Honestly, from a personal standpoint I think that if a souvenir is calling to you then you should buy it regardless of what seems "touristy." But there are some loosely bound rules dictating which souvenirs are worth spending money on, especially if you're on a student's travel budget and need to keep your vacation affordable. There are plenty of ways to commemorate your trip without unloading your bank account on something you'll look at maybe twice a year at family reunions.
First of all, let me tell you what you probably should not buy:
- Anything that you can buy at home
It's as simple as that. Don't buy something you can easily buy two blocks from your house. What would be the point? Get something that memorializes a destination and speaks to a city's personality.
A souvenir collection should be displayed proudly, either ironically or seriously, as a badge of honor. "I went there," they say, "I saw that, and that, and that." It doesn't have to be much, some people even bring back dirt, sand, and rocks from the cities they've visited just to remember they once walked on different soil. Souvenirs can be free and with a little creativity, you can make even the least appealing, most irregular objects into beautiful and meaningful souvenir collections.
The souvenir type will probably depend on where you visit, obviously. If you're traveling within the United States, you won't have as many options to get international trinkets that really embody a different country like rugs from Saudi Arabia or a nesting doll from Russia. However, if you look hard enough, you can find something similar in the States.
For example, Hawaii pretty much has a culture separate from that of the United States. Even though they incorporate their "new" American status, their heritage as a Polynesian/British monarchical territory is still thoroughly evident wherever you look. Many objects, however kitschy they look, have translations from the Hawaiian language to English, such as Bibles and other books or songs, that make for pretty neat display items. They also have traditional garb or jewelry, ceremonial Hawaiian religious statues or ornaments that also make for really cool collective items.
Likewise, if you come to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you can have a chance to go home with some of the krewe "throws" which are highly coveted. The krewes, as you may know, are the different groups which put together the floats you see during the parade. Each have their own style of doing things and many have personalized "throws" which they toss at the crowd, like the decorated purses thrown by the Nyx krewe or the famous beaded necklaces.
Multicultural districts like Chinatown or Little Italy are brilliant places to find souvenirs. Instead of buying up everything in the gift shops (which are almost always overpriced), get a caricature done of you and your friends or you can get a picture with your name written in another language. It's an interesting conversation piece and not a bad decoration for your home.
Souvenirs can also be pretty touristy - and that's okay! You are a tourist, there's no way around that, so why not embrace it? When you're on vacation you can go full-out kitsch and buy as many weird tchotchkes as possible, filling your home with quirky decor.
You know what the most popular souvenir is? Mickey Mouse ears from Disneyland or Walt Disney World. Those are obviously touristy but they give enjoyment and remind you of your fabulous and happy vacation which is what a souvenir should do. While you're at Disney parks, you can also collect pressed pennies. Grab a pressed penny map from customer service and go on an adventure collecting one from every international pavilion at Epcot or ones with your favorite Disney characters at the other parks. It's a really fun exercise that lets you see more of the parks and you also get to take home a cute and affordable memory.
Another souvenir filled destination is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. You can wander through Hogsmeade Village and explore the various shops and storefronts featured in the movies and books. They're constantly adding more shops but currently you can find Honeydukes, the famous sweets shop filled with candies, you can visit Tomes and Scrolls and take home wizarding books, stop in Gladrags for some apparel, or look into the new Weasley's Wizard Wheezes where you can pick up a pygmy puff, joke trinkets, and more. These trinkets, while they may not last and aren't traditionally decorative, offer enjoyment and bring a piece of magic into your home.
But what about collecting items? you might ask. Well, here are some things that you can find in pretty much every city that you can make into a collection:
- Jewelry - bracelets, charms, etc.
- Fabrics/textiles - rugs, table runners or table cloths, fabric for quilting, etc.
- Books - coffee table books about that city
- Maps from different cities - you can frame them for a neat display
- Pins/badges/fridge magnets
- Mugs/glasses or cups or decorative spoons
- Salt - it's affordable and doesn't spoil
- Decorative soaps - it can even be hotel soap
- Bells (my grandma does this and it's actually pretty cool looking)
- Coasters or menus from your favorite restaurants
- Christmas ornaments
Souvenir collections should be displayed as that's its purpose. There's no sense in buying up a bunch of something and then stuffing it into a box in the back of your closet. It doesn't have to be fancy. In fact, most souvenir collections are something mundane, like coffee mugs, with the name of a city printed on the side. As long as it elicits a memory, then it's a great souvenir.
You can get creative with your souvenirs too. To make it even more personal, don't spend any money at all and just collect the ticket stubs from your trip (movie stubs, train tickets, boarding passes, etc.) and display them in a glass jar or frame them into a cool design. Another idea is taken from the collecting soil concept: collect a little baggie of dirt or sand or even small pebbles from that city or beach and then layer all the different cities together in a tall glass vase. This is both decorative and unique. You could also go a more traditional route and scrapbook all of your memories. This takes time and effort but in the end it's a cool way to show off your trip to friends.
Some people feel very strongly about souvenirs but first and foremost it's a personal thing. If you find something you might want to buy, just stop and think "Will I still want this in a month? In two months?" More often than not, keychains and quirky baubles get shoved in the junk drawer and are quickly forgotten. Buy souvenirs that mean something to you. It's as simple as that. You'll know it when you see it - so good luck and happy touring!