The New Traveler’s Guide to Shopping Overseas

Shopping seems so ridiculously simple at home: You go somewhere that sells things you want, you find the things you want, you pay for them, and you return home, ideally overjoyed with your new possessions. Travelers only wish the process were so simple abroad.

When traveling the world, shopping is hardly as easy as going to the mall and handing the cashier a crisp $20 bill. There are dozens of considerations travelers must make in order to ensure they obtain items they need at prices they can afford.

However, the confusion and difficulty associated with shopping overseas shouldn’t prevent any traveler, new or experienced, from finding and buying the items they want and need. Here’s a useful guide to learning how to shop while traveling away from home.

Finding Stores

Usually, the traveler’s first shopping dilemma is finding worthwhile shopping centers. With connections to the Internet ever-present in regular life, most people have become overly reliant on the Web to provide suggestions and directions to nearby stores. While some tourists might find Wi-Fi and 4G in major urban centers in developed nations overseas, most world travelers are not able to pull up Yelp and locate a reasonable market.

The most reliable solution is asking those nearby for help. Travelers who are staying at a hotel or hostel can ask the staff to point in the direction of stores that sell any desired goods. Travelers can also ask for recommendations from their peers; fellow travelers might have excellent insight if you are looking for souvenirs. Meanwhile, locals usually know where to find the best deals. As a last resort, travelers can consult guidebooks of the region, though often books only provide suggestions for tourist-saturated markets — if their suggestions are not out-of-date and obsolete.

shopping stores

Assessing Need

At home, shoppers are restrained only by their credit limits and their car’s size, but travelers must always consider size, weight, fragility, perishability, and more before they buy. No matter how much a traveler wants that ornate Turkish rug, it probably won’t fit in his bags — no matter how much rolling and stuffing he does. Whether the trip is two days or two months, a traveler is tasked with lugging any overseas purchases to and fro until she returns home. Thus, it is essential to evaluate items’ levels of necessity before acquiring anything.

Struggling With Payment

For something so seemingly straightforward at home, cash in other countries will always be complicated. Converting dollars into euro, yen, kronor, pesos, or anything else is a convoluted process that requires intricate algorithms. Exchange rates shift every day — and very from location to location — meaning it matters when travelers take trips and where they trade money.

The safest way to pay for items abroad is inarguably with credit cards. Credit relies on interbank currency exchange rates, which are almost always the best rates available. Plus, credit cards come with built-in limits and protections, which means if travelers lose their cards, the damage is minimal. Plus, travelers can apply for airline benefits cards that will earn them miles with every purchase, making future excursions even easier.

Unfortunately, not all overseas vendors accept credit cards; even some stores in bustling, developed cities refuse foreign cards for security reasons. Thus, carrying some foreign cash is necessary. Still, travelers can gain access to the same low interbank exchange rate by using debit or ATM cards to draw local currency from machines. There are even banks that offer global cards that do not incur fees for drawing money outside of dedicated regions or ATMs. Then, travelers can refill their wallets with necessary cash and coin whenever they are running low at the markets.

The first rule of elitist intercontinental travel is "never own a travel wallet". I know. Unfortunately I saw this one and it had a Swedish flag on it and two Ä's and it was practical. It has slots for both of my passports, a nice area to keep my Swedbank security device, a place to keep a spare credit card and the 4 public transit stored value cards I'll use on this trip as well as 5 of the currencies I'll need and of course some spare SIM cards. I usually just shove all of this stuff into a pocket of my backpack or jam as much as I can into my wallet and it just doesn't work out that well. This will function much better. Fjäll Räven Travel Wallet

The first rule of elitist intercontinental travel is “never own a travel wallet”. I know. Unfortunately I saw this one and it had a Swedish flag on it and two Ä’s and it was practical. It has slots for both of my passports, a nice area to keep my Swedbank security device, a place to keep a spare credit card and the 4 public transit stored value cards I’ll use on this trip as well as 5 of the currencies I’ll need and of course some spare SIM cards.
I usually just shove all of this stuff into a pocket of my backpack or jam as much as I can into my wallet and it just doesn’t work out that well. This will function much better.
Fjäll Räven Travel Wallet

Generally, it is unnecessary and unwise to carry around large amounts of cash. Not only does this make a traveler a prime target for pickpockets (or worse criminals) but it makes it harder to revert back to the traveler’s home currency once the trip is finished. Therefore, travelers should try to pay with plastic as frequently as possible.

Feeling Awesome

The first time doing anything feels awkward and uncomfortable — riding a bike, driving a car, flying unaccompanied — and every traveler experiences a period of unease associated with making purchases in a foreign land. Fortunately, the more time a traveler spends overseas, the easier every interaction becomes. With practice, any traveler can become adept at discovering markets (with and without help), knowing exactly how much weight and space is available in his pack, and navigating the complexities of foreign currencies.

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Related post:    Tips for planning your romantic getaway

Images credit (under CC) by order:     Roberto VerzoSidne Wardmroach

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