Shopping can be interpreted in several ways: as any kind of purchase, or as a pastime in its own right.
Shopping is associated with travel. Travellers might be able to buy items unavailable at home, or items cheaper, or of better quality, than at other places. Shopping can also be extended to the purchase of travel supplies, before or during travel. Some travellers plan trips partly around shopping opportunities; for example including a stop in Singapore or Hong Kong for duty-free cameras or electronics.
Good and bad places to shop
- I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist. – Tammy Faye Bakker
There are plenty of exceptions — even an awful vendor may have some good deals or be the only place selling what you want, and even an excellent one may have some overpriced rubbish — but there are also some general rules for finding good places and avoiding bad ones.
There are some good deals in tourist areas. They will often have a better selection of tourist-oriented goods than you might find elsewhere and facilities may be better as well; for example they may have more English-speaking staff or be set up to accept foreign credit cards which other shops will not take. However, there are also some overpriced "tourist traps" in many such areas, so buyers should be a bit wary.
Often you can do better if you discover where the locals shop and go there. In particular, it is often worth wandering through a local department store, especially if you are more comfortable with fixed prices rather than having to bargain. In many places, the local markets, bazaars or souks are very colourful, well worth visiting even if you are not planning to buy anything.
There are a few types of specialist stores worth looking for.
- Many museums have shops selling high-grade replicas of items in their collections or even those of other museums. Major institutions like the British Museum or the Smithsonian have very fine shops, and even small museums often have good ones.
- Some archaeological sites have good shops as well.
- Many art galleries sell good books or prints. Local artists or photographers may sell elsewhere as well.
- There are also many government-run shops such as India's Central Cottage Industries, set up to promote local arts and crafts.
None of these are remarkably cheap and most will not bargain, though some galleries may. However, quality is generally quite high, some of the goods offered are unique, and you are much less likely to be severely overcharged than in either a tourist area or a general local market.
As a general rule any vendor with a captive market wiil be tempted to take advantage of the situation and overcharge; they may also have reason for high prices because they are paying very high rent. Examples include shops in airports and some hotels and, fairly often, a shop that is the only one available to people whose tour bus delivers them to some attraction.
The larger the place the less problematic this is likely to be. In a huge airport, a mall next to a hotel, or a whole district of tourist shops there is enough competition to keep prices mostly reasonable. Hong Kong International Airport even has signs advertising "guaranteed downtown prices".
In many places — across much of Asia and sometimes elsewhere — a system of guide's commission is widespread. When a tour guide, a cab driver, a rickshaw peddler or even a random "friendly" stranger takes you to such a shop, he or she gets a commission on everything you buy. More-or-less all such places are overpriced, and the ones that are most attractive to unscrupulous guides because they pay the best commissions are the worst of the lot from the traveller's point of view.
Walking into many market buildings, or just along the street in some areas, you will be approached (in some places, swarmed) by touts who offer to lead you to shops. These people are usually on commission and should generally be avoided.
Tips for shopping
- Travel light. You can cut down on baggage when travelling out, by buying clothes and toiletries for your trip on arrival, especially if you travel to a low-cost destination with good shopping opportunities. You can save weight on your way home by giving used clothes to a local charity.
- Research/observe price levels before shopping. With any possibility of a major purchase, before you begin your trip learn what prices might apply at home, e.g., in stores, by Internet based sellers. At first arrival in a foreign country, you can only guess whether an offer is cheap or expensive, by local standards. In tourist areas, such as airports, hotel shops and cultural attractions, prices tend to be inflated. As you pass by several stores elsewhere, you might learn the commonly accepted price for regular items.
- Rule of thumb for small purchases, calculator for big ones. Use a rough rule of thumb to compare prices. Let's say you live in the United States and visit Japan, while the yen is 83 to a dollar. Since 83 is nearly 100, the rule of thumb would be deleting two zeros from the price (those used to maths could additionally adjust with 5/6 when needed). This is a good method for quickly finding out whether you would pay ¥290 for a take-away pastry. However, if buying a camera for ¥35,000, about $410 at home, you should use a calculator and know the price at home.
- Beware of incompatible electrical systems, region-coded media, and incompatible video formats when importing electronics; likewise, if you intend to bring a vehicle back, be sure it can be registered for use in your home country. The beautiful thing about standards is that there are so many from which to choose.
- Also be aware of warranty issues. For example, a manufacturer's warranty on a camera or electronic goods generally applies only to equipment sold by an authorised dealer in that country. A buyer from a western country may save quite a bit by buying in a duty-free port such as Hong Kong, or by buying "grey market" equipment (imported by someone other than the authorised distributor) at home, but if the equipment goes wrong, he won't get free warranty service locally.
- Shopping comes last. There are several reasons to save shopping until the end of your stay:
- You know how much money you can spare
- You are more familiar with price levels, availability and quality (see above)
- You minimize luggage during your journey, and the risk of losing items.
- Customs duty can be part of your costs.
