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How to Bring Home Souvenirs (and still travel in a carry-on)

how to bring home souvenirs and still pack light

The last thing you want to worry about is what happens to the travel mementos you’re bringing back from various parts of the world.

If souvenir shopping accounts for a big part of the travel experience, planning for the extra additions to your luggage becomes a vital part of the packing process. This is especially important when traveling carry-on only.

Here are some words of wisdom for shopaholics looking to bring home souvenirs safely while still packing light and in a carry-on.

Souvenir Tips for Light Packers

1 – Buy as many souvenirs at the end of your trip as possible.

Carrying that one-of-a-kind and oh-so-fragile figurine around a city only gives you more chance of breaking it before you get it back home. If you wait to shop for souvenirs until towards the end of the trip, you’ll also have:

  • More time to shop around for the best price
  • More time to evaluate whether or not you love that item (or it’s simply an impulse purchase)
  • Less stuff to schlep around from city to city on a multi-stop trip
  • A better idea of how much money and luggage space you have available before flying home

While not always possible, holding off on souvenir purchases until later on in a trip helps to ensure you don’t overdo it. You can still travel with that carry-on if that’s your goal, and you might have a few extra bucks left in your pocket at the same time.

2 – Choose small items like postcards, scarves and jewelry.

Bigger isn’t always better. Some of my favorite souvenirs have been the pashminas I purchased in Turkey, the ring I bought from the markets in Oman, and the kitschy fridge magnets I picked up in Russia.

Small trinkets help you stay within your carry-on guidelines and don’t contribute to much clutter once you return home. Choosing small items that are useful and wearable – like scarves and jewelry – make for great souvenirs that get used long after you return from a trip (unlike the other knick-knacks that get tossed in drawers and closets never to see the light of day).

3 – Mail stuff home.

This option eliminates much of the stress in traveling with souvenirs. You don’t have to worry about running out of room or having them break in your backpack, and the additional items definitely won’t threaten your chance of flying carry-on-only.

But it’s also the most pricey option. Even shipping a small box of goodies from Australia to the US can set you back $60 – and this is a small box!

For things like art and handmade goods, this extra cost can be well worth it. In addition, asking yourself if you’d be willing to pay an extra $60 to mail the item back to your home can be a good indication of how much you value that item in the first place.

4 – Plan for your specific souvenirs.

What kinds of souvenirs do you intend to purchase? If there are things you like to always bring home (like magnets, jewelry, artwork, or local fabrics), you can plan for that in your packing process.

Packing your carry-on to its limits fully knowing you want to bring home an item (or items) that would equate to a certain amount of space inside your luggage is asking for one thing:

A carry-on packing fail on your way back home.

Leave empty space for your intended purchases WHILE PACKING FOR YOUR TRIP. It’s the only way you can return without checking a bag… unless you throw out items from your original packing list to free up the room.

5 – Secure and protect your souvenirs.

We all know that checked baggage is risky business. Things get tossed around on the regular (hello, broken souvenirs!), and there’s always the risk that your bag won’t ever make it to where you’re going in the first place.

But even in a carry-on, you will need to ensure your souvenirs are packed safely and securely.

Pack souvenirs in places they are less likely to get broken or dropped. If you have paintings or flat items, place them in a rigid envelope at the front of your backpack. If you are packing breakables, try to surround them with clothing or bubble wrap.

HPL Tip #1: Keep Souvenirs In Your Carry-on

  • If souvenir shopping takes you to the point of needing to check a bag on the return home, try to pack your more precious items and souvenirs in the carry-on.
  • Packing a stuffable backpack or duffel bag gives you a place to store your carried-on goodies. Check your more durable piece of luggage in this case – and include the less important items (like your dirty laundry) there.
  • Some souvenirs, like wine and olive oil, simply cannot be brought as a carry-on. These will need to be checked, and you’ll definitely want to protect these breakable bottles with something like a Vinni Bag.

HPL Tip #2: Be Aware of Customs and Quarantine Rules

Some items, like food, are not allowed to be brought into many countries for contamination reasons. Australia and Hawaii in particular are sticklers to what is brought in. Bringing back Iberico ham or a runny French cheese may seem like a great gift, but you can be fined up to $10,000 for bringing some products back into the United States.

If you’re unsure, check the Customs and Border Protection website.

Wait… Keep Reading for More Tips on Packing & Bringing Home Souvenirs

Identify why you’re shopping for souvenirs in the first place.

Before you go on planning for and shopping for souvenirs on your next trip, it’s a good idea to look at the mindset behind purchasing souvenirs.

Why do you buy souvenirs when you travel?

And are they worth the added expense or packing stress?

Here are 3 common reasons people shop for souvenirs. If any of these resonate with you, be sure to take note and think about the impact they may be having on your packing and travel experience.

1 – To provide a complete travel experience

Do you buy souvenirs because that’s what you think you’re supposed to do to have a complete travel experience? 

Or maybe shopping is a way you relax in your non-travel life – you don’t really need or want what you buy, but the experience makes you feel good – and this mindset carries over to traveling. 

