A trip overseas, especially with today’s fuel prices and other changes in the airline industry, is different now than it was even a few years ago. This is especially true in regards to the topic of this post: How to deal with the problem of vicarious travelers and their need for trinkets, as well as your desire to bring trinkets to everyone you know when you go on a trip.

At the very outset I want to tell you this: There is precious little in the way of legal trinkets that a traveler can find anywhere in the world they may go that can not be obtained at the local trinket shop in your own home town, or on the web. The only value of a trinket from abroad is the thought that counts behind the gift. That thought may be worth a lot. But under the present circumstances, the cost may be higher than the worth.

I speak with some experience. I myself have made many trips overseas to exotic locations. On most of those trips, I was accompanied by, or met up with, a handful of others with whom I traveled. On a smaller number of these trips, I was responsible for the well being and happiness of anywhere from a few to a dozen or more individuals who were on what we will loosely call a “field school.” On an even smaller number (but not terribly small) of trips, I was responsible for the happiness and wellbeing of about 20 tourists.

So when you add it up, I have either partaken in or observed with more than passive interest … indeed, observed in connection with intense involvement …. the travel adventure of an American times about 200. So it is like I take a trip once or twice a year and I’m 150 years old. So listen to my wisdom.


We are all vicarious travelers. We empathetically hope for the best for our loved ones who travel abroad. We enjoy (up to a point) seeing their slides and snapshots when they return. We enjoy hearing their stories.

And in addition, we enjoy getting post cards and receiving little gifties from the travelers themselves. That make it like we were actually there doing the traveling ourselves, and picked up a trinket or two along the way.

This seems innocent enough, but in fact, in some cases it simply is not. In some cases it is on the verge of offensive, or at least, problematic. Mostly, this is simple logic and arithmetic. So, let’s do the math.

There is no room for the trinkets

On many adventure trips, one is required to take a single bag and a carry on, which in turn is usually a backpack. No laptop bag. No purse. No extra bag filled with your favorite bottles of liquor, no second bag in which you keep a pile of extra clothes and books.

One bag, one backpack, with maximum dimensions and weight specified. When everyone has to get on a small airplane and the airplane has a maximum weight, it is not just the case that your fellow tourists will look at you like you are a jerk for having more than your share. No, the pilot, or the person with my job, will simply help you to jettison your extra bags. Sorry, but we’re not going down over the jungle or the sea because you can’t read the instructions or don’t care. One bag, one backpack, with maximum dimensions and weight specified.

Under these travel conditions, it is not possible to pick up very many trinkets along the way. If you pick up more than two or three items of any size at all, you’ve got to start to jettison the stuff you carefully chose to bring with you. Like your snorkel and mask …. you get the trinket but when you get to the snorkeling phase of your trip, you get to sit on the rocks and watch your fellow travelers commune with the fish.

At the end of the trip, it may be possible to do some serious shopping to pick up trinkets for yourself and for others. However, there are several difficulties in doing this. I shall enumerate them, of course.

You can’t do this if you don’t have time

The departure phase of a trip can be havoc, stressful, and difficult. On one trip, traveling with a companion, I assured my companion (and myself) that we would not need to pick up any trinkets until we got to the airport on the way out of the country because the airport in question had a huge and inexpensive gift shop. We could just leave lots of room in our carry on bags and load up there while we were waiting for our flight.

That year that gift shop was closed for renovation.

Fear of gift shop closure can lead to pre-departure day shopping sprees and great anxiety. Again, traveling with others, I warned my colleagues that the gift shop may not be available on the last day, and advised using the penultimate day and the one before that for getting trinkets and stuff. I still remember with horror one of these travelers turning to me in a shopping mall, where there was NOT the really good rug store that was there the last time I was in town, and screaming “You told me that the ONLY real reason to come on this field school was the incredible prices on Asian rugs, you bastard!!!! And now WHAT AM I GOING TO DO. WHERE AM I GOING TO GET THE RUG!!!. Wow. I don’t remember what happened to that particular student. I think we had to put her down.