- Shop knowing what the duty-free limits are for your home country, and what they will charge if you exceed them. Regulations can vary surprisingly, e.g., the U.S. or Canada do not charge duty on unmounted gems but do on jewellery, so bringing in the same stones mounted may exceed your duty-free allowance. Certain items may generate duty charges regardless of price or value, e.g. tobacco or alcohol.
- If you plan to take anything expensive with you (camera equipment and jewellery are most common), see Proof of what you already own for information on avoiding duty when you re-import it to your home country.
- In addition to collecting duties, border officials often enforce other regulations. See below for discussion of legal and other restrictions on various imports.
- In some areas, you must be prepared to bargain since that is the only way to get a reasonable price. See our article on bargaining.
What to buy
Arts and crafts are popular souvenirs. The cost of handicraft tends to follow local income level; making them cheap in regions such as tropical Africa, but costly in western Europe.
Clothing is needed at least when travelling light. Also supply for the local climate is usually better locally. Beware of different clothing size standards; for example, a person who takes L in a western country may need XXXL in China. Travelling to lower-income countries, consider using a local tailor; this may be quite affordable because of the low labour cost, especially if appropriate fabric is cheap as well. In some areas handmade boots are also a good buy.
Places for particular goods
Some destinations are famous for particular types of goods:
- Carpets are made all along the Silk Road and, if you bargain moderately well, they are considerably cheaper there than in other places. There is a phenomenal range available, with each region and sometimes each village producing its own designs. The most finely-woven rugs are produced in the great weaving centers of Iran and Turkey, but areas such as the Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Baluchistan are also famous for rugs. There is some carpet production almost everywhere from China in the east to Romania and North Africa in the west, and carpet-making is an important industry in both India and Pakistan.
- Cameras and electronics in duty-free ports such as Singapore and Hong Kong. A few decades ago these were much the cheapest place to buy such goods; today their prices on many items are no better than major vendors in western countries, but there are still some good deals to be had.
- Gems are found all over the world, but particular places are known for certain types:
- Diamonds are mined mainly in South Africa and nearby countries, but it may be better to buy in places where they are cut; see Diamond rings in Antwerp.
- Emeralds are mined in Colombia.
- There are still some good Chinese sources for jade, notably Khotan, but today most of the best jade in China is imported from Myanmar. The border town Ruili has much jade, but for the best deals, go to Myanmar.
- Australia produces most of the world's opals; the largest mine is in Coober Pedy but opals are available in any of the main cities. Mexico is another source.
- Many of the finest moonstones are from Sri Lanka. India also has some fine stones but also many lower-grade stones, often in larger sizes or at lower prices.
- Almost every tropical seacoast area has some pearls.
- Rubies and sapphires are the same mineral; different impurities give different colours. Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India are major sources. The top-grade stones are very clear and can be cut with facets; other stones are cut cabuchon (curved, not faceted) to give star rubies or star sapphires. Off-colour stones, such as greyish star sapphires in Sri Lanka or the "plum stars" common in Agra, are much cheaper than bright red or blue stones and may still be lovely.
- Some fine jewellery is available in any of the regions known for gems or in major shopping areas anywhere. Some of the best deals, though, are in shops at museums or archaeological sites selling replicas of ancient pieces.
There are legal or other restrictions on many types of goods and they vary considerably from country to country.
Many countries restrict export of antiques or relics; see the country articles for details. Tourist places or museum shops often have good replicas which are perfectly legal.
Anything that might carry disease is likely to be restricted; most countries restrict import of plants, animals, seeds and some food items. For example, the UK has no rabies and will not admit most animals without quarantine, and Australian customs will incinerate sheepskin products from some areas because of anthrax risk.
There is an international convention restricting export of ivory and endangered species, and penalties are quite stiff.
If you want to buy ivory products, the easiest course is to buy only fakes. Some antique items are exempt from the ban, but dealing with those is complicated; at a minimum you need to check the legal details and make certain the vendor provides good documentation showing the item is indeed antique. Then worry about restrictions on export of antiques.
There are restrictions on shipment of hunting trophies. After the apparently illegal and certainly controversial killing of a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe in July 2015, many airlines banned shipment entirely. For details, see our hunting article.
Copyright or trademark law may also be an issue; dirt cheap copies of various items with high-end brand names are readily available in various places, but they may be confiscated at the border.
Of course you should be exceedingly cautious about bringing in possibly illegal goods like drugs or weapons; even if you have a prescription or permit in one country, they may be illegal elsewhere. It would be remarkably unwise, for example, to buy marijuana in a place where it is legal, such as India or the Netherlands, and try to bring some home to most countries. Guns that are perfectly legal in the USA may be highly problematic if you try to take them outside the country. Importing alcoholic beverages or pork products to Saudi Arabia is illegal. And so on.
Things like medicines, vehicles or electrical equipment can also be problem since they may not be certified for safety at the destination, even if they are elsewhere. Also, things like weapons and some medicines may not be unconditionally banned but you are required to obtain a special permission in order to import them to the destination and/or transit countries.
- At the airport
- Budget travel
- Clothing sizes
- Common scams
- Duty free shopping
- Packing list
- Proof of what you already own