Buying Local While Traveling Abroad: Tips and Tricks on Getting the Best Deal

11/6/17 by Jill Sanford

Whether you are hunting for the perfect souvenir, looking for a reason to get off the beaten path, or just talking with locals, shopping often leads to some of the most memorable moments of any trip abroad. That being said, spending money while traveling can be a stressful thing if you don’t understand the local customs, how currencies convert to the U.S. dollar, or if you’re trying to stick to a specific budget. Here in the States, we also are used to paying exactly what is on the price tag, making haggling a skill that many Americans lack.

But that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. Our best advice when it comes to saving money on souvenirs is to think of it as just another adventure on your trip that may or may not go according to plan. Just like the other experiences you will have abroad, decide what feels right for you but don’t be afraid to be a little flexible.

Here is our list of a few of the ins and outs of shopping abroad that will help you get the best deal.

Learn the Local Customs and Bargain Accordingly

Every culture views haggling differently.
    Phad Pichetbovornkul
Every culture views haggling differently. Phad Pichetbovornkul

Research how the culture you are visiting approaches haggling and bargaining before heading out on your trip and when you first arrive. Talk with someone who has actually been there to get more in-depth information than you could through a Google search. When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to ask if that’s the lowest price a vendor can offer, but do so respectfully.

Ask a Local and Avoid the Touristy Areas

"I had an amazing experience buying a Jordanian dishdasha in Amman a few years ago," says travel expert Joost Schreve, Co-Founder and CEO of KimKim (a company that is revolutionizing trip planning for the modern traveler) and previously the Head of Mobile at TripAdvisor. He encourages travelers to talk to locals and write down the addresses of places they shop. “Our guide had given us the address of a store and we took a cab there,” he explains. “The store turned out to be on side alley of a beautiful square with a mosque, and there were hundreds of locals going about their daily lives, while my friend and I were the only foreigners in the entire neighborhood.”

Remember shopping is just another part of the whole travel experience, and sometimes the story you get out of it is worth more than whatever you bring home. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path and discover something unexpected. You’re more likely to find something genuine and authentic this way, too.

Insider Tip: There are plenty of shopping scams out there that target tourists, so only ask a local or guide that you know and/or trust for advice on where to shop.

Bring Small Bills and Multiple Methods of Payment

Smaller bills will also make it easier to haggle than if you pull out a large bill.
    Niels Steeman
Smaller bills will also make it easier to haggle than if you pull out a large bill. Niels Steeman

In many places, handing over the equivalent of a 20 or 100 dollar bill for a smaller, less expensive item is frowned upon. Plus, carrying smaller bills will make it easier for you in the long run - not only do you spend less time counting your change from the vendor, but it’s easier to make sure you were given the correct amount back.

It’s also a good idea to bring at least two types of credit cards along. Some places accept VISA, while others might prefer MasterCard, for example. It’s best not to use a debit card abroad, and before you leave you will want to check how your credit card deals with foreign transaction fees.

When given the choice, always pay in local currency rather than U.S. dollars, as well. If you aren’t very familiar with the exchange rate, download a currency conversion app on your smartphone. This will allow you to check how many U.S. dollars you are actually spending.

Insider Tip: Let your credit card company know that you’ll be traveling abroad so they don’t shut down your card for fraud.

Don’t Touch the Merchandise Without Permission

Look but don’t touch.
    Wei Pan
Look but don’t touch. Wei Pan

Whenever possible, take your cues from the locals around you. Ask before assuming it’s okay to touch things, even if you don’t have a great grasp on the language (this can be one of those phrases you learn before venturing out into a market or shop). When people see that you respect their products, you are much more likely to be well-received by a vendor, which could lead to a better deal in the long run.

Insider tip: Check out our article about Surprising Cultural Rules Around the World.

Claim Your Sales Tax Refunds

If you plan to do a significant amount of shopping abroad, bring your passport when you shop and collect your receipts. You can get back most of the tax you paid on merchandise purchased at shops that have opted into VAT refunds in Europe. Present your receipts and other necessary documents at the border (or airport or port) when you leave.

Don’t Forget About Paying Duty

Don’t forget to declare your new purchases when you re-enter the United States.
    Wang Xi
Don’t forget to declare your new purchases when you re-enter the United States. Wang Xi

When you arrive back in the U.S., you might have to pay duty (a tax) on your purchases. The amount that U.S. residents can bring back without paying ranges from $200-1,600, but there are also exemptions if the item is for personal use or will be given as a gift.

Insider Tip: Everything you’ve purchased must be declared as you go through customs.

Know What You Are Willing to Spend

If you are traveling on a budget, know ahead of time how much you want to spend on souvenirs, so that when you see the right thing, it’s an easy decision. Don’t be afraid to walk away from something you can’t afford.

That being said, it’s an amazing thing to have something that reminds you or your loved ones of your travels, so go ahead and splurge if it’s exactly what you want or you find something really special.

It All Comes Down to Making the Most of Your Trip

Schreve cautions shoppers to enjoy the full experience of being abroad rather than just the bargain hunting.

"While the item you're buying may or may not be something you will use forever, the memories created by a truly great local shopping expedition are often the thing you remember for a long time," Schreve says. “So don't get too stressed out about getting maximum value. Enjoy the experience!”

While there are plenty of ways to save a dollar or two, at the end of the day, traveling is about the memories you make rather than the things you take home.

Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.