Checking your wallet, and noting its slimmer appearance, you may be wondering what you'll be able to afford for your family and friends who will be anxiously awaiting your return home, hoping for a posh souvenir from your overseas jaunt. And, in fact, how many mementos for yourself will you be able to pay for?
Fortunately, you will be happy to discover that some of the best—and least costly—things you can bring home from a European vacation are freebies. Not only are they easy on the wallet, but their authenticity (think detailed opera programs, guidebook accompaniments and pretty café napkins) will wow the recipient with a real taste of Europe, unlike an ordinary ho-hum souvenir that could be snatched up at the mall or county fair. And most of these items pack easily, and won't have to be declared at customs.
The possibilities for these free—or as the French say, gratuit—tokens for family and friends, as well as for yourself, are abundant and endless. And a quick side note: acquiring freebies relieves the hassle of having to figure out local currency. (Take it from someone who once tried to make change in Czech korunas. So many of those coins looked alike!)
Free to the Public
You'll find that public places and major sites offer a great array of freebies. Hotels house racks of glossy tour and historic site folders. Besides being helpful to you while you're there, and fun for you to keep and enjoy for years afterward—even supplementing your tour pictures—they make for good sharing with those back home and lead to interesting conversations about your journey.
You may be doing some of your traveling via train. The printed train routes, with their precise time schedules for stops, and bus maps, with funny signage and colors, provide a "you are there" feeling when perused back in the USA. Even ticket receipts and subway tokens can interest those who haven't taken an overseas trip. Coins from a foreign country make good tour gifts too, especially for children. And who knows? Those old euros may well be put to use later when a recipient takes her own European trip.
Most travelers love stepping into those impressive and beautiful cathedrals in European cities. And even into the quaint rural edifices. Here you'll find leaflets on the history of the building (many have photos of structure's past) and of the other churches in the city and the general area. Such items have a great appeal to church friends and architecture and history buffs.
Posters boasting organ and choral programs at these old establishments can be framed later and enjoyed by your music-loving friends. And these are all easy-to-stow items, able to be folded and arranged in a tote or suitcase for the passage home.
Free With Purchase
Children in my family have loved the free napkins, plastic silverware, straws and menus I've procured, after buying my hamburger of course, from popular American eateries abroad. Back home, imagining how the Golden Arches operates in Germany, they use up hours playing restaurant.
If you're lucky enough to visit a fancy restaurant while traveling, an unused napkin, with its stylish imprint, is an idea. Often, too, cashiers are more than happy to give you a menu to take with you. I usually politely offer to purchase the menu (holding a few coins in my hand), and almost always the cashier smiles and says, "Oh, just take it with you." It's good advertising for them back home, where the recipient will be more than happy to study the offerings, maybe expressing disbelief at the prices, and perhaps trying to re-create some of the meal choices herself. Note too that sugar, salt and pepper packets with interesting drawings or phrases make fabulous knick-knacks.
In department stores you'll find many costless gift ideas. The store's floorplan and a host of free samples can wow the fashionistas in your life. Among my favorite travel mementoes are shopping bags from various stores I've visited. In Russia, everything is wrapped in ornate, specialty bags, so I've procured many pretty wall decorations for my home or for loved ones. I snagged my favorite free bag at a Russian bereozk (currency exchange store). With its lovely country logo and flag, it continues to warm up my living room today. Bags are useful souvenirs too because they can actually be put to use when your friends shop.
Don't forget the hotel or boarding house where you're staying—free samples abound there. I've brought back shoe polishing wipes, combs, sewing kits, sweet-smelling shampoos and soaps, shower caps, funny do-not-disturb signs and so much more! Oh, and make sure to take a stack of the hotel stationary and a pen to go with it. Television schedules are also a hoot back home.
Maybe you'll get to a symphony, or opera, or dinner-theater in Europe (I hope so!), where the playbills and programs make wonderful gifts. Sometimes you can find discarded ones to pick up.
Newsstands are another source for nearly free, inexpensive gifts. Who wouldn't get pleasure looking through a foreign magazine, to study the language, enjoy the photos or see their celebrity news coverage? While you might not want to spend much on these publications, discarded copies are often found on benches or in cafés, free for the taking.
And, as you near your take-off back home, remember that some of the magazines and maps found at your in-flight seat make for great presents for the would-be travelers on your list.
So, embark upon this long-awaited European trip anticipating lots of fun collecting gifts for family and friends back home. And, know that the things you'll pick up will give them pleasure for years to come—and show you were thinking of them. Thankfully, though, they will not put a dent in your pocketbook! Just take along a giant tote for collecting all those goodies. Happy travels!
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