How to Pack Souvenirs for a Flight

Stacey Ebert

What kind of traveler are you? Are you a fan of souvenirs, or do you collect only memories? Is your entire house a travel museum dedicated to your adventures, or do you once in a blue moon purchase a necklace or ornament here and there? Sometimes, along with the photos and blog posts, we decide we would also like to have tangible mementos of the journey. Souvenirs always seem like a good idea, that is, until you have to get them home. Then what?

Every traveler is different. There are as many shopping, packing and traveling styles as there are travelers and each is in a constant state of flux. The more you travel, the more your needs, wants and packing strategies, change. In my younger years, I think I bought a t-shirt in every city I visited. Not including the t-shirts I bought for friends and family, if I didn’t follow the rule of ‘buy one t-shirt, donate one t-shirt’ my pack would have surely knocked me over by day five.

There have also been times that a trip, a moment or an item touched my soul and there was nothing I could do to convince myself not to buy a souvenir. There was that brilliant candleholder and fragile vase in Israel, a large wooden giraffe in South Africa, artwork in the Dominican Republic and essential oils in glass perfume bottles purchased in Egypt. The last thing you want is for your keepsake or gift to break, be taken at customs or to find yourself with an entire bag filled of peppermint oil.

How do you manage to bring home a part of your travels while maintaining their safety and your sanity?

Today, I’m a different kind of traveler. I take pictures, send postcards and buy magnets, but there are still those times that something catches my fancy that makes me willing to jump through whatever hoops necessary to get it to its destination (that’s how I felt about Gregory the giraffe and that silver candleholder). Even though one travel mindset might be, ‘don’t buy any souvenirs’, we know that’s not always realistic. Perhaps more realistic would be to say, travel lightly, leave room for extras, have a plan to get all non-carry on purchases home and remember, there is always the risk that your item might not make it through customs.

Here are some helpful hints for how to pack souvenirs that can’t go in your carry on:

Time Your Purchase

The timing of souvenirs always depends on where you’re going, how you’re traveling and how long you’ll be on the road. A three-month adventure to ten countries is very different than a two-week holiday in one location, but souvenirs are souvenirs.

As often as possible, buy your souvenirs towards the end of your trip. If your journey takes you to many destinations at once, consider purchasing any larger items in the last location to lessen the amount of carrying and possibility of breakage during handling. Depending on your flights, consider duty free shopping. Be sure to keep in mind your connections and whether or not liquid purchases have to be checked on your connecting flight.

Shipping Souvenirs: Air, Land & Sea

Although often the most expensive option, shipping can alleviate the stress of carrying your souvenirs from place to place or trying to get them through in your luggage, unscathed. Be sure to check the pricing of shipping versus checking an extra piece of luggage.

If you choose to ship, be sure to ask about shipping insurance. Even though this may increase your costs, you’d know that in case of damages you might be able to at least recoup your finances even if you’d be without your item.

Regardless of how you choose to ship, be sure to request a tracking number to keep a watchful eye on your precious purchase. Larger items can cost a fortune to ship by air. If you can wait awhile to receive your purchase, consider the possibility of sea freight. It’s possible that you may arrive home before your package, but once it gets there it will feel like an extra gift. No matter how you choose to ship your items (FedEx, UPS, or otherwise), remember to check the rules and fees of customs at the site of its destination.

Do Your Homework

If traveling internationally, whether you’re bringing your souvenir on the plane, paying for extra luggage, or using any type of shipping method, be certain to check on the rules of customs and agriculture in its place of destination. Duty taxes may also apply and can increase based on the monetary value of the item. Each location has a list of TSA prohibited items and each destination has rules dictating what can, and can’t, be brought into the country by air, land, and sea.

