Over 25 years of covering the world's best finds for my Born to Shop guides has convinced me that not only is the concept of best a matter of opinion, it's a matter of perspective.
Best is used in lists and magazine covers and guidebooks and door medallions -- actually, the best barbeque in Texas (Rudy's in San Antonio) is behind a sign that reads "Worst Bar-B-Q in Texas." Some like to claim that the major brands are therefore the best brands -- they have the reputation and the track record -- while others claim that the best is always a secret passed on to rich people who know which craftspeople to use. Sometimes the best is -- to me, anyway -- simply where you are guaranteed to get value for your money, find what you are looking for in the first place, and have a great time in the hunting and gathering game of life.
To that end, I've written a guide called Where to Buy the Best of Everything: The Outspoken Guide For World Travelers and Online Shoppers. (Some say "outspoken." I call it "honest.") It hits stores on April 28.
This is the book I have worked much of my career to write. I am excited, I am relieved, and I am already shopping for and researching the next edition.
For now, they tell me I have some online space to play with, so let's have some fun with this. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments, and I'll answer one or two letters a week until the publication of the book. Looking for the best cashmere in Scotland, the best discounted beauty brands in the UK, the best outdoor markets in Cape Town? Ask away. Think globally and think best, and I'll answer your shopping questions and prayers.
Let's start things off with an excerpt from the book. This first list concerns international gift shopping, since that is what this book is all about.
The 10 Commandments of International Gift Shopping
1. Shop in local grocery stores -- not only for inexpensive gifts but for locally made items that bring home the flavor of the destination. In Paris, I buy Maille Provencale mustard (www.maille.com); in Italy I buy Knorr (www.knorr.com) instant mushroom risotto mix. Since I live in Texas, I buy (and give) mesquite flavored BBQ Sauce and Alamo coffee (www.alamopecanandcoffee.com), etc.
2. Don't buy expensive gifts abroad, especially if it's an item you cannot return and if you're buying for good friends or family who know you well enough to reject the gift.
3. Don't buy fake merchandise as a gift unless you plan to acknowledge that it's fake and is a joke gift.
4. Stock up on the best looking $10 items in the world. If these items are crafts from a Third World country, they enter the US duty free under the Generalized System of Preferences laws.
5. Shop with caution at the TT's (Tourist Traps). Be careful to separate the junk from the good stuff. Picture how the item will look in real life out of the junk store context.
6. For group gifts, look to foodstuffs. If you're buying for a multitude of people -- such as everyone at your office -- avoid individual gifts and instead bring back food that can be shared (and those on diets can nibble or ignore). In a group food gift, it's the thought that counts.
7. For individual gifts, avoid candy or fattening sweets -- or booze. Make exceptions for foodies, of course -- but most people don't eat or drink the way they used to. In a personal food gift, it's the calories that count.
8. Don't buy into the national craze at a foreign destination and bring gifts back to the US expecting them to be appreciated. No one cares about the soccer team, the scalloped seashell cockles worn by ancient pilgrims or the national flag made into a headscarf if they haven't been to that country. Saying "this is the latest thing" only works if it's from Paris.
9. Novelty counts. Despite the 8th Commandment, an item's uniqueness is far more important than its cost. Just make sure it's useful as well.
10. Shop before you travel, too -- for friends on the road or to help you make new friends. Go online and plan ahead so the gift isn't daft. I like the customized M&Ms at www.mymms.com. Mine say "BORN TO SHOP" but they can say almost anything. "THANK YOU" works great.
Talk with other Frommers.com readers on our Tips, Tools & Deals Message Boards.