For travelers such as myself, the “ka-ching” of the cash register is the international language of love. Yet for those of us who travel on a budget (and I’m excluding Ivana Trump here), our fabulousness seldom matches our franc flow. What to do if you’re discriminating but euro-less? Don’t resign yourself to that $10 souvenir T-shirt of questionable fiber content. Follow these five simple rules of bargain shopping, and you’re guaranteed to get the loot without ludicrous spending.
1) Do your homework.
The first, and most important, rule of the deal is research, research, research. Bargains are for those who have done their homework, and done it well. If you have a sense of what you’d like to buy, then check out comparable prices back home. You may be better off buying that Minolta at the local mall. Know going in what sorts of items are deals in specific areas. For example, you’d be crazy to buy a Ralph Lauren sweater in Prague, but you’d be equally crazy to pass up some of the heart-stoppingly cheap cosmetics in Paris. Know when sales occur in the area to which you’re traveling. Very few places besides the United States have year-round sales (European sales are highly regulated affairs, occurring only twice a year). Know when you can bargain and when you can’t (yes on the Turkish rug, no on the Christian Dior stilettos). Finally, find out if you’re eligible for a tax-back refund of some kind (information usually available at the customs desk of the airport or major department stores at your destination).
2) Remember that duty-free is not always a deal.
That $250 Gucci watch on the duty-free cart may seem irrationally enticing on a 30-hour flight from your house to Hong Kong, when there’s nothing to do but drink free liquor. If you’d done your homework, though (see Rule No. 1), you’d know it normally retails for only $25 more, and that you could probably find it cheaper on sale. The same goes for cosmetics, electronics, alcohol and everything else duty-free. If you’re planning on buying a high-ticket item (which for us die-hard bargain hunters is anything more than $50), know what it costs at home before you go. You can often find things much cheaper on sale or at an outlet. Some duty-free items are genuine deals, but you usually don’t recognize much of a savings until you start spending some serious money (and even then it’s usually only about 20%).
3) Never pay cash.
We all know that credit cards can be misused, but they’re also the bargain hunter’s best friend. Here’s the rationale: credit card companies are usually associated with banks, which almost always have a better exchange rate than the local money-exchange office. An added bonus: a record of your purchase, in case anything happens.
4) Don’t mail it home.
Wear it, carry it, stuff it down your shirt, but don’t ship it home unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you know your weakness for accumulating things, then pack light (you’ll never see these people again) and tuck in a collapsible duffel bag or suitcase of some kind. Shipping items home is only an option for Bill Gates.
5) Have realistic expectations.
The malling of America and the rise of factory outlets has made us all leery of paying full-price for anything. The reality is that while traveling, you probably won’t find steals on many of the things you’d like to buy. The solution is often changing your strategy. Instead of looking for deals on things that everyone at home has already bought from the Gap, look for unique items created only in the place where you’re traveling. Search out one-of-a-kind crafts by local artisans, hand-worked textiles, small children’s toys: whatever catches your fancy and reminds you of your destination.
Remember, shopping isn’t always about buying things, but seeing things. And that’s free advice for the taking.