Australia and New Zealand have some of the most stringent restrictions. For example, items made from, or including, animal products (i.e.: drums, shields, artifacts) will need to be declared and according to the Australian Government website, ‘might be prohibited under international wildlife legislation and might require import permits’. New Zealand  doesn’t allow food of any kind (some fully packaged and sealed items might be allowed in) and there are high fines attached if rules are not followed; the same is true in Australia. For the most accurate guidelines, check the customs websites of wherever your package is heading.

Be a Savvy Packer

There are many ways to maximize your carry on packing options. You may want to choose a carry on bag that expands allowing you more space for things you pick up along the way. Depending on the airlines (some budget flights only allow one personal item per person – check your carrier) maximizing your personal item size might allow you access to bring more on board. I often travel with a lightweight expandable duffel (which can clip onto any bag) that meets carryon restrictions. This overflow space provides room for well-packaged trinkets or dirty laundry, thus making room in the checked in luggage for those larger, less fragile souvenirs.

Think outside the box when purchasing souvenirs like artwork. Perhaps you can get the piece without a frame and it might be small enough, rolled up, to bring home in your carryon and get it stretched or framed later.

Packing tips from savvy packers include:

  • Popping your socks into your shoes to make more space
  • Wrapping those fragile purchases in sweaters
  • Putting those most precious small items in with your personal items that can fit inside whatever won’t have to be checked
  • Remember to utilize every bit of space possible

That necklace you bought in Mexico can go around your neck. That bracelet for your best friend can fit in your makeup bag. That priceless vase you picked up in Prague wraps perfectly in that scarf you always bring onboard and that fragile statue for your Dad that you picked up in South Africa can be wrapped in two or three pair of socks and make it onboard safely. Pack wisely; your souvenirs will thank you.

Choose the Extra Luggage Option

Check an extra bag or box. Depending on size and fragility of your items, often the cost of an extra piece of luggage is less than that of shipping. Keep in mind you might need to purchase a vessel and packing supplies for your extra luggage (whether that’s an expandable bag, or getting a box at the local office supply shop).

Each airline is different, so be sure to check the fees in advance and keep in mind that often booking extra luggage online (instead of at the gate) can save money. Remember you need to be able to carry your extra luggage upon arrival at your destination.

Buy & Ship Local

Depending on what you’re purchasing (and from where) there may be another option. Handmade artwork from a local market notwithstanding, some other purchases may have a local distributor. International wineries sometimes have domestic partners. Giant conglomerates might have a domestic arm from where shipping items could be far less expensive.

It never hurts to ask if there’s a way of purchasing the product in a way that can eliminate or lessen shipping costs and dispense with concern over Customs restrictions.

Legroom Schmegroom

Who needs legroom? Even though I’m 4’11’’ and (my feet don’t reach the floor) the husband, who is an entire foot taller than me, might frown on losing his legroom on a long haul flight. However, if losing the legroom saves you from $100+ shipping costs of an African drum (or giraffe), you might reconsider.

We brought that wooden giraffe (Gregory) on our flight and the flight attendants managed to find room in the suit closet (not in our cabin) keeping him safe and sound the entire ride. If the flight isn’t full, you can always ask the flight attendants to see if there’s another compartment that could keep your item safe from being mangled by any inconsiderate travelers, or just plop the item at your feet. Keep in mind that depending on the size of the item, you risk the flight attendants taking it away and forcing it to be checked.


Souvenir shopping can take a lifetime to master. Over time, your choices will ebb and flow with your travels. Travel lightly, shop wisely, and pack with care.

  • Check the rules and restrictions of your destination before you buy, travel with, or decide to ship that precious souvenir
  • Take great care when traveling with fragile items
  • Do your research before choosing a shipping company
  • ALWAYS say yes to insurance on large, expensive items
  • Pack wisely – leave room for those spontaneous extra purchases

Travel provides the greatest stories, and sometimes souvenirs. Shop with care, do your research and if, for some reason, your purchase doesn’t make it – know that no one can take away those travel memories. Perhaps you will have to plan another adventure sooner than you expected.

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