Johannesburg - A few years ago, passing through Zurich airport with a colleague, we wandered through the duty free shops.
He picked up a few bottles of perfume of the type favoured by his recently-acquired younger wife. After checking the prices, he told me he could buy the perfume cheaper in Joburg.
And there we left it, sitting down for a cup of coffee. After a while, though, he decided he would buy, on the basis that it’s “only a little more expensive here” (R750 vs about R650 in Joburg if memory serves) and that “I can’t go away and come back with nothing…”
Five minutes later he was back with his wrapped purchase and, as he sat down to finish his coffee, his cellphone beeped.
His face fell. His credit card had been charged R910.
That’s an example I always use when I am away on trips and people ask me what I am taking back with me. Nine times out of 10 the answer is: nothing.
And that, I’ll admit, is partly because I don’t like parting with money but more because most of what you see in shops overseas you can buy here. And it’s often cheaper.
And you don’t have to take the risk of bringing it back (those who do still leave valuables in their hold baggage deserve all the attention OR Tambo’s airport thieves can bestow upon them, though…)
Besides, as I do point out, if I did bring something home from a foreign trip, my wife would wonder what I had been up to.
It never ceases to amaze me how seemingly sensible people get into a frenzy in a shop whose main attraction seems to be that it is not on South African soil.
On a trip to New York two years ago, I sat in the departure lounge at JFK airport, looking at my fellow South Africans (journos and tour organiser) as they compared the damage done to their credit cards after a hectic day’s shopping in the Big Apple.
I know they shopped because they dragged me along with them.
Most of the stuff they bought could have been picked up in any number of shops in Sandton – where the prices are still in rands. There weren’t that many bargains.
I admit that – mainly to pass the time – I did some buying of my own … a pair of sunglasses (mine had broken just before I left home) and a pair of Levi’s jeans for $25 (R250). (Who wouldn’t snap that up – even if the jeans were made in some Asian sweatshop?)
On another occasion, a fellow hack on a trip to Germany came within a whisker of buying an iPad.
Then someone pointed out a) the price was more or less the same as in Joburg and b) the keyboard on German versions is different.
Which brings me to another reason why I don’t go if for the “buy your electronics overseas, they’re much cheaper” argument.
Firstly, they are only cheaper if you smuggle them in without declaring them. If you do the right thing and pay the duty, the price amounts to the same.
And secondly, those electronic items are often considered “grey imports” and the local agents, quite rightly, often won’t honour warranties.
Buying mementoes is also often a waste of money. What looks cute in situ looks hideous when you get it back home.
We bought a tea set in Ireland, which we’ve never used, probably because it is so embarrassing and impractical. The teapot is in the shape of a typical Irish stone cottage. It’s languished on top of our Welsh dresser in the dining room for 25 years.
Besides, most of the trinkets and rubbish are made in factories in China.
I only buy overseas when I know that a) the person I am buying for will appreciate it, b) that it is good quality and c) that I cannot get it back at home.
So on a trip to Ireland, I bought some beautiful sterling silver Celtic crosses for my wife and daughter and a woollen shawl for my wife.
These days, when I get back from a trip, no-one expects anything.
My wife and I normally go out to dinner, which is a much more sensible way of using money than on expensive overseas gifts.
However, she is still an amateur in that respect.
When she went on a school tour last year, she bought me a bottle of Limincello, which was seized at airport security in Paris when she forgot it was in her hand luggage.
She also bought me an Italian leather belt and a case for my glasses. And they were the perfect gifts – so what do I know?
l I’d like to hear how you shop (or not) when you’re overseas.
You can drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org