Homes Around the World

8 Tips for Thrift Shopping Abroad, According to Experts

published Aug 16, 2022
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Of all my current home decor, some of my absolute favorite (and most affordable) pieces have come from spontaneously popping into local thrift or vintage stores while traveling — and not even any destinations with particularly famous secondhand shopping scenes, mind you. The gold shell-shaped bookends in my living room, for instance, came from an antique market in my Kentucky hometown, and more recently I found the most amazing $3 decorative basket in Ohio. On both trips, I had zero shopping expectations, yet returned to my apartment with the best budget-friendly, can’t-get-anywhere-else new additions.

Now imagine that same thrifting thrill, but on an international level. That’s right, if you’re heading abroad in the near future, consider adding thrift shopping in a different country to your travel itinerary. Not only will secondhand selections vary vastly across the globe, but there’s potential to walk away with the ultimate one-of-a-kind home treasures on a dime (…or pound, or peso). And to help you plan your trip accordingly, I spoke with a handful of thrifting experts, located both domestically and overseas, on the best tips and tricks to know before you go — from packing best practices to finding where to shop. Main takeaway #1? Always keep an open mind.

Get acquainted with thrifting customs

It’s a no-brainer to research your destination(s) before you go, but plan to read up on certain cultural etiquette, too, particularly for things like price negotiating. According to Portland-based interior designer Max Humphrey, even if you’re used to bargaining at local U.S. thrift stores, “you don’t want to assume you can negotiate just because you’re in a different country,” he explains. “It’s definitely something to look up or ask. It can be different depending on what market you go to.” In Paris specifically, Meghan Donovan — editor of wit & whimsy and founder of travel service Paris, Perfected — notes that she’ll usually “negotiate if the item is a bigger ticket item, but if it is priced under 20 euros I tend to pay the full asking price.”

Learn the thrifting lingo

In a similar vein, Dana Curatolo, owner of Archive vintage shop in Jersey City, advises getting to know common vocab associated with secondhand shopping in different countries. “Before I head somewhere new — especially if it’s a language that’s unfamiliar to me — I’ll translate all the terms that correlate to ‘vintage,’ ‘thrift,’ or ‘antiques,'” she says. “If you search foreign maps and utilize ‘flea’ or ‘antique,’ you’ll be met with limited results. But if you translate and identify local terminology, Google Maps will reward you with more results. For example, in France, search for brocante instead of antiques.”

Additionally, for destinations with a language barrier, Donovan recommends having Google Translate readily available while you shop for easier communication with sellers or vendors. She also emphasizes learning a few token terms like “What does this cost?” or simple “Please” and “Thank you.”

Tap into online thrifting communities

A quick Google search for “[insert country name] thrift shopping” yields plenty of promising articles and blog posts detailing top-rated locales. But for even more extensive (and potentially less touristy) results, you may even be able to find certain online platforms that catalog just about every major secondhand destination in the area. Andrea Walton, who runs the popular Instagram home account @embracing_the_bold, alludes to two such sites exclusive to the U.K. — HeyVintage and Antiques Atlas — which function as directories for local thrift/vintage/antique stores and markets (the latter even shows upcoming collector’s fair events).

Once you’ve started compiling a list of like-to-visit spots, Curatolo also suggests looking up each location beforehand on Instagram, if applicable, to get a sneak peek of possible inventory or pricing. “It helps me visualize the spot and determine if it’s of interest,” she says, a smart move for narrowing down your shopping agenda in advance, especially if you’ll be in a time crunch.

Get the lowdown from locals

Above all else, no one will know the best secondhand spots to go (including those under-the-radar hidden gems) better than natives. Once you’ve arrived, don’t be afraid to ask your hotel concierge or a restaurant server for shopping suggestions. Humphrey himself can attest to the latter: “I found places in Mexico City because I went to this breakfast spot all the time and chatted with people that work there,” he adds.

Consider a car rental

No, you don’t need a car, but if you’re already planning to rent one, Curatolo notes that it can definitely work to your thrift shopping advantage. “It can be a little intimidating depending on your destination, but it just translates to a wider map of accessible sourcing spots, especially if you’re on a tight budget,” says Curatolo.

Alternatively, Walton also references “car boot” sales in England, somewhat akin to a giant yard sale here in the States. “The idea is you cram as many items you no longer want or need into the boot (trunk) of your car, drive to a field or unused car park, and sell your items, during which locals fill their trunks,” she explains. “These usually happen weekly and very often on Sundays, so thrift fanatics tend to get up really early and head out to find the best items early.” Take note to get the full immersive experience!

Pack extra clothing for breakables

Found an absolute need-to-have vase or set of glasses? Donovan swears by this traveling tip for transporting fragile treasures back home: “I personally always bring a big scarf with me to wear on the plane, so I’ll often end up using that to wrap up my objects,” she explains, but any other leftover apparel can do the trick, too. Otherwise, you can swing by a local post office or shipping store to buy some packaging supplies. “And I always carry it in my carry on,” Donovan also emphasizes of any thrifted finds. “I bring a large overnight bag as my second carry on, and it’s usually what I fill up with anything I’ve bought while in Paris.”

Speaking of, if you happened to overpack (purely hypothetically, of course), never fear: rather than splurging on shipping to get your purchases back home, Humphrey suggests buying an affordable bag en route to the airport. “It’s generally cheaper to check a bag than it is to ship, and you can buy a really cheap suitcase while you’re traveling,” he says.

Budget for shipping, just in case

In some instances, though — say for bulkier, non-suitcase-friendly finds — shipping may be your best bet. Beware that these fees may exceed the price of the thrifted product itself, although Walton shares a hack for potentially cutting down on costs. “FedEx and DHL/UPS all offer international delivery services, but my advice would be to ask the seller at the store or fair you intend to buy from,” she advises. “They’ve usually had previous experience and can give you the tricks of the trade to avoid you paying through the nose.”

Worst case, you might just have to be that person holding a basket, picture frame, or even “taxidermy head,” Humphrey jokes (which yes, you apparently can fly with), in your lap on the plane. “That’s another way to get to know your travel mates or seat mates,” he says.

Scout out digital thrift opportunities

No travel plans? No problem — more and more thrifting or vintage stores have gone digital with online shopping presences and worldwide delivery. Here, Humphrey usually limits his purchasing to just soft home goods, given the overseas shipping, but he praises Etsy specifically for sourcing international vintage pillows and rugs. Walton, who plans to start her own secondhand buying and selling platform via Instagram, also shared a few favorite thrift and vintage social media accounts that accept orders abroad (some of which you’ll find on Etsy, as well): Vintage at The Vicarage, The Vintage Wall, The Loft Vintage, and Two Grey Birds Vintage.