Freebies and Ice Cream: How to Choose (and Make) the Best Travel Souvenirs

Not all travel souvenirs are created equally. But how to choose the best one? Image by Kayti Burt.

Confession: I’m not very good at buying travel souvenirs.

Not only do I tend to have a very strict budget that doesn’t account for non-food-or-shelter items, but I come from the travel philosophy that the best travel souvenirs are memories, blah, blah, blah. Because of these complementary mindsets, I often skip the souvenir-buying process altogether.

After all, if travel teaches you anything, it’s how unimportant stuff is.

But there are some travel souvenirs I have collected over the years — both of the “stuff” and less tangible varieties — that have managed to slip past the dual filtering processes of my tight finances and my talent for misplacing even my most beloved trinkets.

Today I am taking stock of my favorite souvenirs in the hopes that their continued existence in my life might a) help inform any future souvenir-buying strategy and b) encourage you to think about how to best commemorate your travels.

Articles of Clothing and Accessories

Jewelry as a travel souvenir in Luang Prubang

Jewelry on sale at a shop in Luang Prubang. Image by Kayti Burt.

The best souvenirs are ones that not only have use in the moment, but continue to have use long after your trip. Articles of clothing make great souvenirs because they have practical applications (and are not as easy to misplace as jewelry — Venetian earring, oh how I miss thee).

Though I try to eschew the accumulation of stuff, clothing and accessories seem to be my anklet-wearing Achilles heel. My favorite places to shop while traveling include thrift stores, like the ones in Camden Market, and re-purposed clothing stores, like the smaller boutiques in Siem Reap.

Shopping can also be a great way to explore a new place.

Airline Freebies

A complimentary pillow on Iceland Air, the perfect travel souvenir.

This complimentary pillow from Iceland Air came complete with an Icelandic lullaby. Image by Kayti Burt.

OK, so airline “freebies” are technically not free if you paid a bagillion dollars for your ticket, but sometimes you just have to pretend.

I’ve gotten some of my favorite travel souvenirs from flights I’ve taken. The Iceland Air pillow pictured above came in handy as a travel pillow for long bus rides. One of my longest-kept change purses started out as an Oman Air perk pack. And don’t even get me started on my love for those sleep masks.

A New Skill

Yoga classes like this one in Chiang Mai can make a great travel souvenir.

Yoga class in Chiang Mai. Image from Kayti Burt.

Some of the best travel souvenirs are not things you pick up, but skills you acquire during your travels. These can be harder to attain, but totally worth the extra money spent on a class or experience.

Amongst my favorite skills acquired or honed during travels: learning how to cook Massaman curry at a Chiang Mai cooking class and various yoga classes I took while traveling across Southeast Asia.

Travel Photography

Turn your travel photos into souvenirs like this stationary.

Travel photos aren’t just good for Facebook. Easily turn your faves into canvases or personalized cards, like above. Image by Kayti Burt.

My travel photography will always be amongst my favorite souvenirs. Photos are versatile, personal, and easily shared. Like clothing, they have use in the moment, as the act of taking them can be part of the experience, while still providing value later, as a way to share the experience with your loved ones and/or remember it yourself.

My favorite travel photos have ended up as canvases on my wall, daily reminders of the adventures I’ve had and the adventures yet to come.

Travel Journals

Travel journals can make great travel souvenirs.

Travel journals from my various experiences abroad. Image by Kayti Burt.

For some reason traveling and writing go hand-in-hand — at least for me. Though I can never seem to keep a journal while at home, it’s impossible to stop writing when I am experiencing a new place and adventures.

Long after I have forgotten my first impressions of a place or that random person I shared a conversation with on a long bus ride, my travel journal has all of the details. It has a much better memory than I do, offset by an unfortunate habit of picking up flowers from gardens the world over. (Don’t tell customs.)

Ice Cream

Is coconut ice cream the perfect travel souvenir?

A scoop of coconut ice cream on a hot day in Bangkok. Image courtesy of Kayti Burt.

Travel is all about living in the moment, right? Which is why I propose ice cream as the perfect travel souvenir. Satisfying and scrumptious, it melts if you don’t enjoy it right away. And, when it comes down to it, isn’t that how travel is supposed to be?

You can try to bottle up that feeling — the smells, sights, and emotions — of being in a strange and exhilarating new place, but it will never be quite the same.

The world is meant to be experienced, not mounted or bottled or trapped within the edges of a photograph. These things have value, but they will never equal the travel moment itself, the way being in an entirely foreign place pulls you in and demands that you recognize the moment for all of its messy, scary, liberating glory.

So forget about the souvenirs! Go live your next travel moment. And don’t forget to complement your newest travel memory with a scoop of ice cream.

What are you favorite travel souvenirs? Why do you think they have stuck with you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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