Monday, June 6, 2016

Shopping Abroad

Taking a vacation can leave a big hole in your budget if you let it. But it doesn't have to.

Many people look at a vacation as an opportunity to splurge, to take a break from frugality. Nevertheless, most of us are not above searching for the best airfare, hotel, and rental car prices when the vacation is in its planning stages.

But shopping is an important part of travel for many people; a hobby for some. When I look at many of my friends and fellow travelers, I realize why I'm able to travel a lot more on a similar budget: I rarely spend much money shopping—that potential budget buster.

It's not that I don't love strolling through markets and absorbing the local color; I just don't buy. Unless I'm staying somewhere with a kitchen and plan to cook a meal, what do I need with food purchases? Sometimes I will buy spices or packaged candy to take home for presents or personal use.

More interesting to me than the typical tourist shopping venues are the local grocery stores; I enjoy seeing what selections the residents have available, and what they pay. And grocery stores often offer better prices than the usual tourist or "duty-free" shops on popular items like vanilla, spices, coffee, alcohol, etc. I used to bring back olive oil and wine from visits to Mediterranean countries; the TSA ban on liquids over three ounces put an end to that practice. Rather than risk spillage in checked luggage, I now just pay a little more and buy these imports at home, at places like Sam's Club, Costco, or Trader Joe's.

I recently returned from a 16-day cruise, and at one of the ports, we took an excursion to the ancient city of Petra, in Jordan. No tour company can organize an excursion for tourists without the obligatory speed-shopping stop. After a 15-minute restroom break, with barely enough time to browse and figure out the exchange rate, most of my fellow travelers came back to the bus with bags bulging.

Outside the ruins, there were many more shopping opportunities. Every few feet, African vendors displayed the same wares we'd seen in three previous ports: cheap jewelry and made-in-China souvenirs depicting the location. Buyers snapped up the merchandise. I wondered how they would fit it all in their suitcases. And what would they do with it when they got it home? Sure they had kids, grandkids, and co-workers to shop for. But their gifts would probably land in the next garage sale.

I've made a rule when shopping abroad; if it doesn't meet one of these criteria, I don't buy it:
  • Is it something I want or need that I can't get at home? (something unique to the location)
  • Is it something I want or need that costs less than it would at home?
  • Is it something I will use during my trip? (e.g., forgotten sunscreen, local food or beverage that will be consumed en route)

I also consider how easy it will be to schlep the item home, or whether it will have to be shipped, thus reducing any savings. In today's global economy, it's not unusual to find that you can order the same item online for a comparable price, from the convenience of your living room.

If you are contemplating a big-ticket purchase like artwork, furniture, a Turkish rug, or a piece of fine jewelry, do some homework before you leave for your trip. Find out how to determine you're getting the best quality, and approximately how much you should expect to pay. Don't rely on what the local salesperson tells you. If someone is pushing you too hard toward an impulse buy, there may be a good reason to balk.

Taking a vacation should be relaxing and fun. But blowing your budget is stressful.

What do you like to buy when you travel? I would love to hear your comments.

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