In honor of Black Friday, here are some hints for your next shopping jaunt away from home. Whether you're looking for a one-of-a-kind gift or a classic souvenir, these reminders will help you make the most of your time—and money.
Share your favorite shopping tips in the comments below.
1. Check the Web before pounding the pavement.
Research local prices for items that interest you so that you'll be able to spot a good deal when you see one. Also, if you're planning to visit a notable shop during your vacation, especially one with a brisk mail-order business, check the company's Web site before you arrive. There may be online coupons that you can print out and present when you shop or there may be Web-only offers or ads for upcoming sales.
2. Don't get tied up in chains.
Unless you live in a rural area and have little access to national chain shops when you're at home, on your vacation try to avoid districts and malls packed with the chains. Seek out neighborhoods, often downtown arts and/or entertainment districts, that cultivate a local retail scene with plenty of independent shops. You're more likely to find places that stock locally made arts and crafts, too.
3. Look beyond outlet shops to find the best deals.
What began as a way for shops to unload last season's fashions; discontinued merchandise; and less popular colors, sizes, styles, and models—at cut-rate prices—has blossomed into a lucrative side industry. Most outlet stores do offer some deep-discounted items and great deals, but they also frequently sell merchandise designed expressly for outlet shops, and they sell items that are no cheaper than those in regular shops.
4. Don't assume you'll save at duty-free shops.
Sure, it's tempting to buy anything that piques your interest in a duty-free shop, especially if you're trying to dump currency that you won't be able to use back home, or if you're bored and killing time at an airport or on a cruise ship. But avoid buying easy-to-find goods—liquor, candy, some jewelry, electronics—unless you're really sure how a duty-free shop's prices compare with those at home.
5. Find out about tax refunds.
In many countries the local or national taxes you pay on certain goods will be refunded to you at customs, as long as you fill out the proper forms, save your receipts, and document your purchases. Check with the tourist board, and for major purchases, doublecheck with the merchant you're dealing with.
6. Ask salespeople where to shop.
People who sell stuff tend to also know where to buy it. Go into the kind of shops you like, ask the salespeople for their recommendations on the best places to buy shoes or scarves or whatever it is you want. Hit up a half dozen stores and you'll probably start getting a good idea where to look for things, and where to find items you weren't even looking for.
7. Shop where locals shop.
Sometimes items are sold to tourists that locals, who know better, would never touch. In an unfamiliar place it can be hard to spot a markup unless you shop where locals do. When buying edible souvenirs, like coffee, for example, go to grocery stores and see which brands of coffee locals really drink—and you'll get the lower price they'd pay.
8. Travel globally, buy locally.
Be sure the items you want to purchase were made in your destination by carefully reading the tag or asking the salesperson. How sad will you be to discover the Moroccan slippers you've purchased in Marrakech were actually made in Taiwan?
9. When possible, pay with a credit card.
It's easier to dispute charges, to be credited in the event that you must return an item, and to document any case of unfair business practices or consumer fraud, if you paid with a credit card. This is less important on minor purchases, and you may actually get a better price if you offer to pay cash on smaller items.
10. Know when to haggle.
In some cultures you're expected to haggle over the price of goods, in other cultures it's an insult to offer anything less than the asking price. Sometimes it depends simply on what you're shopping for. Find out, by consulting a guidebook or even checking with your concierge or local tourism office, when and to what degree haggling is appropriate. And no matter how aggressive the seller is, always set a fixed price in your head and stick to it.
11. Make sure it's legal to bring your purchases home.
Many countries ban the exportation of antiquities, products made from endangered species, and other items. And your home country may also ban the import of some products and impose a hefty duty on some others.
12. Consider shipping purchases home.
Many merchants have special volume deals with certain shippers, and places that specialize in antiques, art, crafts, and other delicate items usually know best how to pack your goods carefully. Not having to lug around pottery or artwork can easily justify the shipping costs. And if the merchant in question doesn't usually ship items, ask for the name of a good shipping service.
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