There is the distinct possibility that the trip, bought and paid for and fit into a traveler’s busy schedule of work and/or school, simply does not include a day or two at the end for trinket acquisition forays. And if there is a day or so, one can not be sure how it will go.

Shopping Sucks

If you are expecting your friend to get you a trinket, and your friend does not like to shop, then you are asking your friend to do something s/he does not really want to do on this hard earned vacation. How obnoxious of you to ask this of your friend, you should be ashamed of yourself!

Some people love to shop. Indeed, some travelers love to shop. But what not all shoppers understand is that if you don’t like to shop, then shopping really sucks. Some people like small engine repair. But if you don’t like small engine repair, taking the freakin’ lawn mower apart and putting it back together is NEVER going to be fun. Remember that, please.

When I have run tours in South Africa or East Africa, we always recognized this. You divide the tourists into two groups. The shoppers go in one group, the non-shoppers go in the other. Among older western middle or upper SES Caucasian American couples, this is almost always by gender. But it does not matter. You divide them up.

Then you get the shoppers to the shopping place, and the non-shoppers to a shady place with beer. Then everybody takes their time and everybody is happy. Many shopping facilities in tourist areas are designed to make this easy.

But, not all trips are designed for shopping. In fact, most adventure travel trips are not. Or, if they are, they are not necessarily designed well for this purpose because there are so many other important constraints. My daughter is going on a very well designed trip this week, and the best shopping is going to be on the first two days, after which she would have to carry things with her for the next two weeks. I’m advising her to only purchase clothing with which she can replace what she brought during these two days (like a nice sweater made out of a llama or something to replace some old acrylic sweater from The Gap).

The demographic shift has caused a supply and demand problem

When younger people travel and are expected to bring presents to grand parents, parents, step parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, friends, etc. there is a problem. With smaller family size, the average college student traveling abroad will have about 23 people for whom s/he is expected to buy an item. This is exacerbated by the fact that those 23 people can’t travel as much as they would like to, and it is only the youngsters doing the traveling, using school loans. So the desire for the commodity is high and the supply is weak.

I have had students with lists longer than this that they are expected to fill. In East and southern Africa, I’ve advised them to purchase a large number of small batiks or banana leaf pictures. They roll up, are sturdy, not much thicker than paper, and should be fairly inexpensive. Of course, these items can be purchased at your local ethnic outlet for less…

There is not room

Remember above where I said that in an adventure travel situation, one is expected to carry only a certain amount of luggage. But these days this is true even more broadly. It used to be that Americans got two bags and everyone else in the world got one, but if you started out in the US the two bag rule followed you around the world. However, a while ago (and this may be an unpleasant surprise for any of you who are traveling overseas for the first time in a few years) this changed. Americans traveling overseas on economy get one bag. Indeed, in the US today, you only get one bag in many cases, and in some cases, you actually get zero bags unless you want to pay for them.

The increased demographic pressure on the trinket traffic in combination with bag constraints combine to make bringing trinkets back a much, much more onerous task than it ever was.

Some time ago, I decided to not allow it on trips I ran for academic purposes. On field schools, I simply told the students that they were expected to carry samples back to the US in their luggage, and that they needed to inform their friends and family that there would be no way to brink back trinkets. Of course, I never asked a student to actually carry samples unless for their own research needs, and they could get trinkets. But this made the getting of trinkets a much lower stress matter than it otherwise might have been.

What do to?

As I said above, my daughter is heading out on a trip in a couple of days. This trip is to the Galapagos Islands, with my sister and her husband, and his niece. I am authorizing my sister to do whatever she needs to do in regards to trinkets, including blowing the whole thing off, as I know they are only going to be in places to buy things briefly, if at all, near the end of the trip. I don’t want my expanded and extended family (and I’m sure they understand totally) to burden these two adults who have graciously decided to bring these ‘tweens on this wonderful trip with such expectations. I’m advising Julia to avoid making promises, and to respond to the statement “Oh, bring me something” with “They told me there would be no room for trinkets on the boat” or “The last thing we do on this trip is skydiving with our luggage into the jungle. Any extra weight and we’re gonners” or words to that effect.

