Weirdest Things People Collect While Traveling
If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country and returned home with a tchotchke from your visits — a fridge magnet in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, perhaps, or a discreetly stolen hotel key card from a fancy resort — you’re not alone.
Collecting travel souvenirs is a tried-and-true away to keep the memories of your adventures abroad alive. For some, the hobby can even turn into obsession; there are collectors who amass thousands upon thousands of travel mementos, ranging from the relatively normal (like Christmas ornaments and maps) to the delightfully bizarre (like detergent and, yes, fly-swatters).
Here, we’ve rounded up travel-souvenir collectibles both wonderful and wacky, while sharing insider insights and tips from the collectors themselves.
What will you bring home from your next trip?
Bruce Kelly, who lives in Alaska, collected his first “barf bag” from Lithuanian Airlines in 1999 when he flew from Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania. Today, his collection includes over 7,000 different bags from 1,453 airlines.
Alas, the collection does not include mementos from Alaskan Airlines, which uses generic bags. Kelly even talked to the CEO to further his collection, but to no avail.
His collection is nevertheless recognized as one of the top three in the world, and after having been to 135 countries worldwide and being in touch with other collectors — yes, there are more out there! — he is furthering his collection and that of his fellow hobbyists by swapping bags and tips.
Online prices for sick bags have soared as more collectors enter the field, with some rare and elusive bags now fetching $200 apiece.
Kelly told "Far & Wide" he does not have a personal favorite, but his wife prefers his bag from Finnair, which depicts a reindeer barfing ice cubes.
Fridge magnets have become one of the most popular souvenirs to pick up, not only because of their handy size and low expense, but because of the memory jog they provide each time you enter your kitchen.
As collectibles go, this one isn’t all that weird, but some people definitely take it to borderline-weird extremes. Take the guy in Cardiff, England who has 5,000 — that's right, 5,000 — fridge magnets that he’s collected from more than 120 countries. When he ran out of fridge space (obviously), he installed 20 steel panels for his collection. Now that’s commitment!
I spoke with Eugene Costello from London, who’s fallen for the charm of magnets in a more normal way; he has some 30 different magnets that he's accumulated over the years. It all started with a light-blue tiled magnet from Portugal in the style of an azulejo, a glazed-ceramic tile typical of houses in the south of the country. But his favorite is a miniature but impressive representation of the Palace of Shaki Khans in Azerbaijan.
Can you beat that?
Have you heard about Edoardo Flores, the Italian traveler who’s collected 15,000 Do-Not-Disturb signs from hotels over the years? His incredible collection made headlines last year. Speaking to “Travel + Leisure,” he referred to the collecting as an addiction, and noted that he keeps a database with information and scanned images of each sign.
“I am always amazed by their variety in both design and messages,” Flores said about the signs. “Original designs, unusual shapes and materials, witty messages, spelling mistakes, etc. Any creative combination of these makes the signs fascinating.”
I spoke to another avid collector of these signs, Frances Katz from Boston, who has been amassing the items since she was 14 years old. To date she has more than 50 in her collection, a number kept in check by her pickiness, with only the most unusual items making it on the return trip home. Her favorites include a sign from NYC’s Algonquin Hotel that reads “Great American Novel in Progress” and one from an unknown hotel that says “Please do not disturb my quiet little corner of the Universe.”
Sylvia Sabes, who is from San Francisco but currently lives in Paris, France, collects perhaps the weirdest item found on this list: fly-swatters.
It all started 16 years ago: “I was staying at a resort in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and fly-swatters were on all the tables around the pool,” she said. “They were leather-handled fly-swatters that looked like a horse's tail. I loved the design and asked the owner if I could keep one. She said yes.”
Sylvia’s collection now includes swatters from locations as disparate as Thailand, Zanzibar, Egypt and Italy. Along the way, she’s learned that in Europe and the U.S., fly-swatters are fly killers, while in Asia and Africa, they’re designed to merely brush the pests away.
To this day, she laments not bringing home a particularly unusual swatter. “We were given one to use in the Serengeti that was made of gnu tail,” she said. “But I was afraid to bring it home through customs, so I left it with the lodge.” She calls it “the one that got away.”
Elise Newman from Toronto, Canada, has a very special tradition: Once a year, her Christmas tree is trimmed with baubles from around the world.
Her collection started when she visited a Christmas market in Berlin, and found a small, yellow wooden bird ornament. “When I went on a year-long solo trip around the world in 2012-2013, I had a 40L backpack so I couldn't afford to carry around unnecessary souvenirs,” she told me. “I decided to allow myself to buy something for the Christmas tree from every country, however, because they are small, light and cheap — and could be mailed home easily, if I had to.”
Around 30 ornaments from 20 different countries later, her favorites include a ceramic bird made by an Australian artist, a green-and-pink chicken from Cambodia and a felt toadstool from Estonia.
Rocks may not be the most exciting item to collect, but they’re easy to pick up, cheap and an interesting reminder of a place’s natural environment.
Jac Taylor from Australia told me her rock collection goes beyond mere casual hobby; it actually played an important early role in her relationship. “When I met my partner, I discovered his bowl of rocks — he did the exact same thing!” she said. “We knew it was serious when we combined our rock bowls.”
She and her partner now own around 60 or so rocks. One notable favorite is from a romantic trip the pair took to the Whitsunday Islands in Australia, where they spent their days harvesting wild oysters from the beach and picked up a big rock from the beach to open them. The rock caused a bit of a problem with their baggage allowance, but they got it home and continue to treasure it as a memento from their trip.
