I hate shopping, and I’m not alone. The sensory overload, the paralysis of too many options, the stress of haggling — it can be overwhelming. But when I’m traveling in a new place, I admit to getting outsize satisfaction from unearthing just the right souvenir.
The best way to find these gems, I’ve found, is to immerse myself in a destination and seek out the unusual. With that in mind, here are three strategies for thinking like a local — avoiding the usual suspects to discover something memorable, and well priced, to take home.
Go to the source
Every place has a specialty, often one that makes for a great deal. Some are well-known: tailored clothes on the cheap in Southeast Asia, vividly hued leather slippers in Morocco. But seek out less obvious items, and you might find even better deals. Even products that might be expensive at home can be found cheaply at the source — small factories or farms, for example.
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Kampot, Cambodia, is known among foodies for its quality peppercorns; cooperatives like FarmLink have made it easy and affordable for tourists to buy them from local farms to bring home ($4 for 40 grams of the spice — half of what it costs when purchased abroad). Although FarmLink was founded to help farmers prepare their crop for export, it now offers free educational tastings and tours of its facility, which farmers use to process their pepper.
Other sources for insider knowledge on what’s available are local expat magazines and websites. And don’t forget to ask around. It takes a bit of work, but a little conversation can yield valuable tips on saving you money — how to ask guides to take you to “real plantations” instead of “tourist farms,” for example.
Visit a neighborhood store
When we were in college, my Honolulu-raised friend Ken used to buy Hawaiian macadamia nut chocolates for mainland friends at Longs drugstores. His rationale: Why spend more than double the price at the airport or elsewhere, when the neighborhood convenience store always had the best price and selection?
According to readers who weighed in on Twitter, the same strategy works everywhere from Kazakhstan (caviar-flavored potato chips!) to Cape Town (packs of biltong, or South African jerky) and Austin, Texas (bluebonnet wildflower seeds), where all manner of intriguing local items are carried at convenience stores — even the 7-Eleven.
Follow the immigrants
In many cities, Chinatown is a place to find inexpensive and colorful gifts; with no more than $5 in hand, I have purchased vintage postcards, funky, stylish wallets and small toys and crafts. But what about lesser-known but no less rich immigrant populations?
Look for neighborhood cultural centers as anchors, and don’t be afraid to walk in and ask questions about how to navigate the area. Chicago is known for its Polish, German and Swedish roots, but next to the city’s Indo-American Center you’ll find Devon Avenue, an Indian corridor dense and lively with shops selling table runners and colorful Lac jewelry, as good as you’d find in Jaipur.