04/04/2013 04:38 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2013

Exploring the True Value of a Souvenir

A few weeks ago, I got a call from one of our passengers. She had just returned from Turkey, where she purchased a carpet that she was in love with, but which cost her a pretty penny. She claimed that the carpet was gorgeous -- just what she had been looking for -- and that it looked really great in her living room.

Because it wasn't precisely even on the ends (one side was slightly longer than its opposite), however, she went to an appraiser in her home city for another opinion. She wanted to determine if the less-than-perfect proportions were appropriate or a sign that she had made a bad purchase. Besides, she wanted to know if her carpet was as valuable and as much of a bargain as the carpet dealer had boasted. She was dismayed when it was deemed "worthless" by the appraiser. She was shocked and upset, and she wanted my help to return the carpet and get her money back.

Over the years, I've had other calls like this one. These moments make me wonder about the reasons why people buy souvenirs when they travel, especially the expensive kind. In fact, I often feel that some travelers have the wrong perspective about the true value of the "treasures" they find and bring home from their trips.

All of us -- myself included -- love to bring back reminders of the places we've been. My house is full of artwork and objects that I've bought throughout my travels. I treasure each item as a symbol of a great experience, triggering memories of the people I've met and things I've learned about countries and cultures different from my own.

It doesn't really matter to me if the item is perfect or, upon returning home, proves to have a lesser monetary value than I actually paid. Every souvenir symbolizes a wonderful travel experience, so it's worth purchasing. In my mind, the symbolic nature of a souvenir makes the item priceless, regardless of the cost. That's how I feel about the 25-cent paper umbrella and the $1,500 rice painting I bought in China. Both are treasures to me, because they are mementos of my experience there.

In fact, the carpet our traveler brought back from Turkey turned out to be hand-woven. The irregular edges are a sign of its authenticity, as machine-woven carpets are perfectly proportioned. And for all we know, the appraiser she consulted may have had his own axe to grind, considering he didn't make the original sale. By pronouncing the carpet worthless, he stood a good chance of selling his own Turkish carpet to her while she was on the rebound.

This isn't to suggest that tourists aren't sometimes sold worthless items, because we all know that what glitters is not always gold. But if, like me, you have fallen in love with those jade earrings and you want to buy them as your personal treasure from your trip, go for it. If you have bargained according to the local traditions and you can afford the price, go for it. Unless you're a jewelry expert and can spot a fake as well as a true gem -- and you know the real value of both -- forget about that appraisal when you get home. You didn't buy the earrings because of their value, but because of their significance to you. In that case, they're priceless, aren't they?

But to help you avoid disappointment, here are a few shopping rules that you can keep in mind as you travel to avoid unsavory purchases.

•Don't buy jewelry in a foreign country because you think it's going to be a huge bargain. Unless you're an expert, you won't be able to tell if what you're getting is really as valuable as the vendor claims. Buy jewelry (that you can afford) because you love it. Save the expensive jewelry shopping for home, where you can patronize a local jeweler whom you know and trust.

•Buy artwork that you love. Look for an item that will remind you of your trip and that you'll enjoy having in your home. Again, unless you're an art expert, you won't know the market value of the piece you're considering, so concentrate more on finding an item you fall in love with.

•Don't buy food items to bring home with you. The U.S. prohibits many foods from being brought into the country, and chances are you'll find a comparable yummy treat in an ethnic shop at home.

•If you're buying woven garments in local markets, such as throw blankets or sweaters, you should consider having them dry cleaned before use. Locally spun yarn probably hasn't been cleaned as much as mass-produced garments, and may have "fragrances" of the original animals who wore the wool before it became that gorgeous poncho.

•Most importantly, buyer beware is the very best advice anyone can give you. If you're worried that the item you want to buy is a fake and that matters to you, just don't buy it. And if you do buy it, enjoy it for what it is, instead of for what it might be worth.

Those are my tips for shopping smart while traveling. What are yours?