Shopping

Shopping can be interpreted in several ways: as any kind of purchase, or as a pastime in its own right.

Shopping is associated with travel. Travellers might be able to buy items unavailable at home, or items cheaper, or of better quality, than at other places. Shopping can also be extended to the purchase of travel supplies, before or during travel. Some travellers plan trips partly around shopping opportunities; for example including a stop in Singapore or Hong Kong for duty-free cameras or electronics.

Good and bad places to shop

I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist. – Tammy Faye Bakker

There are plenty of exceptions even an awful vendor may have some good deals or be the only place selling what you want, and even an excellent one may have some overpriced rubbish but there are also some general rules for finding good places and avoiding bad ones.

Good places

There are some good deals in tourist areas. They will often have a better selection of tourist-oriented goods than you might find elsewhere and facilities may be better as well; for example they may have more English-speaking staff or be set up to accept foreign credit cards which other shops will not take. However, there are also some overpriced tourist traps in many such areas, so buyers should be wary. In particular, considerable caution is needed when buying high-priced goods in tourist areas.

Often you can do better if you discover where the locals shop and go there. In particular, it is often worth wandering through a local department store, especially if you are more comfortable with fixed prices rather than having to bargain. In many places, the local markets, bazaars or souks are very colorful, well worth visiting even if you are not planning to buy anything.

There are a few types of specialist stores worth looking for.

None of these specialist places are remarkably cheap and most will not bargain, though some galleries may. However, quality is generally quite high, some of the goods offered are unique, and you are much less likely to be severely overcharged than in either a tourist area or a general local market.

Bad places

As a general rule any vendor with a captive market will be tempted to take advantage of the situation and overcharge; they may also have reason for high prices because they are paying very high rent. Examples include shops in airports and some hotels and, fairly often, a shop that is the only one available to people whose tour bus delivers them to some attraction.

The larger the place the less problematic this is likely to be. In a huge airport, a mall next to a hotel, or a whole district of tourist shops there is enough competition to keep prices mostly reasonable. Hong Kong International Airport even has signs advertising "guaranteed downtown prices".

In many places across much of Asia and sometimes elsewhere a system of guide's commission is widespread. When a tour guide, a cab driver, a rickshaw peddler or even a random "friendly" stranger takes you to such a shop, he or she gets a commission on everything you buy. More-or-less all such places are overpriced, and the ones that are most attractive to unscrupulous guides because they pay the best commissions are the worst of the lot from the traveller's point of view.

Walking into many market buildings, or just along the street in some areas, you will be approached (in some places, swarmed) by touts who offer to lead you to shops. These people are usually on commission and should generally be avoided.

Tips for shopping

Shopping in Beirut, Lebanon.

What to buy

Duty-free shopping may save money, especially for goods such as alcohol and tobacco and for travellers from high-tax regions such as the Nordic countries. But note the cautions in the linked article.

Arts and crafts are popular souvenirs. The cost of handicraft tends to follow local income level; making them cheap in regions such as tropical Africa, but costly in western Europe.

Clothing is needed at least when travelling light. Also supply for the local climate is usually better locally. Beware of different clothing size standards; for example, a person who takes L in a western country may need XXXL in China. Travelling to lower-income countries, consider using a local tailor; this may be quite affordable because of the low labor cost, especially if appropriate fabric is cheap as well. In some areas handmade boots are also a good buy.

Food and beverages can be popular to shop abroad, for tax or tariff reasons. These goods can however be fragile, and import might be restricted.

Items like glasses may also be considerably cheaper overseas; one comparison shopper found $135 for the cheapest glasses for his prescription in Canada, but $35 in the Philippines; he ended up paying $125 for a very good pair in the Philippines. Some travellers get things like dental work or surgery done abroad; see medical tourism.

Places for particular goods

We have some articles on specific types of shopping: Bead shopping, Diamond rings in Antwerp and Kimono buying guide.

Some destinations are famous for particular types of goods:

Carpets on sale in Turkey

Restrictions

There are legal or other restrictions on many types of goods and they vary considerably from country to country.

Many countries restrict export of antiques or relics; see the country articles for details (and assume there are at least some restrictions even if not mentioned). Tourist places or museum shops often have good replicas which are perfectly legal (get and keep documentation as good replicas can sometimes be mistaken for originals).

Anything that might carry disease is likely to be restricted; most countries restrict import of plants, animals, seeds and some food items. For example, the UK has no rabies and will not admit most animals without quarantine, and Australian customs will incinerate sheepskin products from some areas because of anthrax risk.

There is an international convention restricting export of ivory and other products from endangered species, and penalties are quite stiff.

If you want to buy ivory products, the easiest course is to buy only fakes. Some antique items are exempt from the ban, but dealing with those is complicated; at a minimum you need to check the legal details and make certain the vendor provides good documentation showing the item is indeed antique. Then worry about restrictions on export of antiques.

There are restrictions on shipment of hunting trophies. After the apparently illegal and certainly controversial killing of a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe in July 2015, many airlines banned shipment entirely. For details, see our hunting article.

Copyright or trademark law may also be an issue; dirt cheap copies of various items with high-end brand names are readily available in various places, but they may be confiscated at the border. You might even be arrested, especially if you have a large quantity of such goods. See China#Brand-name_goods for discussion of one source of such goods.

Of course you should be exceedingly cautious about bringing in possibly illegal goods like drugs or weapons; even if you have a prescription or permit in one country, they may be illegal elsewhere. It would be remarkably unwise, for example, to buy marijuana in a place where it is legal, such as India or the Netherlands, and try to bring some home to most countries. Guns that are perfectly legal in the USA may be highly problematic if you try to take them outside the country; for example, there are arrests at the Canadian border from time to time. Importing alcoholic beverages or pork products to Saudi Arabia is illegal. And so on.

Things like medicines, vehicles or electrical equipment can also be problematic since they may not be regarded certified for safety at the destination, even if they are elsewhere. Also, things like weapons and some medicines may not be unconditionally banned but you are required to obtain a special permission to import them to the destination and/or transit countries.

See also


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