Jaq is, of course, hardly alone in her passion for rock collecting; online, enthusiasts share their finds and discuss issues like dealing with customs.
Hotel Key Cards
According to a 2018 British poll, the most commonly stolen hotel items are towels and linens. But based on anecdotal evidence alone, it seems hotel key cards are pilfered nearly as often.
It often starts with an “oops” moment where you realize you accidentally kept the card, quickly followed by the realization that the key — often decorated with pictures from the hotel — is quite pretty. Before you know it, you have a collection.
I myself have amassed about 100 cards from 50-plus countries, and know lots of people who have a sizable assortment as well. Some even put the prettier ones in frames, while others keep them in business-card holders.
As with fridge magnets, hotel key cards aren’t a surprising collectible, but the fervor with which some people collect them is pretty wild. Reportedly, the current record-holder for the largest key-card collection is a guy in Pennsylvania who has 451 in his possession. As this strangely fascinating video shows, he keeps them neatly arranged in a binder with laminated pages, nine to a page.
Vintage House Numbers
Many items on this list tout fairly sizable communities of collectors. Very few people, comparatively, have discovered how delightful it can be to amass vintage house numbers.
Kerry McConnel, from Australia, told me she began collecting house numbers many years ago, when she fell in love with the beautiful enamel numericals that were positioned near the door fronts of Parisian apartments and homes. She soon realized these were popular across the country, and started scouring vintage markets all over France trying to find one selling her house number.
She eventually discovered a matching number, only to move houses and leave it behind. Starting the search again, she began collecting all sorts of numbers from different countries, all unique to where they came from. The collection now features numbers made from slate and tiles, with a variety of dynamic patterns and features.
Collecting countries is a pricey hobby, but a rewarding one. There is even a club for those travelers who have been to 100 or more countries and territories: the Travelers’ Century Club (TCC), founded in California in 1954. Even a layover counts, so long as you set foot in the destination.
The largest number of countries that can be visited is, of course, all of them — 193 in total, per the UN. Only a select few have achieved this, including a man named Sal Lavallo who made headlines last year for accomplishing the feat by the time he was just 27 years old.
Naturally, many people who travel so ambitiously want to make it clear that the experience is about more than bragging rights. As Lavallo told "The Telegraph," “Visiting all of these countries was not about travel and tourism, but rather about learning and building connections with people.”
Similarly, when I chatted with Brian Biros from Chicago, who’s been to 91 countries, he told me he prefers to get to know every single place he visits, and emphasized that it’s about so much more than ticking things off a list.
Exploring street art is a wonderful way to deepen your travel experience. And it turns out this, too, is something you can collect, thanks to the efforts of one extremely innovative artist.
A Parisian artist named Invader crafts small mosaics, often based on video-game characters, that he places around the world. At last count, his work was found adorning the walls of 77 cities across six continents, with an ever-growing total of nearly 4,000 mosaics to collect globally. A free app, Flashinvaders, allows you to track the street art you find, and to compete against thousands of others to see who can spot the most.
My own personal collection currently stands at nearly 1,400 pieces, collected in 16 cities across five countries. And counting!
There are those who pack detergent to keep things clean when traveling — and then there is Madhu Unnikrishnan from California, who brings back detergent from abroad.
He started buying laundry detergent a few years ago, when he was in a supermarket in Japan and realized that the detergent there smelled particularly nice. He brought some home, and has been buying detergent when traveling ever since.
The collection helps him remember where he’s been through the sensation of smell. “Retail has become homogenized, with the same global brands everywhere,” he said. “Detergent — and toiletries — still cater to the tastes of the local market. Even the same brands smell different in every country and region. The fragrance is stronger in some parts of the world, more floral in others, and more subtle elsewhere.”
Unnikrishnan has small packets from around a dozen countries, but he keeps using them whenever he fancies a change. So his practical collection changes as the laundry basket fills up.
There are so many globe-trotters who collect shot glasses during their travels that there's an entire group, World by Shotglass, dedicated to the hobby.
The most extensive collection belongs to India's Amit Doshi, a world-traveling executive who's accumulated some 550 unduplicated glasses from 95 countries. He keeps them displayed, naturally, in a specially made, 10-feet-by-4-feet glass cabinet.
One of the world's most avid collectors of snow globes boasts a nickname to remember: "The Queen of Snow Globes." Her collection encompasses an extraordinary 11,500 snow globes and snow domes, including such rarities as a circa-1889 beauty from the Paris Exposition.
These collectibles range from the gorgeous to the tacky to the utterly bizarre, making them particularly delightful to gather during far-flung adventures.
One of the best things to collect while traveling is also one of the most obvious: maps.
A sizable group of collectors around the world, known as "cartophiles," have made accumulating maps their life passion. One of the most prolific collectors, profiled in "National Geographic," was California-based Robert Berlo, who before his death amassed more than 12,000 road maps and atlases.
The collection was of such cultural and historical significance that it was donated to Stanford University.
Smoking has (thankfully) largely gone out of style in countries like the U.S. — but matchbooks most assuredly have not.
Mostly sold at restaurants, matchbooks aren't as common as they used to be, but travelers and those seeking a touch of nostalgia still find and collect them with fervor. As with many items on the list, they vary aesthetically by city and country, capturing a sense of place in an easy-to-carry package.
Collector sites include A Life in Matches and The Matchbook Project. If you want to go down a rabbit hole looking at cool matchbooks, check out Etsy or the Instagram page @matchbookdiaries.