Ultimate Guide to Thrift Store Shopping: 34 Tips and Tricks for Travelers

When I got back from my four-month trip across Eastern Europe, my jeans were shot, I’d lost a sweater, and I left my towel behind. That’s when I realized I should have bought my travel gear used. Now when I’m shopping for an upcoming trip, I head to my favorite store – Goodwill. Intimidated by the thought of shopping at a thrift store? Clueless about where to start? Have no fear – this post covers it all, from when to go to what to buy and how to do it.

photo credit: get directly down

6 Reasons to Shop at Thrift Stores

  1. It’s cheap. I’ve gotten 3 pairs of pants, 5 shirts, a sweater, and a nice summer travel dress for under $50.
  2. The goods are in better condition than you might think. I’ve found once-worn sweaters and seen designer bags in thrift stores. Many of the clothes come from middle-class homes where people can afford to toss aside barely-worn clothes for the newest trend – which works out well for you, as a thrift store shopper.
  3. You’ll find things there that you can’t find anywhere else. When I think of great finds, I think of records (which I love, by the way), but it applies to vintage jewelry, unique t-shirts, and cool jackets, too.
  4. It’s environmentally-friendly. By reusing existing items, you’re decreasing the demand – and therefore production. Fewer resources are burned creating new goods and you saved the awesome t-shirt you just bought from becoming garbage.
  5. You’re supporting non-profit organizations doing good work. Within 10 miles of my home, there are thrift stores whose proceeds go to helping disadvantaged people find jobs (Goodwill), preventing blindness (Prevention of Blindness), and funding religious organizations and churches.
  6. It’s fun. If you have bargain-hunting tendencies, thrift stores might be a little piece of heaven for you. I love finding a good deal and knowing that if I’d bought that sweater new, it would’ve cost five times as much.

What to Buy at Thrift Stores

  • Jeans, pants, shorts, and skirts. Depending on the climate you’re heading into, invest in a couple pairs of pants or shorts before you leave. You’d be surprised how quickly even denim gets worn out when you wear the same pair of pants all day, every day. So don’t bring your favorite pair of pants or buy brand new ones unless you’re okay with having holes in them by the time you return home. And for women – in some countries you’ll fit in better, or be more comfortable (think Kenya in the summer), if you wear a long travel skirt. You can buy one there or pick one up at a thrift store so you’ll be prepared when you land.
  • Sweaters, sweatshirts, and fleeces. If you’re going to Finland in the winter, you’ll want layers. You’ll also want to ditch those layers without a second thought when you head to Australia afterwards. So find a comfy sweater or fleece at a thrift store and throw it in your suitcase.
  • Coats and jackets. When you can pick up a quality jacket for $5 or a warm coat for $15, it’s hard to say no. If you’re afraid your wool coat will get ruined when you travel, pick up a new one before you go.
  • T-shirts. You probably have a few disposable t-shirts leftover from college lying around your house, so bring those with you if you do. If not, swing by your neighborhood thrift store and you’ll have your choice of hundreds.
  • Camping gear. If you want cooking gear for your upcoming trip, but don’t want to take your $200 AllClad skillet, head to the thrift store. You’ll find tons of coffee mugs, pots, pans, silverware, and other camping-style cooking gear. And if you’re in the right place at the right time, you might even encounter a quality sleeping bag or tent – though if you’re looking for a high-tech, lightweight tent, you might want to consider going to a sports store or scoping out Craigslist instead.
  • Jewelry. You really don’t want to lose your grandmother’s gold necklace while you’re hiking through the Sahara. You also don’t want flashy jewelry to call attention to you if you find yourself in a vulnerable situation when you’re traveling (and odds are you will). It’s a safer bet to find some cool vintage costume jewelry – it’ll look cool, but you won’t be upset if you lose it or it gets stolen.
  • Winter accessories. If you’re heading to a cooler climate for a few months, but don’t want to bring the scarf and hat your aunt knit for you in case you lose it, fear not. If you live somewhere that gets chilly in the winter, odds are your local thrift stores are full of scarves, hats, gloves, and even earmuffs. Even in Texas where it rarely stays below freezing for more than a couple of days, I found a variety of winter gear at my favorite thrift stores.
  • Trendy shoes you’ll only wear for short period of time. You might want to bring along shoes that are a step up from your hiking boots if you plan to spend a lot of time in bars or nightclubs. Take some from home or buy a lightly used pair before you go.
  • Towels. If you’re planning on bringing a standard towel with you, buy it used, wash it, and pack it. A few years ago, we ended up leaving our bath towels in Germany before returning home because they took up so much room in our bags and we didn’t need them anymore. I’d actually recommend bringing a quick-absorb towel; it will dry quickly and save space. And maybe you’ll even be able to find a used one.