  • Whatever the reasons, if you think a trip wouldn’t be complete without buying souvenirs, how can you get them home with as little expense and stress as possible?

2 – To meet the expectations of others (or yourself)

Do family and friends expect you to bring them presents from your trips? If so, you may feel obligated to buy souvenirs, even if otherwise you wouldn’t. 

In some relationships, not bringing home a small present for the person would result in hurt feelings. In other relationships, you could explain your commitment to traveling lightly (and reducing consumption) and family and friends will understand. And in other relationships, you may truly want to bring home a present! 

  • Every relationship dynamic is different. If you do decide to bring back presents, how can you do that without adding to the expense and stress of carrying more luggage than you would otherwise?

3 – To decorate your home and tell your story

Do you buy souvenirs because they help to tell your story? Are your souvenirs proudly displayed and worth the extra time cleaning and caring for them? 

If so, then souvenirs may be a way you continue to integrate your travel experiences into your whole life story. For you, souvenirs may serve a similar purpose as a photo album – they showcase the highlights from your life and give visual prompts for storytelling to family and friends. 

Just be careful that the nostalgia for a trip doesn’t cloud your judgment. When an item is connected to an experience, it can be easy to feel like it has a lot of value in your life when the reality is that you don’t think about it until someone suggests that you get rid of it. 

  • If souvenirs help to tell your story, how can you achieve this without being burdened during your trip?

When you know your reasons for buying souvenirs, you can decide if packing with the intention of purchasing remembrances is something you want to skip for this particular trip or incorporate into your planning process.

A Souvenir Packing Strategy for Carry-on-only Travel:  Make a Plan!

Jill H shares her thought process and packing strategy so she can travel light and still purchase souvenirs. It all comes down to making a plan!


Planning to Buy Souvenirs

I’ve been there – carrying a duffle bag that’s almost as tall as I am plus a daypack and still having to carry a tote bag on my flight home. It’s fun to buy things when traveling. Even in the age when most items we buy daily are made in another country, there’s a romance attached to flying away and coming home with something bought in the foreign place. 

And yet, after that overpacked experience, I committed to traveling carry-on only unless there’s a very good reason for checking luggage (like taking supplies to help an aid organization). So how do I travel lightly and still pack souvenirs?

By planning ahead and setting boundaries.

Step 1: I think about what’s important to me.

  • Do I care about mugs/keychains/etc. printed with the name of the country I visited? 
  • What will give me the greatest pleasure for years after the trip? 
  • What have I used in the past and what have I kept out of guilt even though it no longer appeals to me? 
  • What are my interests and hobbies? Can I get something in my travels that contributes to those?

Once I’ve decided what’s important to me, I ask myself:

  1. What do I most want to find?
  2. What are some secondary options if I can’t find my first choices?

For example, when traveling to Uganda, I most wanted local fabric that I could make clothes out of to wear in my daily life. That meant that I’d need at least 3 yards (2.7 meters) of 60 inch (152 cm) wide fabric of good quality. From experience, I know about how much space that takes up, so the next step was to plan how to pack so that I would have that much empty space. 

My secondary options were a Luganda-English dictionary or jewelry. A dictionary can be heavy and bulky, but jewelry can be small and light. I kept this in mind when planning, but focused on my primary souvenir since I felt that it was likely I could find what I wanted.

Step 2: I set boundaries that account for my packing needs.

  • Would I pack an extra bag to check with souvenirs on the way home? 
  • Would I pack my carry-on only half-full, even if it meant leaving behind something I felt I needed? 
  • What other options could I think of?

I carefully checked and cross referenced all of the baggage allowances for our airlines. All our airlines allowed a carry-on and a personal item, so that made things easier. 

I set myself the boundary of packing in a carry-on only and putting a bag the size of a personal item inside of the carry-on. The packed personal item would be used on the flight home.

Steps 1 & 2 Results

What this looked like:

  • On the flight to Uganda, I carried a 24-liter daypack as my only luggage.
  • On the flight back to the US, I carried the daypack and a 9-liter crossbody (and souvenirs).

Conclusion

The three key takeaways for packing to buy souvenirs are:

  1. Define which travel values are important to you and why.
  2. Plan what souvenirs you most want, with second and third choices.
  3. Set boundaries on the number and size of luggage you will bring and types and amount of souvenirs you will buy and stick to those boundaries

If you decide that souvenirs are an important part of your travel experience and worth the added expense and stress of transporting them, you can still travel carry-on only. 

Just like with the other parts of traveling, thinking about what’s important to you during this specific trip, planning ahead, and giving yourself packing boundaries will help you to pack lightly and have a travel experience that honors your values and priorities. 

Happy travels!

Written by Brooke

I run the show at Her Packing List and love packing ultralight. In fact, I once traveled for 3 entire weeks with just the contents of a well-packed 12L handbag. When I'm not obsessing over luggage weight, I'm planning adventures or just snuggling with my pet rabbit, Sherlock Bunz.

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Comments

  1. Allie says

    Is it pretty secure to check a bag like the Chico bag? I’d be a bit worried about a drawstring-style bag coming open and the contents spilling out. I suppose you could just know the drawstring…

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