I owe my love of interesting and cheap souvenir ideas to ZZ Top. I lived on South Padre Island in the ’70’s and ended up at a party in a beach house owned by Billy Gibbons.
While standing in the kitchen of “The Pink,” as the house was known by local surfers, I was puzzling over an eye-catching cluster of framed designs.
“Fruit crate labels from all over the world,” someone answered who could have been Billy, but I don’t remember (after all, it was the 70’s). What I do remember is thinking that collecting and framing labels was a very cool and cheap souvenir idea.
I don’t know about you, but souvenir shopping in traditional shops seems like a silly way to spend your money. Of course, you’ll catch me in a souvenir shop sometimes. It’s usually after I’ve had a few beers and think those mummified frogs playing poker are just too cute to resist. But I rarely keep any of those over-priced items over the long haul.
Problems with traditional souvenirs
Really, these places are just usually too expensive for what you get – t-shirts, hats, cups, mugs, trinkets. Once you get home, you won’t use or wear the thing for very long. Then it ends up in the giveaway bag.
But this biggest bummer is that shopping in traditional souvenir stores keeps you tied to tourist areas, associating with other outsiders and not meeting the locals.
Following Billy Gibbons’ lead, here’s are some much more when you go for off-beat and cheap souvenir ideas.
5 Cheap Souvenir Ideas for stuff you’ll really keep!
1. Unique wearable souvenirs
Fabulous, funky finds are waiting for you at thrift and resale shops off the main road. Once, we were driving through a small town on the north-eastern coast of Puerto Rico when it started to rain. I ran into a little resale shop to grab a rain poncho and found an old woman tending the store. She was crocheting this simple top which I bought for $5. Ten years later, I still wear it frequently and think of our time on that beautiful island.
Dozens of thrift and resale shops from Asheville, North Carolina to Carmel, California have yielded up dresses, shoes, vintage Hawaiian shirts, totes, belts, and jewelry. Even better, when we want something with the name of the destination on it (like a t-shirt, cap or sweatshirt), you can find something with a slightly off-center twist like Port Isabel Tarpons, 60th Annual Swim Around Key West or Falfurias Fighting Jerseys – Mooo, ya’ll!
Usual per item cost: $2-$10
2. Books by locals
On the first day of your stay in any destination, find the dustiest, most run-down used book-store you can. Ask the guy/girl at the desk for a book written by a local that gives you a feel for the place. Then prepare to be amazed.
In New Orleans, a clerk recommended Twenty Stories by Kristin Fouquet. Inside were short stories that took us to every hidden corner of NOLA. I often lend it to friends traveling to the Big Easy.
On our first trip to Key West, we found Key West Island Books in Old Town. The store was tucked away next to a cozy Cuban bakery. A clerk sold me VON COSEL by Tom Spicegood, a macabre story of literally “undying” love on the island in 1930 that is too weird to be fiction.
On a second trip, I picked up Free Range Institution, an exciting and very local modern mystery by Michael Haskins. I took my purchase next door to the Cuban bakery and began devouring it over a buttery pastelito and a robust and very hot cortado
Usual cost $.50 – $3
3. Original art souvenirs
The galleries in the high-end districts are out of my budget, but I still love original art. It can be inexpensive to collect if you go where artists congregate. Thumb through the unframed paintings and drawings around places like Jackson Square in New Orleans or the Laguna Madre Art Gallery in Port Isabel. Check out artists co-ops. Outdoor festivals like those in Rockport and Port Aransas are also great places to scavenge.
Make it more interesting by getting something with the feel of the town, not just another rendering of a well-known landmark. One of my favorite finds is this picture of three guys dressed up like Charlie’s Angels for a drag parade in New Orleans. Could anything better capture the feel of the French Quarter? These guys make me smile every time I look at them.
Another cheap souvenir idea is a photo made into a memorable moment with a photo app. A friend took a picture of Steve, a blind mastiff sleeping under the pool table at Shorty’s Bar in Port Aransas. She used Snapseed to massage it into this work of art.
Usual cost – 0 to $20
4. Recipe Souvenirs
If possible, we stay at Bed & Breakfast accommodations or vacation rentals like HomeAway. We’ve not only figured out unique ways to set up our kitchens better, we’ve also collected recipes, cooking tips and mixology advice just by asking our host what made this dish or drink so unusual.
On Whidbey Island off Washington coast, we had a filling muesli every morning. We asked for the recipe and used this simple breakfast for years on our campouts. The muesli combined cup oats, some yogurt, a little honey and fruit or nuts. Then you let it sit overnight in the cooler or refrigerator. Every time we eat this muesli, we remember our time on Puget Sound.
At the Old Castillo Inn in St. Martinville, Louisiana, the innkeeper flattened her beignets and made them spongy-er than the classics. I continue to experiment with her technique and the watermelon rind preserves she served with them.
I now drink my dark roast coffee with real cream and a bit of blackstrap molasses, just the way we had it while staying in a Louisiana plantation along the River Road.
And I drink Vodka gimlets with lots of olives, the way they mixed them at Garcia’s in Matamoros, Mexico. Every time I order them that way, I’m 18 again and feeling oh-so-sophisticated
Usual cost – $0
5. Cheap souvenir ideas that don’t take up any space
No matter how great the find, you’ll still got to get it home. Packing light both ways means traveling easy. And you’ve spent all that time being following the 8 strange but useful tips for stress-free trips. Don’t blow it now!
Remembering the wisdom of Billy Gibbons, I grab swizzle sticks from restaurants, airlines, and hotels to use as coffee stirrers. I found this rattlesnake swizzle stick in a hotel in Marfa and get a kick out of it every day. Cardboard coasters are also cheap souvenir ideas and much easier to find than matchbook covers which seem to have disappeared.
Concert art and literary event posters fill the bill sometimes, as well as plant cuttings where it is not prohibited to take or transport. Bring home a local beer or coffee can or wine bottle for a planter.
And of course, labels! Beer bottle labels, liquor labels, hot sauce labels, olive jar labels, – just open your mind and see what the universe serves you. Thanks for the tip, Billy.
Usual cost – 0-$3 (you’re going to drink the wine or beer anyhow, so it is a wash!)