The exchange rate stings, but some stuff is still actually cheaper abroad
As someone who often spends chunks of time abroad, I've learned that even though the exchange rate hurts, there are in fact some things that are cheaper abroad, even with bad rates. I wrote about the phenomenon for our sister site in the United Kingdom (did you know there was one?) in May. Because so many Americans are about to jet off on their summer vacations in Europe -- Visit Britain, the official tourism office of the U.K., says nearly 3 million of us head over each year -- I thought I'd re-export my British import and serve my findings up here, where Americans can use them.
I love buying homewares when I'm abroad. I keep important papers in box files that I can only find inexpensively at Ryman in Britain, and friends rave about the ornate stationery I bought them in Florence. I don't need more knick-knacks and souvenirs that take up space, but when I sleep on sheets I bought abroad, I re-live my travels again. I consider them to be enhanced souvenirs.
Stuff like this is cheaper in London than at home:
High-quality bedsheets. The stuff you get at John Lewis is miles better than the carelessly-machined junk they often sell at the big mall anchor stores at home. Spend £30 or £40 ($50 to $66) and you'll have beaten the high-end sheets at America's Macy's by half. The British selection of colors is better, too, with more vibrant solids available. Americans seem to want all earth tones, all the time.
Holiday cards. At home, I'll easily pay $15 for 10. In London, I can get a pack of tasteful designs at Paperchase for £3 or £4, ($5 to $6.50) and what's more, that money will go to charity.
Classic recordings. Bet you didn't think of this one. In the U.S., copyrights generally last longer than in Britain, where most Parliamentary Copyright songs can become public domain 50 years after publication. I've gone into CD shops and found classic 1950s albums on CD for £5 ($8.25) or less, whereas at home, they're in the mid-teens. That makes it cheaper to listen to your grandparents' favorite artists in Britain than it is in the U.S.
Prepared meals. Not just sandwiches sold at quick-serve chains such as Pret a Manger or Eat, which I call triangle sandwiches -- those are about a third less than what's charged back home, and much easier to find abroad than in America. But I also mean all those gorgeous warm-and-eat meals that line the shelves at every supermarket. British prepared meals blow my mind -- huge shepherd's pies, fresh-made pasta, and other dishes you could pass off as home-cooked. The quality is better, the selection is wider, and you can have a huge dinner for £3 or £4 ($5 to $6.50). If you paid a comparable price in the U.S, chances are your meal will look like it was squeezed out of a vat and the recipe will be bread-heavy or pre-cooked by frying.
Beer. In America, you can pay $5 to $7 for a pint, and the beer is weaker. In Britain, £3 will get you halfway home.
Eyeglasses. In Britain: £99 to £160 ($160 to $260) for a designer pair. America: $500 to $800. SpecSavers and Boots often have two-for-one sales, bumping the value higher still. Americans who want cheap British glasses (which, I think, come in styles that are generally smarter-looking, too) should bring written prescriptions with them, because the Brits won't give you glasses without them. You don't need to convert any of your eye measurements, but hit the eyeglasses shop on your first day abroad so there will be time to fabricate your pair. I personally have two pairs of British glasses, and they don't slip in extra 'u's when I read things through them.
Headache pills. Boots charges £3 for 24 200-mg tablets of ibuprofen while American biggie Walgreens charges $4.79 for the same. That's pretty close, but you can double the dosage at Boots and pay just £1 more, while in the U.S., you can't get 400mg without a doctor's prescription. You can also get medication with codeine easily in the U.K., as you may in Canada. Just ask at the pharmacist's desk.
Breakfast cereal. In Britain, I can find it for upward of £1 ($1.65). In my local supermarket in the U.S., boxes with no more than week's worth of breakfasts go for $6 to $7. Then again, given the high quality of British dairy (also very well priced thanks to all those busy British cows), I tend to eschew cereal for cheese and yogurt when I'm there. And with checked baggage prices what they are, you'd have to be Froot Loopy to fill your luggage with this stuff, but I thought Weetabix was worth the trouble before it became more readily available here.
Each country has its own deals. I'm talking about everyday items, not just touristy stuff like rugs in Turkey and amber in Russia. Olives cost next to nothing in the Mediterranean, for example.
The only sure way to know for sure where the deals are is to hit a local store. Happily, traipsing the aisles of the most mundane stores is also a terrific way to get a feel for the way people live in your vacation destination. You can't always bring everything back home (no meats, no runny cheeses, nothing unsealed, no seeds), but there's tons that you can. The same economic peculiarities that foster disparity in the exchange rates can also fill your house with products that are cheaper (and oftentimes of better quality).