Eiffel Tower souvenirs

When you shop in a foreign city, do you ever wonder whether you’re buying something authentic, paying too much or falling prey to a tourist trap?

I once paid an exorbitant price for a Venetian glass fish, swindled by a fast-talking hawker in the Piazza San Marco. Like most travelers, I want to come home with a meaningful memento from an international trip. Years after my glass-buying blunder, I have learned a few tricks for locating traditional handmade souvenirs at fair prices. Here are my golden rules for sorting the treasure from the trash:

WHAT TO BUY

Shops from Santa Fe to Singapore overflow with handmade wares, representing a kaleidoscope of local traditions. For the casual traveler, selecting which silk scarf or wood carving to bring home can be intimidating. How to distinguish between the choices? How to judge quality and authenticity? How do you know if you’ve overpaid?

  • Do your homework ahead of time. As you plan your itinerary, read up on what traditional handcrafted goods you’re likely to encounter. What sparks your curiosity? Ceremonial masks? Celadon pottery? Go to the library and read more about them. Even a cursory education will help you avoid reckless purchases that lead to buyer’s remorse.
  • Buy what’s traditional in each town. Buy your Limoges pillbox in Limoges, not in a port-side trinket shop on the French Riviera. And certainly not at the duty-free shop at Charles de Gaulle airport.
  • Look for less obvious finds. You may set out to buy a carnival mask in Venice, but don’t overlook handmade paper. In Mexico City, you’ll see millions of handwoven blankets, but how about tableware made of silver or tin? In Dublin, you might forgo Waterford crystal for a woolen sweater or a handmade wooden rocking horse. Less famous souvenirs are less tainted by tourism, which means you can usually find a good deal on an authentic craft.

WHERE TO BUY

  • Where you buy is at least as important as what you buy. Buy directly from the artisan whenever possible. On the Hopi reservation in Arizona, potters and carvers welcome you into their home studios. In Oaxaca, Mexico, you can chat with weavers while they work their looms. You’ll value your souvenir even more if you make a connection with the person who made it, and the interaction will be one of your trip’s most memorable experiences.
  • When you can’t buy from the artisan, buy from a reputable dealer or shop. Buy from a store with a regional or national reputation, one that guarantees authenticity in writing and offers a clear return policy. Ask a lot of questions. Many factors can influence the value of handcrafted goods. Is the artisan known? Is the piece signed? Was it made using completely traditional techniques?
  • Shop at juried craft exhibitions and museum stores. Buy at craft markets and cultural fairs that are juried, meaning that the exhibitors had to pass quality control to display their wares. Museums also maintain a high-quality standard for the wares in their shops, with a focus on local tradition.
  • Exercise restraint at factory outlets and duty-free shops. Buy only if you know the brand – and its value on the U.S. market. These shops mostly profit from impulse buyers who believe it’s their last chance to grab a deal before heading home.
  • If at all possible, avoid buying from shops and street vendors surrounding cruise ship ports and major tourist attractions like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Great Wall of China, where you’re guaranteed to overpay for a low-quality item. Stick to the handmade and traditional, and you’ll come home with a quality souvenir you’ll treasure for life.

This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

Can you share a story about a treasure (or trash) you found in your travels? Drop a comment below. I love to hear your stories!

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