Look, we love souvenir shopping just as much as the next traveler. But that shopping high you get from combing through a busy bazaar or cute local boutique doesn’t always translate to a useful purchase back home. Are you really going to put that carved back scratcher to use? Or go to the corner store in a silk kimono? Or play that rustic instrument? (If so, sorry neighbors!) Truth is, sometimes the best items to buy when you’re abroad are simple household things you already use that are either better or cheaper (or both!) compared to what's back home. Read below for our top picks for travel purchases you’ll actually use.
1. French Soaps
Yes, every drugstore on earth has soap. And considering a 14-pack of Dove can be bought for under $20, it’s both cheap and easy to come by. So why leave room in your luggage for this basic hygiene staple? Well, connoisseurs of the good stuff -- and Francophiles that like a little bonjour in their bathrooms -- are partial to suds from Marseille. Soap-making in this city dates back centuries -- something that French law regulated all the way back in the 1600s. Those old-school methods are still in use to make bars and pump bottles with bases from olive oil. If that sounds precious and expensive, it is -- in the U.S. In France, you can pick up Savon de Marseille for a song; it’s even sold in Monoprix (France’s answer to Target). Pro tip: These also make excellent little gifts. Just tie a ribbon around a bar, preferably in striped blue, white, and red.
Chances are, sunscreen is something you pack from home when you’re going on a beach getaway, not something you buy abroad. But it should be. Why? Europe, Asia, and Canada have much better sunscreen compared to the U.S., as they use formulations that tend to be less sticky and more protective than their American counterparts. (Some say they’re safer, too!) Alas, the FDA's approval of chemicals like Ecamsule and Tinosorb S have been lost in bureaucratic limbo for a decade -- even with Obama pushing for them. That means right now your best bet for keeping your skin burn- and cancer-free is stocking up on the stuff on your next trip. As a bonus you can put them to use right away and stay protected while you’re sightseeing.
3. Spices and Teas
As any duty-free shop will show, food and drink are typical purchases when traveling to other countries. And while prepackaged stuff is a great gift, don’t overlook the workhorses of the food world -- spices. Often buying spices from the source is far cheaper and fresher than anything you’d get back home. Consider paprika from Hungary -- according to Business Insider, it’s cheaper and sweeter than paprika grown in the U.S. Another excellent purchase is saffron from Spain. This yellow spice is rather pricey stateside, but supply-and-demand in Spain keeps the costs low. (After all, it's a key ingredient in paella.) Apart from spices, teas are another excellent purchase. From Russia to China, these local teas beat the pants off Lipton.
4. Toilet Seats
This purchase might seem like a punch line, but trust us, once you’ve experienced the bathrooms of Japan, you’ll be dead serious about toilets, too. In America, our toilets are all flushing function. But as with many electronics, toilets in Japan have been taken to the next level. Here, you’ll find models with bidet functions, seat warmers, even white noise-makers that politely cover sound. While it’s not exactly possible to throw an entire porcelain throne into your luggage, you can find toilet seats that have many of these functions and are light enough to go into an overhead bin on the plane (though you may have to do a little explaining when you go through security).
Admittedly, you probably won’t be saving any money on bedding when you buy it overseas. On the other hand, these purchases offer far more quality and personality compared to the usual stuff you get from cookie-cutter bed-in-a-bag sets. Tartan wool blankets from Scotland, French linen pillowcases, or Otomi quilts from Mexico are heirlooms that can be passed down generations. We doubt you can say that about the fridge magnets, coffee mugs, and novelty T-shirts that pass for souvenirs in these spots. Forget the collection of tchotchkes and put your money toward one quality piece of bedding. In terms of cost per use, these will earn out far more. You can even bust it out on the flight home and skip the synthetic airplane blanket.