Portable Souvenir Ideas Every Backpacker Should Know

A display of souvenir Japanese bamboo umbrellas

I’ve bought plenty of easy-to-carry souvenirs on my travels. I’ve made excellent choices and ridiculous mistakes. To give you some souvenir ideas and help you learn from my stupidity, I’ve summarized 10+ years of souvenir-insanity.

Souvenirs you will use:

  • Jewelry: This only applies if it’s something you’ll wear. Unique, but not ridiculous. Jewelry is extremely portable and makes a great gift.
  • Scarves: Would you rather tell people your scarf is from the market in Marrakech, or from Target? Like jewelry, a scarf is portable and is easy to gift. Just make sure it suits your style before hauling it home.
  • Belts: When traveling you can get unique belts that don’t scream “I went to Peru/Africa/Greece!” Keep it low-key with a plain leather belt or go all-out on a multi-coloured woven belt. It’s up to you, but remember to ask yourself if <Your Souvenirs Are All Wrong> before buying.
  • Small housewares: A bottle opener, cutlery, mugs (not cheesy coffee mugs), coasters… Housewares make good souvenirs when you use them, not put them in a box to forget them. Promise me right now you won’t put these away to keep for ‘a special day’. This day does not exist.
  • Knives: If you have checked luggage, knives make a great souvenir. Caution to people with only carry-on baggage: you’ll have your souvenir impounded at best, your body cavities searched at worst. Be smart. Kitchen knives and utility knives come in handy, but I’ll stop short of saying “you can’t have enough” because – like everything – you can.
  • Consumables: What’s the great thing about macadamia nuts, chocolates, wine, and candies? They won’t always be in your house, taking up space. The trick is remembering to consume them; don’t put them in the back of the cupboard for ‘someday’ (this day doesn’t exist, remember?). Consumables make a good gift, because they don’t add clutter.

My best souvenirs:

  • Bottle opener from Japan: A tiny giveaway slung around the neck of a plastic tea bottle made its way across the world with me. I kept this little guy in my kitchen, and used it often to open bottles, just like I did in Japan.
  • Guatemalan blanket: The bright colours decorated my end tables and were repurposed to liven the drab living space of my truck. The colours make me smile every time I climb into the back of my truck to sleep in a Walmart parking lot.
  • Music CD from China: I took a chance and bought an album by a Chinese singer that turned out to be really good. I haven’t had much luck with other local CD’s, but this one’s a winner.
  • Necklace from Zambia: The necklace with colourful wooden beads didn’t look so special in the market, but once I got it away from the other souvenir crap I could appreciate it. Understated enough to be tasteful, unique enough to be interesting.

My worst souvenirs:

  • Postcard set: Oh, I had grand plans to make the set into artwork to display on my wall. And by ‘grand plans’ I mean I was waiting for ‘someday’ when inspiration would strike. Instead they struck the bottom of the garbage bin when I refused to move them to a new apartment – unopened – for the third time.
  • Cute stationary: I bought letter sets like crazy in Japan because I liked looking at them. The cuteness made me squee with excitement, and the price was right at $1. But when I got home I realized that the internet was invented and I don’t actually write letters.

Totally useless souvenirs:

  • Native-style clothing: I bought a shirt from the market in Guatemala and pictured myself wearing this deep blue shirt with its bold collar and sleeve embroidery on a sunny summer day at a BBQ. Unfortunately, once I got it home I realized it was too embarrassing to wear. The shirt made it into the Goodwill donation after sitting in my drawer, unused, for four years.
  • DVD for learning Thai Massage: Yes, I bought this, and no I never used it. Thai massage in my own home seemed great, but of course it never happened and I tossed the DVD after watching it once (it was terrible, by the way).
  • A plaster Mayan decoration: I picked this up outside the impressive Guatemalan ruins of Tikal. The impulse to commemorate the occasion was irresistible, and I ended up with a bland, meaningless, useless heavy thing I carted all across the country and hung on my wall at home. It looked stupid, and the poor quality was especially obvious once it wasn’t beside other pieces of similar poor quality. It did not survive my next move.

There they are, my good choices, my bad choices, and my absolutely terrible choices. I hope you got some good souvenir ideas and don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Want to find out if you’re guilty of buying crap souvenirs? Want to learn how to choose fantastic ones? Check out Don’t Suck. Know What Souvenirs to Buy.

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