I want only two things from this trip. Everyone’s safe return, and everyone having had a fantastic experience. If I want a trinket from Ecuador, I’ll go down to the Ecuadoran Trinket Store and pick one out. It will probably be cheaper, and this approach will be, certainly, much much easier.

Comments

  1. #1 speedwell
    July 1, 2008

    Hear, hear. I recently went on a business trip to Scotland with my (small) team for two weeks, and my boss took us sightseeing that Saturday. One of the spots we went to was the Glenfiddich distillery. That night I called my fiancé to tell him about the trip, and he asked me (seriously) if I had bought him anything there. I told him truthfully there was nothing in the gift shop he would want that he could not buy at the liquor store on the corner. I did find him another souvenir, but it was a hard slog trying to find something I could not buy just as easily online. Last week I even found the Scottish orange soda Irn-Bru at one of our local grocery stores.

  2. #2 Aaron Golas
    July 1, 2008

    Nice German pun in the title.

    I’ve been out of the country once, to Great Britain and France. And I was expected to bring home souvenirs. I felt like an idiot, and I’ve vowed not to worry about gift shopping abroad ever again.

    But hey, I came home with a British version of Monopoly! It used pounds sterling instead of dollars! You just try finding Monopoly for sale in America!

  3. #3 Colin M
    July 1, 2008

    FWIW, my mom’s simple request any time that I travel anywhere is a rock. Not necessarily a big rock or a special rock or anything, just a small stone off the street is fine. I generally take a picture of it “in its natural environment” before collecting it. She rather likes this, and so do I because it’s easy, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t weight much or take too much space.

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    July 1, 2008

    If I could just get my mother not to bring back trinkets, I’d be perfectly happy.

  5. #5 Matt Penfold
    July 1, 2008

    I agree except for when visiting mainland Europe. Should I happen to be in Spain, France or Italy I refuse not to come back with some evil smelling cheese, something alcoholic and some cured meats. It is true I probably do not come back with anything I cannot get in the UK but I know I would end up paying five times as much over here.

  6. #6 Julie Stahlhut
    July 1, 2008

    Overseas airport shopping is a very special tax on people who can’t remember what an exchange rate is.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    July 1, 2008

    I just want to be clear on one thing: Certainly, bring things back as opportunity allows and need arises! For instance, I used to bring back a pile of roibos tea and some Nando’s sauce from South Africa every trip. Not to give to other people, but certainly to share when they are my guests.

    Now, of course, “red tea” is readily availble in the US. And most recently I discovered Nando’s sauce at Cub Foods (the regular grocery store chain) in Minnesota!

  8. #8 Virgil Samms
    July 1, 2008

    Postcards work for me. They are cheap, and you don’t have to bring them home. It’s actually better if you mail them from the destination.

  9. #9 Dr. Kate
    July 1, 2008

    Another issue not mentioned above: equality. My regular travel companion is a coworker, and we always run into the problem of “Oh, this would be perfect for [coworker A]…but then we’d have to get something for [coworker B] and [boss], and I have no idea what they’d like.” I would imagine it gets even worse with relatives.

    And speaking of that…I recently told my husband’s extended family that I was going to Ireland on vacation. They immediately told me about some specific type of Irish china or ceramic that Grandma “really likes.” A tip to anyone related to someone going on a trip: Just don’t even ask for the traveler to buy you anything. If it’s free, fine. I don’t even mind people saying “drink a Guinness for me!” But it just seems rude to me to ask someone to buy you something on their vacation…even if you know them well.

    Consider: If Joe asks me to buy him something, then if I do it, I don’t get any kudos. If I don’t buy him something, I’m a jerk. But if Joe doesn’t ask me to buy him anything, and I buy him something, then I’m a superstar. If I don’t, it’s no big deal.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    July 1, 2008

    It’s actually better if you mail them from the destination

    Which, in some countries, is only slightly easier than, say, taking over the military.

