Retail Therapy: A Vacation Shopping Guide

Seek out local boutiques and eclectic goods for a unique shopping experience on your vacation.

Living in a small Midwestern town has its advantages—virtually no traffic, a terrific farmer’s market and all the fresh, locally grown corn we can eat.

What it does not have is good shopping, unless you consider a mall that hasn’t been updated since 1991 to be “good shopping.”

Which I do not.

Our current relative poverty (writer and student—please pass the student loan applications) has not had a chilling effect on my desire for beautiful, unique consumer goods of all kinds. My husband is just the same, with his rainbow of Brooks Brothers shirts hanging in our closet.

Me? I have a special weakness for fancy kids’ duds and expensive cookware. Which is weird because I am a terrible cook.

Ah, the good old days, when my corporate salary allowed us to live like the fat cats we secretly long to be inside our good liberal hearts!

A Vacation Shopping Retreat

These days our shopping is pretty limited. The one exception we make is when we’re on vacation.

Recently my husband and I took a two-day jaunt to Chicago all on our lonesome—meaning we left the kid home with her grandparents. Sure, we wanted some romantic couple time alone (currently dubbed the babymoon) before our second child makes his appearance in August.

But mostly? We wanted to shop—unfettered by small legs that can’t keep up with two adults drunk on the smell of Crate and Barrel.

Susan Wagner knows a thing or two about shopping. As a fashion expert and writer, she doles out advice to the sartorially challenged at blogs including Friday Style, BlogHer, The Working Closet and Fashion Find.

How she finds time to shop with all those writing gigs I’ll never know. I guess some folks just have their priorities in order.

Discover Local, Unique Boutiques

Wagner says that traveling to a new town or city is the perfect time to avoid the mall.

I know! Avoid the mall? Do tell.

“My experience has been that malls consist mostly of stores that can be accessed over the Internet, even if they're not in your city, and that because of this, you won't necessarily find anything truly different,” Wagner points out. “When I travel, I try to stay away from the mall, and to look for cool local boutiques. Chain stores, even those that may not exist in your neighborhood, are always more generic in their offerings than local stores. Local places do a better job of reflecting the culture of a particular place.”

Okay, we’re down with avoiding the mall. So how do we suss out these shopping spots, especially when visiting an area with which we are unfamiliar?

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, says Wagner. Follow the food.

“My husband is big on not eating in chain restaurants when we travel—before we go anywhere, he will read up on great local fare, including cafés and coffee shops,” she says. “Often, the really terrific local shopping is in the same area as the really terrific local food; when you find one, the other can't be far away.”

She’s right, you know. In Chicago, the mister and I found some super-cool places tucked deep inside the Windy City’s hipster neighborhoods—Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown—near the up-and-coming restaurants. Let’s not even talk about the boatload of money we dropped on ironic toddler tees at Psycho Baby.


There are other ways to find great shopping, as well, Wagner adds. Don’t forget the guidebooks.

“A simple place to start is at your local bookstore; spend an hour or so browsing the travel guides for wherever it is you are going,” she says. “Look at the big guides, like Fodor's, but don't forget the little ones, those published by smaller local presses. Often, they have the best tips on what's cool in the city.”

Or ask your hotel’s concierge, she says. Don’t let that fancy French name intimidate you—those guys and gals are there to help you enjoy your stay.

And that well-dressed woman next to you on the subway? Ask her where she shops. Odds are that the locals will know exactly where to find the best places to part with your cash.

Wise Buys and Knowing Your Limit

Speaking of cash, it behooves any traveling shopper to set aside a specific amount of money for vacation purchases.

Wagner advises deciding on how much to spend ahead of time and then carrying that amount in cash. Once you’ve emptied your wallet, stop there.

That’s right, dude. Cold turkey. No more moola? No more merchandise. Put that credit card away. Don’t you read the papers?

Choose your “souvenirs” wisely to maximize your budget, she adds, and avoid the dreaded “I Went to Alcatraz and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” syndrome.

“Steer clear of things you could buy at home, or things that are too souvenir-y. Remember when everyone had a Hard Rock Café T-shirt?” Wagner says. “Be wary as well about getting caught up in the moment and buying something you will never use or wear again. That gigantic fur hat might seem like the perfect accessory during your week in Montréal, but will you really need it when you return to San Diego? Probably not.”

So what should you bring home in your suitcase? The sparkly stuff, of course.

“Jewelry is always a nice token to bring home from vacation. Every time you wear that ring or bracelet or necklace you will think of your holiday,” Wagner says. “And it's easy to pack, which is also a plus.”

I knew I liked this woman.  

Themes: Shopping

Activities: Eat, Shopping