What Not to Buy at Thrift Stores

  • Walking shoes or boots – unless they’re brand new or close to it and fit perfectly. When you’re spending 8-12 hours/day on your feet, you’re going to want comfortable shoes that fit well. And if you’re traveling for more than a couple of weeks, you’ll wear through the shoes quickly. So pass up the well-loved shoes and the brand-new shoes that are just a little bit too small. After walking 6 miles across Prague and back, you’ll be glad you made the investment.
  • Backpacks – unless you find one in good condition that fits you well. Forty pounds can feel like a lot after climbing up winding roads in search of your well-hidden hostel. It’ll feel like even more if your backpack is too big or too small, or the straps don’t adjust to fit your body. Don’t know where to start? Check out Adventure Sports Online’s Backpack Fit Guidelines.
  • Bike helmets – they may be damaged. As much as it pains me to say that used bike helmets should probably go to the dump, it’s true. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, damage from a former crash may not be visible, but it will affect how well the helmet protects your head. When you’re dealing with your brain, you shouldn’t take risks.
  • Underwear and socks. Okay, odds are you weren’t considering shopping for undergarments at a thrift store. But in case you were, remember that you’re going to be wearing the same few pairs of socks and underwear day in and day out for months at a time. Do you really want to risk being uncomfortable in those areas? It’s a good idea to start your trip out right with some new, quality undergarments that will last (and be comfortable) throughout your journey.
  • For more non-travel-related things to buy new, check out MSN Money’s 10 things you should never buy used.

Locate Thrift Stores with Thrift Store Search Engines

  • The Thrift Shopper. Over 7,940 charity driven thrift stores, which you can search by zip code or by city.
  • Thrifty Planet. Nearly 900 U.S. thrift stores listed by state.
  • Goodwill. Among my favorite thrift stores – partially because there are a lot of them.
  • Google. If you know the type of charity you’d like to support, Google it and look for thrift stores on their website. For example, a search for “blindness thrift store” turns up 11,000 hits and “thrift store cancer” more than 250,000.

When to Go to Thrift Stores

  • Sale days. Some stores have entire days where their inventory is 75% off. Goodwill always has sales on a certain item of clothing, usually something out of season. Which actually works out well if you’re traveling – when it’s 30 degrees at home, it’s 90 south of the equator.
  • Stocking days. Find out when the store gets news items. If you can make it on that day, be the first one to scope out the newest deals.
  • Late spring, if you’re in a college town. If you live in a city with a university, you’re likely to find good deals at thrift stores near the school right before the spring semester ends. My college put out bins in every dorm and students dumped clothes, electronics, books, and other goods they didn’t want to haul home for the summer.
  • During the week. If you have a flexible work schedule, weekdays are a great time to hit up thrift stores. There are fewer people to compete with and the merchandise is less picked over. Some thrift stores stay open late on weekdays, so even if you work 9 to 5, you can find bargains at night.

How to Shop at a Thrift Store

  • Be patient. If you’re looking for something specific, don’t be afraid to return to the same store a few times and leave empty-handed when your item isn’t there.
  • Sit back, relax… and dig. By their nature, thrift stores are small and crowded. That’s okay, it just means it will take a little more time to find what you’re looking for. But when you get a cashmere sweater for $4, it’s well worth it.
  • Be friendly. Everyone who’s worked in a customer service position knows what a big difference one nice person can make in your day. Besides, being nice pays off; in return for your smile, the person checking you out might tell you about an upcoming sale on fleeces like the one you’re buying.
  • Don’t be afraid to barter. Although some stores have stricter policies, many are willing to be talked down on a price that’s a little too high. Although bartering is less commonplace in the U.S., it’s a given in many other countries. Take advantage of the thrift store setting to practice doing it in English so you’re a pro by the time you’re negotiating in Spanish, Russian, or German on your travels.
  • Avoid binging. It can be tempting to stock up when you go to a thrift store – why buy just one sweater when you can buy 10 for $25? But odds are you don’t need ten sweaters, or even two. Unless you find something really great that you’ll actually use, stick to your shopping list. It’s better for your wallet and for the environment.
  • For more thrift store shopping how-to’s, check out A Basic Guide to Thrift Store Shopping at Lifehack.