    Consider: If Joe asks me to buy him something, then if I do it, I don’t get any kudos. If I don’t buy him something, I’m a jerk. But if Joe doesn’t ask me to buy him anything, and I buy him something, then I’m a superstar.

    My hidden unspoken point exactly!!!!1

  11. #11 deang
    July 1, 2008

    I’m one of the ones who would be put in the “hates shopping” group and I appreciate your awareness of us. I do have a desire to help local artisans whose work I admire, though, and that has caused me to buy things that I like but that I then don’t know what to do with, and of course it just adds bulk to my bags. What I do instead is get contact information for them and make local import businesses aware of their work. That way I’m helping them out but I don’t have to buy anything.

  12. #12 Paul Murray
    July 2, 2008

    I loathe gift shopping. Always have. If it’s an adventure holiday, send a fricking postcard with an exotic stamp and postmark. Heck – in these days of email, snailmail is in itself special enough to count as thoughtful.

    The very notion that someone should go to an exotic locale and have to spend time in shops, rather than enjoying the locale … weird.

  13. #13 Coturnix
    July 2, 2008

    I tend to travel light: me, my laptop and a sweater if it gets cold on the airplane. There is no place on Earth where I cannot buy a toothbrush and a razor. People do not expect presents from me, though I do sometimes surprise them. The exception – a traditional present for my daughter. Works in big cities only.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    July 2, 2008

    Isn’t there a story about someone who collects snow globes? Or in which the person does so?

  15. #15 Coturnix
    July 2, 2008

    Don’t know. But you can use my own story if you want… ;-)

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    July 2, 2008

    I have looked at your story and it inspired me to write a blog post on something related to snow globes.

  17. #17 Hendrik
    July 4, 2008

    Greg, I once hauled a suitcase weighing 35kg (that is almost 80lbs to the rest of you) with Nando’s, Rooibos tea, biltong, Smarties, ProNutro and Mrs Ball’s chutney from Johannesburg to Egypt. Ended up paying a fortune for the excess luggage. Just to please friends. Another time I landed in Miami with 24 bottles of KWV Roodeberg and had some difficulty convincing the customs official that it was for personal consumption (it was!). Business travel is bad enough without having the additional obligation to bear gifts for those fortunate souls who never leave their home town.

  18. #18 Hendrik
    July 4, 2008

    Greg, I once hauled a suitcase weighing 35kg (that is almost 80lbs to the rest of you) with Nando’s, Rooibos tea, biltong, Smarties, ProNutro and Mrs Ball’s chutney from Johannesburg to Egypt. Ended up paying a fortune for the excess luggage. Just to please friends. Another time I landed in Miami with 24 bottles of KWV Roodeberg and had some difficulty convincing the customs official that it was for personal consumption (it was!). Business travel is bad enough without having the additional obligation to bear gifts for those fortunate souls who never leave their home town.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    July 4, 2008

    24 bottles of KWV Roodeberg and had some difficulty convincing the customs official that it was for personal consumption (it was!)

    A person may have five or six bottles of wine in their house. A wine store has 100,000 bottles of wine. 24 is a modest number!!!

    I’m a little unhappy with the rate of growth and choice for S.A. wines in the Twin Cities area, by the way.

  20. #20 Andy
    July 4, 2008

    >Of course, these items can be purchased at your local ethnic outlet for less…

    I reduced the stress in my gift-finding (when I chose to do it) by A) buying lightweight, compressible items along the lines of batik, and B) shopping at non-tourist markets and stores whenever possible. During my most recent expedition to Madagascar, I found this absolutely unique mortar and pestle made out of the local basalt, in the open air market in Antsiranana. My wife *loved* it, and I think I spent the equivalent of 50 cents for it (and this was with the “vazaha tax” added in!). If I could find it cheaper at the local hippie goods store, it ain’t worth carting back!

  21. #21 Stephanie
    July 7, 2008

    Wonderful post! As RVers, we run into the problem of: trinket-buying without the limitation of “one backpack” and other people giving us trinkets to keep!