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Everyone has his or her favorite aspect of a cruise vacation: for some it’s the dazzling array of delicious food, while for others, the opportunity to relax and do nothing is the ultimate draw. But nearly everyone enjoys getting off the ship for a little bargain-hunting in port.

You can buy T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and baseball caps anywhere, but what most cruise passengers want is to bring home something truly unique, something that’s not available anywhere else, something that reminds them of the beautiful places they visited on the cruise. Start your research at home, before the cruise vacation. Google the countries and ports of call on your cruise itinerary and learn about each of the signature products made there, those which are uniquely identified with that country.

Almost every country (and many of the cities) that host cruise ships has a tourism board or ministry, as well as a chamber of commerce, so the websites of those entities should be your primary source, for port shopping along with websites like Cruise Critic, on which information about cruising is disseminated.

After you’ve identified your target products, find out what you’re allowed, and not allowed, to bring back home. Good sources for that information are Celebrity’s website and that of the US Customs & Border Patrol (for American residents).

Once onboard, it’s fine to ask Celebrity’s friendly crew members where they shop, and if they have any favorite stores or shopping districts. They know these ports well and might have some personal shopping tips or advice to offer that will take you off the beaten path. Likewise, speak to the locals you meet (for instance, restaurant servers or taxi drivers) in the port city. As natives, they have the inside track.

During the cruise, you will likely be offered a tutorial on port shopping, along with a map of shops. If you’re booked on one of Celebrity’s Alaska cruises or Caribbean cruises, you’re in luck, in more ways than one: these destinations have entire blocks of stores selling souvenirs and other goods.

Many ports you’ll encounter on a Caribbean cruise or a Bermuda cruise have duty-free stores in which the prices don’t include the local value-added tax (similar to a sales tax), which can be as much as 33 percent of the item’s price. When you purchase something in most foreign countries, taxes are already included in the price you see on the tag.

But remember, you will have to declare all items purchased on your cruise vacation, and if you exceed the limit (generally, $800 when entering the United States, though there are some exceptions) you will have to pay tax on the items that exceed the limit. That should be included in your price calculations.

There also are limits on the amount of alcohol and tobacco products you can bring in. Children and infants also get the $800 allowance, so you might be able to share the exemptions among your party (children cannot declare alcohol, however.)

Because alcohol, jewelry and other so-called luxury items have high taxes affixed to them, you can generally get a decent deal when you buy them duty-free. You’d be wise to know how much the item would cost back home, though, and it’s totally acceptable to check that on your phone while you’re standing in the store. Another thing to note: children’s goods are not duty-free, even in a duty-free shop.

If your quest is for something truly authentic or locally sourced, check independent port guides and the official tourism sources you found in your research at home. Try to find out about local artisans who sell wares at markets, street fairs or galleries are a good place to start. You can also pick up the local newspaper or arts publication, or ask for word-of-mouth recommendations. Many cities and even small towns have festivals and arts fairs, at which tourists and locals alike purchase merchandise.

Don’t overlook grocery stores, gourmet shops and farmer’s markets. They are all a good way to learn about the port region’s culture and foods, and, in the process, figure out what’s a reasonable price for both everyday and luxury food items. It’s also a great place to pick up a snack and a beverage (think a piece of fruit and a bottle of water) to stave off hunger — and expensive restaurant bills — while you explore the port.

Port shopping for signature foodstuffs is particularly rewarding in large, international cities. If you’re booked on a European cruise that docks in a major city, most reasonably well-stocked grocery stores there will have goodies from all over the region.
American chef and author David Lebovitz, who lives in Paris, recommends chocolate from Lyon, fleur de sel (flaky salt that is hand-harvested from marshes) from Brittany, authentic Dijon mustard from Beaune, buckwheat flower honey from Brittany, fragrant espelette pepper from Espelette, and “chocolaty” prunes from Agen. All will impart the flavors of France to your kitchen at home, and shine as gifts.

In some Caribbean, Asian and Middle Eastern cruise ports, as well as in Mexico, merchants will trade in U.S. dollars, but you will get any change back in the local currency. If you’ve booked a European cruise, shop operators in port cities there generally won’t accept dollars, so you will need to find a convenient and cost-effective place to exchange currency before heading out.
Some higher-end shops, including art galleries and boutiques, accept credit cards, but most credit card issuers in the United States tack on a fee for international charges, so that should be figured into any calculations and price comparisons.

Well prepared, flex your exploratory muscles with a shopping spree that’s off the conventional path. But stay within well-trafficked tourist areas; never wander alone in an unfamiliar port. Let someone know where you are going, and set an alarm on your watch or phone, so that you have plenty of time to get back to the cruise ship with your loot!

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