Does it seem a bit extravagant to go all the way to New York to buy a pair of jeans? Think again - with a cheap flight, a pound that's on the up, and a bit of extra suitcase-space on the way out, you could return with more money in your wallet than you would after a hard day pounding the pavement in Oxford Street. And you might have seen the Statue of Liberty in the bargain. OK, so we're exaggerating a bit, it's probably going to cost more than picking up some clothes from your local supermarket, but shopping abroad can be seriously cheaper, not to mention seriously more fun, than spending money back home. Read on for our guide to the best of the world's shopping at the most wallet-friendly prices.
If you've got a passion for fashion, there's only really one place worth considering for the best of the designer clothes: Milan. Armani, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace are among the designers who started their careers here so class, and a little bit of Italian extravagance, abound on every street corner. The main shopping streets are based around the spectacular Duomo - with Via Montenapoleone the top choice for fashion boutiques and the beautiful glass-ceilinged arcade of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele nearby.
Though Italian designers are going to be cheaper in Italy than back home, they're still not exactly bargain prices, so if you want something a bit more discounted try the Corso Buenos Aires, where the prices are more manageable. There are sales in most shops from early January to February and from July to August so these are the times you're most likely to pick up discounted end of line designer clothes.
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Though London is still considered the antiques capital of the world by those in the know, prices can be startlingly high and, let's face it, you don't get a holiday if you buy from the capital. If you're really after a bargain and can tell a fake from the genuine article at 20 paces, Eastern Europe is the place to pick up antiques. Because the countries were closed for so long and have only (relatively) recently opened up to trade, all sorts of articles are appearing out of grannies' attics and selling on the open market.
If you're just after a browse and know what you like, however, hit the markets. These are often huge and you can pick up everything from Communist relics to a new sofa, via kittens, birds (not so easy to bring back home), clothes, food or souvenirs (including Gorbachev Russian dolls) along the way.
Find out the speciality of the region before you go and that's where you'll get the best deals. In both Estonia and Lithuania, for example lace and amber abound, but in Estonia lace is made locally and you'll get the best prices. Travel south to Lithuania and prices will rise, though you'll get better deals on amber, which is the speciality of the country.
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If you want to bring back antiques into the UK, check whether it's permitted first. Many countries will not allow the export of genuine antiques and you might have to pay heavy taxes to bring expensive items back.
It doesn't have to be Spring and you can buy a lot more than just tulips - the floating flower market in Amsterdam is certainly the most fragrant shopping trip you'll ever experience. Located on the Singel canal between the Koningsplein and the Muntplein, the flower stalls stand on houseboats, a relic from the times when the flowers were shipped in on barges to the Dutch capital. Seasonal bargains are available all year round, including Christmas trees in December.
The flower market has everything from the traditional tulips and geraniums to exotic flowers shipped in from all over the world. Bulbs are also ready for export, so you can bring them home with you. The floating flower market is open from 9am-5.30pm Mondays to Saturdays and 11am-5.30pm on Sundays. Arrive early to get the freshest blooms.
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For stunning hand-made carpets of wool or cotton Turkey is the place to visit. Carpets are knotted or flat woven (kilim) and each region has its individual designs and colours. Though Istanbul is the obvious place to go, travellers in the know advise leaving the proliferation of carpet shops here if you can help it and going to smaller villages further off the beaten track, such as Cappadoccia, where the carpets are made by the locals and you should get a better price. If you are shopping in Istanbul though, avoid the Grand Bazaar unless you are a serious haggler and ask at your hotel for recommendations for good shops. Sitting down and having a cup of tea is all part of the tradition, but a reputable shop will let you walk away and think about your purchase before coming back. Don't feel pressured into buying by one of the touts and never feel that you have to make a purchase just because you've entered a shop. Easier said than done sometimes…
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So it might not seem worth travelling for, since we've got them here as well, but if you want to see how Ikea is done properly, visit a store in its home country Sweden. The blue-and-yellow behemoth sells well-designed furniture at ridiculously cheap prices and the meatballs for lunch after a hard traipse round the shop are even better there than they are over here.
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For a market experience that can be overwhelming but will provide the cheapest deals, try just about anywhere in Africa. As with shopping in most far-flung destinations, the key is to haggle, haggle and haggle. It doesn't come naturally to the Brits, but drop your stiff upper-lip and keep trying to beat down the price. As a general rule of thumb, start with an offer of half the price first given to you and expect to get about a third off in the end. And be patient, haggling is all part of playing the game, and, once you've got the knack, can be one of the most enjoyable parts of shopping in a market.
Set aside at least a day, wander around and have a look at what catches your eye first of all. As soon as you ask how much something costs you might find it very hard to walk away, so be sure that you're really interested in the item you're enquiring about. If you really want to beat the price down further, simply leave once a price seems to stick. If the vendor is serious about selling to you, he'll almost certainly follow, and if not you can always go back. But don't go too over the top in negotiations. Remember that what is only a couple of pounds to you can make a big difference in Third World countries. Finally, consider offering other items apart from money as payments - Western T-shirts, earrings and baseball caps have all been known to be taken in exchange for a wooden elephant.
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On the off-chance that you've taken your holiday and not managed to find any good bargains, don't forget the duty free at the airport. Perfect not only for cheap alcohol and tobacco, but perfume, cosmetics, watches and ridiculously expensive pens. See the guide to customs for what you can bring back.
These suggestions are just the peak of the worldwide shopping iceberg. Almost everywhere you could possibly travel to will have local goods for sale. Know what they are before you go and you can return home with something unique and well-priced. Just leave enough space in your luggage on the way out, and steer clear of raffia donkeys…
Updated April 2013