Every international traveler wants to take a part of their adventure home. Aside from pictures and other various mementos of their vacation, one of the most common ways to do this is through the purchase and exchanging of souvenirs. Found at every destination around the world, a quality souvenir can provide undying memories and years of pleasure, even after traveling to that part of the world.
However, not all souvenirs are the same in price, quality, or legality. In some situations, travelers are often setup to purchase the most expensive souvenirs, the lowest quality souvenirs, or even some that are illegal to bring home. How can you tell when you are getting set up for a bad purchase?
Before purchasing a memento of your next international adventure, be sure you are not falling into a souvenir scam. Here are five souvenir scams every traveler should avoid when far away from home.
The overpriced souvenir scam
When first arriving to a destination, or while traveling through tourist districts, travelers will be greeted by a number of souvenir options. However, the prices of each of these souvenirs may vary based on where the traveler is at, or where they are going next.
The overpriced souvenir scam begins where tourists are oft to congregate: at a taxi stand, public transportation stand, or tour group drop-off areas. These souvenir shops are often the first place travelers see, with a wide assortment of souvenir options.
On the outside, this souvenir shop may look like the best place to find one-of-a-kind souvenirs and items to bring home. In reality, the only thing unique about these souvenir shops are the prices. At the first and most visible souvenir shop, the item prices are often inflated to significantly higher than other souvenir stands. Furthermore, the same souvenirs are often available at other souvenir stands for a different price.
Before purchasing a souvenir to take home, be sure to shop around for the best price. With a little searching, souvenirs can often be found for a lower price elsewhere. In addition, travelers can always enlist help from often unused sources, including hotel concierges to find the perfect souvenir to bring home at the right price.
The souvenir commission shop scam
In some situations, it's not the first souvenir shop that will lull travelers in to parting with their hard earned money. Rather, some situations are orchestrated by the shop owner, and several unscrupulous taxi drivers or tour operators.
One of the most common versions of this scam can be found in Asia. As part of a tour package purchased at the destination, travelers may be taken to a "commission" souvenir shop that is touted to make "local, hand-crafted items," each coming with an inflated price. In many cases, these are the same souvenirs that can be found on the street, often made in factories with a higher price. For the patronage, the driver gets to keep a portion of the purchases made by the tourists, while the shop keeps the rest.
A different iteration of this scam can be found in Thailand, involving tuk-tuk drivers. In exchange for a lower fare, the tuk-tuk driver may ask the travelers if they would be willing to stop at a friend's shop for 15 minutes, with no pressure to purchase anything. When the traveler agrees, they are whisked away to the shop, where high pressure salesmen immediately try to force the traveler to buy something. Accordingly, the tuk-tuk driver may not agree to take them to their destination until they do.
If a souvenir stop feels out of place, it just may be. Instead of settling for purchasing an item from a commission shop, be on the lookout for souvenirs along the way that are higher quality and a better price. If a tour or driver stops at a souvenir shop, ask to continue on, or find another ride to your destination.
The currency swap scam
Even when souvenirs are legitimate and available for a fair price, shopkeepers may not be fair in their exchanges. When dealing with tourists, some shop owners may be less than fair in handing down change – especially when currency recognition issues and language barriers are in play.
Two of the most common places these situations take place are throughout Asia, and in the newly opened tourist destination of Cuba. In China, the colorful currency can often be mistaken for those of neighboring Asian countries. When paying in cash, a souvenir scam artist may slip in the note of a different country with the change, or return cut or ripped paper notes. As a result, the traveler overpays for their souvenir, and gets change in return that is worth a fraction of what they believe they received in return. In the case of ripped or damaged notes, those currency items may not be accepted anywhere else.
In Cuba, there are two distinct currencies: one for locals, the Cuban Peso, and one for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). While the CUC is the only one approved for tourists to make purchases while on their visit, travelers may mistakenly receive the local Cuban Peso as change. While these two currencies may look the same, their value is greatly different. While CUCs are accepted universally, the Cuban Peso is only accepted for a small amount of purchases.
When paying in cash in a foreign country, be sure to understand what the currency looks like, and count the change received very carefully. If it does not add up in the end, resolve the situation with the merchant then and there – or ask to involve the local authorities or tourist police for assistance.
The Dynamic Currency Conversion scam
Much has been written about credit cards and their inherent value when used around the world. In addition to receiving valuable travel insurance benefits, credit cards also offer rental car benefits, along with zero-liability for purchases when cards are lost or stolen around the world. However, the one thing that is often overlooked when it comes to credit cards is the Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) offer when paying with a credit card, or withdrawing local currency from an ATM.
When paying at certain shops, the merchant may ask the traveler if they want to pay in either the local currency or their home currency. When opting to pay in their local currency, the merchant says it will automatically calculate the exchange rate as a convenience to the traveler through DCC. Instead, the exchange rate often has bank fees – paid as a percentage of the purchase – hidden in the DCC process. In rare cases, the merchant may receive a commission for purchases handled in DCC.
When withdrawing money from an ATM, travelers may be asked to choose one of two options: withdraw their amount in their home currency, or withdraw the amount in the local currency. When picking the first, the traveler may get a different amount than they anticipated out of their account, with additional fees hidden in the withdraw rate. When picking the second, the traveler gets the amount they requested in their local currency, allowing their bank to calculate the exchange rate. Simply selecting the wrong answer can result in paying higher fees than travelers originally anticipated
By understanding what DCC is, travelers can better control their expenses as they see the world. When asked if they wish to pay in their home currency or the local currency, always select the local currency – your bank account will thank you later.
The illegal souvenir scam
Finally, not all souvenir scams are targeted towards parting travelers with money. In some situations, souvenir scams can sometimes be used to exchange illegal items, or even fund illegal activities around the world.
Rather than funding terrorism or other major international problems, some souvenirs can create damage to the local infrastructure and natural resources instead. One example of this is the trade of ivory products, sea turtle products (including sea turtle soup), and products made of rhinoceros horn. While these items may be sold as "sustainable" or "legal" in parts of Africa and Asia, returning with them to the United States is illegal. According to the U.S. Department of State, arriving with any of these items, or certain furs, corals, or feather products is illegal.
In addition, while certain drugs or narcotics may be legal in other countries, many of them - including marijuana - are illegal in the United States. Although some states have legalized marijuana, traveling with it across borders is illegal. Furthermore, those Americans who are caught with an illegal substance are subject to the laws of their country, which could include fines and imprisonment. Like all other legal cases, the U.S. embassy cannot help travelers who are arrested for possession of drugs.
Those travelers who do bring illegal items back to the United States are subject to a number of penalties, from having their items confiscated at the point of entry, or additional questioning, arrest, fines, or even jail time for bringing these items back. In addition, other items, including food and agricultural items, may be subject to additional inspection.
Before picking up that once-in-a-lifetime souvenir, be sure you are getting not only the best price on it, but that you are not being hustled or taking back something that could end in big trouble. By staying a step ahead of each of these five souvenir scams, every traveler can be smart and safe when it comes to taking a memory home.