Some Thoughts on Vacation Souvenirs – and Eight Smart Alternatives to Overpriced Tourist Items

A few days ago, we were rearranging our children’s rooms. We came to the decision that our children were old enough that our daughter needed a room of her own that wasn’t shared with her brothers, so we rearranged things to have the boys sharing one room and our daughter alone in another bedroom.

During that process, both rooms received a thorough cleaning and rearrangement, and as often happens when you do such a thing, objects that had fallen behind dressers and under beds were discovered. Old toys. A few pictures. A few scraps of trash.

What was most interesting, however, was a picture book that my daughter had bought as a souvenir at Disney World. She had completely forgotten about the book and didn’t even recognize it or remember it in any way.

As she looked through it, she talked a lot about our vacation that summer, but it wasn’t based on the pictures in the book. Instead, the memories were coming from her own head. She didn’t really remember anything that was depicted in the book, but she remembered eating ice cream in the France area at EPCOT and talking to one of the princess characters walking around the park.

After flipping through the book, she put it on her bookshelf with dozens of other books, where it has sat untouched ever since. I’m pretty sure that it’s a book that could go to a used bookstore and she’d never remember owning it.

Vacations and Souvenirs

Since Sarah and I have been married, we’ve taken a number of memorable vacations together, some just with each other and others with our children.

We’ve visited northwest Washington state – twice. We’ve visited the Black Hills and Devil’s Tower. We’ve visited the Grand Canyon. We went with the kids to Disney World (with some time in the Smoky Mountains beforehand). We went to Texas. We went to Boston and spent a few days driving around rural New England. We’ve been to the United Kingdom. This summer, we’re going to Canada. (I also visited Mexico several times by myself.)

On many of those trips, I purchased souvenirs of various kinds to remind me of the vacation, little things that caught my eye along the way. I remember buying this little doll at the base of an Aztec temple in Tenochtitlan. I remember buying my oldest son a souvenir plastic snake model from a national park. I remember buying a glass mug from a brewery tour in Boston. I can name many, many others, too.

My family members have done the same thing – the story of the picture book that I mentioned at the beginning is a perfect example. I remember my oldest son, when he was quite young, insisting upon getting a snow globe when we were on one of our summer vacations, for example.

As I sit here, though, I couldn’t even tell you where those souvenirs are. I think the glass mug is in the cupboard, but I’m not sure as I don’t recall seeing it for a while. I don’t know where the snake or the doll are, nor can I tell you the location of any of the other dozens of souvenirs I can pull up out of my memories.

I bought the items in the hope that they would help me remember the vacation, but instead the items themselves wound up forgotten. Why? Because the items were forgettable. They honestly had very little to do with the things that I remember – or that I want to remember – from all of those trips.

The value of a souvenir is that it helps you remember the great things about your trip, but most of the souvenirs that you buy don’t serve that purpose. Your memory of a great vacation doesn’t come from the gift shop, after all.

The truth is that most of the things that we think of as souvenirs are expensive, often low quality, and often not memorable on their own. They seem to capture some element of that trip, but they usually end up missing the target and wind up completely forgotten. In other words, they’re mostly a waste of money.

Still, it’s undeniable that certain things can help stir memories and feelings within us. The right kind of memorabilia from a trip can help bring that trip back to life in your mind and in your heart.

But you don’t need to spend money for the right kind of memorabilia.

Eight Smart Souvenir Alternatives

Here are eight smart alternatives to vacation souvenirs. All of these are very inexpensive – many of them are free. All of them have a much better chance of helping you remember the joys of your vacation as well as they’re directly tied to the experiences that you had, rather than just being a physical object unrelated to what you did there.

Found Items (Shells, Rocks, etc.)

If you’re going to a place where you have permission to collect items like seashells, rocks, or other found items, those types of things make for wonderful vacation memorabilia.

Right now, in front of our house, we have a few bright red rocks that we found in the Arbuckle Mountains in Oklahoma. Whenever I see them, I remember our stop in Oklahoma to explore that area.

I have three clean seashells that I found along the beach in northwest Washington state that, whenever I see them, reminds me of the day we all spent on the shoreline there.

It’s those kinds of physical objects – directly taken from the places and experiences that I had – that really bring back memories for me. These kinds of items can be used for home decoration to really personalize a home. And you can’t argue with the cost of a found item like this, either.

