it reminds us of the places we’ve been.
Get Books for the Kids to Read
My daughter loves books and hopefully, my son will too (he’s 11 months and likes chewing on them more than reading them) so every time that I travel anywhere, I always bring back a book for each of them. When I’m staying stateside, that means they get new books for bedtime stories. But when I’m traveling internationally, I try to get a book in the local language or about local folklore and legends. My daughter gets a kick out of me fumbling through the Dutch book about an elephant that thinks that it is a cat. She’d also have me read the book of Irish legends five times a day if she could.
One thing I’ve done recently that works out well for everyone in our household is buying books for infants in the local language. These are usually simple, vocabulary books with bright pictures and a single word on each page. Our baby son likes looking at the pictures while our daughter joins us in trying to learn the words in the book. The Italian baby book that I bought this past summer in Bologna, Italy is as good as using flash cards and has helped me remember the Italian words for everyday items like pants, shoes, and socks.
I’m curious, do you have any things that you do to keep yourself from bringing home junk? Are there any rules that you follow to keep your refrigerator filled up with magnets or your closet filled with kitschy t-shirts? Leave a comment below and let me know what sort of hacks you’ve come up with to help your house from being overcome with travel clutter.