When to Skip or Spend on Souvenirs on Your Next Family Vacation
Whether you’re embarking on a road trip or taking to the skies, we have ideas for making your vacation as stress-free as possible. This content is presented in partnership with Hampton by Hilton; it was created independently by our editorial team.
Souvenir shopping can mark the best and worst part of a vacation. Kids are excited to pick out the perfect memento, but parents are tasked with making a bunch of decisions very quickly. From setting price limits to ensuring fairness among siblings, it gets stressful.
In our family, the kids are permitted to choose one item they can’t get anywhere else — meaning I am not buying an LOL doll to remember our beach vacation. But on a March 2022 vacation to the Kennedy Space Center, it wasn’t that simple.
My twins quickly picked a trucker hat and a necklace, and my then-preschooler landed on an astronaut bear keychain that still hangs from her backpack. My tween, however, was overcome with decision fatigue.
As a space aficionado who dreams of becoming a pilot, he had his eye on a model spacecraft, patches, and posters. It was clear my partner and I had to revisit the one souvenir rule. Ultimately, we allowed him to commemorate one of the best days of his life with multiple items. However, we made it clear the rule wasn’t abolished, and this was an exception because our family wouldn’t be back to the space center anytime soon. By reminding him of the boundaries while explaining why we pushed them a little that day, everyone’s needs were met.
This is one of many souvenir conundrums families can encounter, and it can be helpful to have a game plan going in. To find out how to best decide when to buy souvenirs, I spoke to some folks who have serious experience in travel memorabilia.
How can you help your kids decide on a souvenir?
Rich Grey, senior director of operations at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, has seen plenty of family dynamics in the gift shop. I asked Grey if my kid’s indecision was typical. “Of course!” he tells me. “Kids who love space always end up finding multiple items they love in the Space Shop.”
“Typically, there are negotiations between parents and kids, but there are always smiles on 100% of the kids’ faces at checkout,” Grey says.
Grey’s gift shop knowledge can be applied to almost any vacation. For example, if you know your destination is of high interest — like taking an Elsa stan to Disney World — prepare ahead of time. Maybe you bend the souvenir rules a little, or you may decide to have a talk with your child before the trip to firmly reinforce them.
To help narrow down what type of souvenir is best for your kids, take another cue from Grey. He says the best souvenirs connect you to the place you want to remember in a tangible way. At the Kennedy Space Center, older kids tend to love models and kits, while younger children gravitate towards stuffies — one more souvenir truth you can apply to almost any gift shop on your next vacation.
Kids also love treats. “Our number-one item sold each and every day is the Astronaut Ice Cream,” he tells me.
Edible souvenirs can be tricky, but Grey says many families buy several packets of freeze-dried ice cream to enjoy later on their trip or share with friends back home. As long as the souvenir is meaningful, the memories will remain even after the treat is gone.
That’s also a great benchmark for choosing the right souvenir in general: As they browse, encourage your child to consider how this specific item will help them remember the trip.
Should you set a souvenir budget?
Rob Jones, host of The Family Vacationer podcast, and his wife, Traci, give their children freedom — within budgetary boundaries. As their kids have gotten older, they’ve had success setting a budget for each child prior to the trip. Then, each kid can decide how to spend their allowance. When it’s gone, it’s gone. “That is my new favorite approach, as we’re always in the battle of instant gratification versus saving for something you really want,” Jones says.
The budget will be different for each family, but choose a limit that doesn’t add stress to family finances. That allows the adults to be excited for their kids’ new purchases rather than resentful. The number can be different every time. Maybe you base it on the type of vacation you take — weekend getaways may have a smaller budget, while big-ticket trips often call for a more generous allowance.
What souvenirs will your family actually treasure long-term?
We’ve bought souvenirs I couldn’t find in our house today if I tried. I don’t regret the stuffies they lost interest in or the slingshots that easily broke. At the same time, I want our family to amass meaningful items that serve as touchstones from some of our best times together.
My own childhood was blessedly packed with adventure. I have no idea where my various sets of mouse ears are, but my mother framed menus from some of our favorite stops over the years — The Wee Packet on Cape Cod, and JB’s Fish Camp in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where we ate when we visited my grandparents. To this day, when I see one of those framed menus, I smile at the memory of salty fried fish and sandy feet.
Similarly, my husband and I have sought to preserve vacation memories through framed maps of beloved cities, which are often free at rest stop kiosks and make great art.
Jess McCorkle, of Family of Nomads, is a mom of three who travels full-time with her kids and husband, Dub. They have a long tradition of choosing family souvenirs. First, it was magnets, but they switched to postcards once they ran out of space. “We buy two [postcards] for each kid,” says McCorkle. “One to send to a friend or family member, and the other to write their favorite thing we did there. We keep them in a memory box of our travels.”
In conversation with friends, I’ve found most families take a similar approach: giving kids some freedom to choose individual souvenirs, while also collecting family treasures like ornaments, mugs, or pressed pennies.
Jones tells me he does try to think about souvenirs that will endure, but the reality is, kids can’t always see the long game. In the end, it’s really the memories that last, he says — the trinkets just help us retrieve them.