The only thing worth noting is to be sure you have permission before collecting and taking these kinds of “found items.” Without that type of permission, you can get yourself in trouble for theft and for other crimes.


Photos are a vacation souvenir staple, and for good reason: They often provide a direct visual reminder of a moment or a location that you saw and experienced with your very own eyes. Looking through photos of a past vacation is a great way to relive the experience in your mind and today, with digital photography of a pretty high level of quality available on everyone’s cell phone, it’s very accessible, too.

I’ve found that, time and time again, the pictures that I enjoy the most aren’t the posed ones. They’re the ones taken in the moment when I just pull out my phone and take a photo very quickly. I’ve got pictures of my children actively enjoying something they’ve discovered or of my wife watching something with her beautiful little half-smile on her face. I’ve got beautiful photos of landscapes, sometimes with loved ones in front of me also looking off into the distance. The more “posed” pictures, I find, are kind of forgettable, and they usually end up taking a lot more time and being a distraction from the moment.

I usually take lots of pictures, too. I’ll take a bunch in a row of my kids doing something, for example, and then throw away all but one of them. I’ll go snap-snap-snap-snap, put my phone back away to enjoy the moment, and go through them later that night as I’m relaxed at the hotel or the campsite.

Printing the photos is up to personal preference; I prefer just to use them as a screen saver for the family computer, running through an endless loop of digital images. Again, doing this is basically free and it turns the screensaver of our family computer into a digital picture frame full of endless vacation memories.


If you have a smartphone for your picture-taking needs, it’s very likely that you’ll be able to capture videos as well. Almost everything I said above about pictures holds true for videos – they capture moments incredibly well, are very easy to capture (with a smartphone), and essentially have no additional cost. I also find that they’re far better when they capture things “in the moment.”

Currently, we have a big folder of vacation videos on our home computer network that we watch every once in a while. I can queue all of them up so that they all play automatically on our family television and we’ll sometimes just have a “vacation video” family movie night where we watch a long stream of short videos of things we did on various trips.

That little folder of digital videos – a folder which cost virtually no money and a surprisingly small amount of time to create – is worth its weight in gold to me. I love watching those little clips of travel moments.

A Travel Journal

This is probably my favorite form of vacation souvenir. In fact, a travel journal has become a normal routine for my vacations and it’s one that I will probably do on every significant trip for the rest of my life.

At the end of a long day during a vacation, just before I go to bed, I pull out my travel journal and write down the highlights of the day. I’ll mention the things we saw, the places we ate, and I’ll also list five things that I’ll want to remember about this day in the future.

It takes maybe 10 minutes and I find that it’s a very comforting way to unwind at the end of a day. When I fill up a few pages in a travel journal writing about that day, I know that I’ll always be able to remember the best of it just by flipping through the notebook.

My travel journal also tends to take on a bit of a scrapbook feel. I’ll often save napkins or the front page of a menu from an interesting restaurant or a part of a brochure or a receipt or a leaf or a ticket stub or some other found paper item and literally glue or tape those things right into the travel journal.

You can use pretty much any notebook or journal for this purpose. For example, on our vacation this summer I’m using a medium-sized Baron Fig Vanguard, of which I luckily found myself owning a three pack. In past years, I’ve used Field Notes pocket notebooks and composition books and even a little old Mead spiral-bound notebook. Just use whatever you have.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find these to be the best vacation souvenirs of all, as they take you right back to those places and remind you of great moments that you’d forgotten about, and it costs just a dollar or two and a few moments of your time each day during the trip.


My wife is a pretty talented sketch artist, although she is very modest about her skills. Sometimes, she’ll just pull out a piece of paper and a pencil and in just a few minutes create something on that paper that’s just incredibly beautiful. It captures some aspect of the world as she sees it.

Every once in a while, she’ll do this when we’re traveling. Maybe the children will be playing at a park or we’ll be resting under a shade tree and she’ll just produce a notebook and start drawing something.

I would far rather look at her sketches than look at a photo I’ve taken, because her sketches always capture elements that I didn’t notice on my own or wouldn’t see in a picture.

I would gladly hang some of her best sketches on the walls of our home, but her modesty keeps that from happening.

It takes talent to create this kind of souvenir, of course, but if you have that talent or someone in your family does, encourage them to create this marvelous kind of souvenir. All it takes is some blank paper, a pencil, and some talent.

