The stuff you bring home from your travels tends to come in two types: souvenirs and stowaways. Souvenirs you want to bring home, and stowaways, well, you don't. I don't just mean stuff -- great souvenirs worth protecting and cherishing need not only be mementos and curios, but can also be experiences that you hope become a part of you when your travels end. The evil stowaway twin is no different, but these are things and experiences you want to make sure stay behind, forever and for good.
Making sure nothing comes home with you that you don't want is worth some thought and action; here are eight things to leave behind before you board the plane home.
Unless you have a coin and currency collection, leave these behind -- you will almost certainly never use them. Even if you know you are going to return to a country, despite best intentions very few travelers have the storage system, recall power and spare time when packing to remember to bring all the currency left over from the last trip. You would do well to spend all your foreign currency so you go home with empty pockets.
Or at least nearly empty -- if you know you will be returning relatively soon, an exception here might be to take one or two larger bills home with you, which could be useful when you return to pay for any expenses you incur before you can get to a low-fee ATM. Having $20 - $50 of the local currency in your pocket when getting off a plane in a foreign airport can be very comforting.
If you do collect foreign coins and bills -- as good a souvenir as any -- pare down your bounty to a few interesting pieces that really interest you, and spend or exchange (or even give away) the rest before you leave. Here are a bunch of tips for dealing with foreign currency, including information on UNICEF's Change for Good program if you want to put your leftover currency to work for the benefit of others.
On a return trip from Lithuania last year, with a connection in Amsterdam, the list of allowable items was somewhat laxly enforced at the Vilnius airport. When we got to the gate for our connecting flight home out of Amsterdam, however, security tightened considerably, and many folks flying in from smaller airports had to discard items that would have passed muster in Vilnius. Big container of Gira beer? Sorry. Homemade beet soup? If you can eat it before the flight, please do; otherwise, sorry.
We didn't have a connection to a domestic U.S. flight, but things might have gotten even tighter if we had. We all know that what one airport security agent might let through, another might not, and this can often be amplified when international airports are involved.
So when you are packing for your flight home, unless you want to be shedding stuff from your carry-on bag at each successive airport, you should choose what and how to pack based on the strictest airport through which you are likely to pass, not just the first one.
Many international travelers find themselves adopting speech patterns during their trip that folks back home would consider an accent. There are often good reasons to do this; for example, when overseas I have sometimes found it helpful to articulate each word much more clearly than my South Jersey roots would usually demand.
You will usually want to dial it back a bit when you get home. If you find you like articulating your words a bit better, you can hold onto some of your diction improvements, but don't let yourself start sounding like a European after a couple weeks in the Old Country. Why? It's fake.
There is no reason to cart home things that break, wear out, no longer fit, need a new home or you simply don't need anymore. Is your travel toothbrush beat? Toss it in the hotel trash can before you check out. Alternatively, if you are done with something that someone else could use, consider donating it before you leave. You can find some options for donating items here: Part-Time Voluntourism: How to Give Back During a Trip.
Good night, sleep tight ... and don't bring any critters home with you in your clothes or luggage. Bed bugs are the most obvious culprit to avoid, especially because they are very difficult to eradicate once they've infested your home sleeping spaces. To keep them from hopping a ride from your hotel to your home, see How to Find a Clean Hotel Room.
It's not only bed bugs that you want to avoid. Bringing home cockroaches, stink bugs (which most likely traveled to the U.S. as stowaways in packing crates from China) or even stowaway mammals like mice can make you mighty sorry if they escape into your home. Check your bags and clothes for any stowaways both when packing abroad and unpacking at home.
Much as you want to avoid transporting visible (or almost visible) critters, you will want to try to do the same with illness-causing germs and bacteria. It is not uncommon for international bugs to become U.S.-based expats thanks to unwitting travelers giving them a ride; in recent years, many universities have had outbreaks of various diseases that most likely traveled to America with international students.
That said, it's not that easy to keep yourself germ- and bacteria-free, as it is their world after all, and we just live in it. Your best way forward is to do all the things you would usually do when trying to avoid infection, and then up your game a bit. Some tactics include washing your clothes in hot water immediately upon unpacking, doing a thorough cleaning of your luggage when you get home, airing things out to dry, using antibacterial gels and soaps, and whatever else you come up with along those lines. I know folks who leave their bags out on the back porch in freezing conditions, or put their bags and clothes in direct sun during summer, both of which can help rid your luggage of bacteria and germs that thrive in warm, damp conditions.
It is not just at your destination that you have to be careful of microscopic hitchhikers; airplanes themselves can be rife with germs, bacteria and run-of-the-mill filth. Find some tips to keep yourself germ-free in Avoiding the Airplane Cold.
It may have been okay in Amsterdam or Uruguay, and sort of okay in Switzerland and Spain (not to mention Colorado and Washington) -- but it's not legal most places you are headed, and especially not at airport security checkpoints.
This is not something to take lightly; carrying illegal items across international borders can bring very serious charges. Leave 'em behind if you've got 'em.
It's not just the most obvious substances that might get you in trouble -- it could be absinthe, or sassafras oil, or haggis. Also, items that are otherwise completely legal in the United States may not necessarily be permissible to carry across borders, including fruit, vegetables, seeds and the like. When in doubt, leave it out.
Ah, well. You can try, at least.
Have you ever opened your bags to find you took something home that should have been left behind? Have any more tips for must-avoid hitchhikers? Let us know in the comments.