Postcards Mailed to Yourself

One thing I love to do is pay a quarter or 50 cents or a dollar and buy a postcard from an area where we happen to be, write down a quick thought or two on it, and then mail it to myself. The postcard acquires a postmark and then magically arrives in my mailbox when I arrive home, at which point I’ll stick it on a mirror or in some other place around our house.

I have a bunch of these postcards, and one thing I’d love to do at some point is make a collage of a bunch of them, frame it, and hang it up somewhere as a visual reminder of many of my travels.

A postcard is just a wonderful little document. It usually has a great image on one side, but what really counts is what’s on the other side. The writing that you did that usually references a particular moment in time, the stamp that you placed on the card, and the postmark all together along with the natural design of the card creates a little rectangular piece of art.

As I said, I like to stick these in the corners of mirrors or in other places around our house. I’ll put them on the refrigerator or in the corner of a picture frame. They provide these little simple visual reminders of a trip that I deeply enjoyed.

The cost? Perhaps a dollar or two for the postcard and the cost of a stamp, that’s all. It’s a pretty cheap price for such a great souvenir.


Here, I’m talking about stamps of a different kind. Wikipedia explains what I’m talking about:

At nearly all of the 412 American National Park units (and many of the National Park Service’s affiliated areas), one or more National Park Passport Stamps (cancellation stamps) can be acquired at no cost at park visitor centers and ranger stations. The stamps are similar in nature to passport stamps stamped in a traveler’s national passport. The stamps serve as a record of each park visit.

One of our favorite types of vacation is our camping vacations to our national parks. We’ve visited a lot of them, and many more national monuments and other places. Along the way, we discovered this passport stamp system, where you can simply stamp a small book with these stamps that indicate the day you visited the park as well as a unique annual design for the region of the country you’re in.

There is an “official” book that you can buy to keep these stamps, but you can also just use your own pocket notebook if you’d like.

I quickly learned that my children like to collect these stamps (and Sarah and I do as well). I often stamp my travel journals (as discussed above) and Sarah actually has her own National Parks Passport booklet that she keeps stamps in.

Over time, these stamps can turn into a great souvenir of your travels if you’re a frequent visitor of the national parks. It ends up looking a lot like a passport book with a lot of stamps in it, which is a similarly great souvenir of one’s travels. It can become a little book loaded with memories.

A Memory Map

This is an idea that a friend of ours named Janet inspired us with. On the wall in her home is a large map of the world where she’s inserted a pin in each city that she’s visited. She has pins all over the place and it serves as a great visual reminder of all of her travels.

At this point, most of our travels are within North America, so a North American map would work really well for this.

So, what would make this into a souvenir? Whenever you visit a city, just look for a paper document that has the name of the city printed on it. When you get home, cut out the name of the city from whatever document you found – a brochure, a restaurant menu, whatever – and attach it to the pin before you stick it in the map.

For example, you might mark the Orlando area with a brochure for Disney World, or you might mark New York with a scrap from the menu of an amazing food truck that you enjoyed while you were there. You can find something like this in every town.

Over time, the map would grow more and more colorful and varied, and each pin could identify not only the location you visited, but provide a physical little reminder of something you did there.

All that you need for this is some wall space, some pins, and the ability to remember to grab some brochures and menus while you travel. It makes for a great little decoration for your home that’s full of little snippets of memories.

Final Thoughts

The central theme in all of these ideas is this: You don’t need to buy expensive things to trigger the most beautiful of memories. Often, it’s the simple little free things that trigger those memories, things you can easily acquire on your trip without much effort at all.

For me, the best “cheap” souvenir of all is my little collection of travel journals. Each one of them is loaded with memories from the trips I’ve taken over the years. I love looking at them and remembering the places I’ve been, the people I was with, and the experiences I had while I was there. Those travel journals, filled with my immediate writing while the memory was still fresh and lots of little scraps of brochures and ticket stubs and menus and other things, are just wonderful little portals in time back to events I hope I never forget.

Whatever you choose to do for your next trip, remember that the money best spent on a trip is on the experience itself, not on buying forgettable things to try to capture that experience. Instead, capture little snippets of that experience directly with pictures or videos or little scraps or found items.

You’ll find that those things bring your vacation memories to life far better than whatever you find at the gift shop, and you’ll spend a lot less money, too.

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