Bleary-eyed from jet-lag, I stumbled into the London daylight to hunt for food. Language was no barrier but it was daunting to step into a world of new customs. Camden Market was one of my first forays and the jumble of people, vendors, and bargains kicked my senses into high gear. It was the beginning of a three-month, back-packing trip so I didn’t have room for souvenirs, but I’d just become an international flea shopper.
One of the biggest tricks to becoming a successful traveling flea shopper is making sure you have room in your luggage or know a bit about shipping things back home. In Bangkok, I longed to purchase a large carving. The price was great but I shied away from purchasing it. Now I know that if I’d taken the time to work with the vendor on shipping and secured documents, I’d still be living with that piece. Later, I admired friends who returned from Turkey with a unique, silk rug after haggling in a souk for hours.
Haggling is difficult in countries where you don’t speak the language well and it’s near impossible with no shared language. It’s important to know when negotiating is part of a culture or not. Observing others and asking questions helps. However, in poorer countries haggling over pennies just because you can won’t really do anyone any good. Consider the cost of living, how long it took to make, and how that person is dependent on the sale compared to the luxury of visiting their country.
There are famous indoor and outdoor, seasonal and specialized, daytime and night markets in every most every major city. Small cities often host weekly swap meets and antique fairs. Thrifting is a weekend hunt across the Eastern Seaboard where antique dealers get serious about discovering priceless pieces but this post considers bargain hunting as a pastime and hobby for international travelers.
As a flea shopper, you never know where market hunts may lead you. One flight attendant picks up a few items each trip and does well selling them online. Another writer is building a custom shopper service for whatever country she visits.
Flea Shopper Strategies
- Know your limits. Markets can be dangerous for those with little self-control or who love impulsive shopping. I step in with a budget threshold and love looking but consider myself lucky to escape with light-weight purchases while traveling.
- Consider taking public transportation to avoid crowds and the angst of hunting for parking.
- Bring cash. Don’t expect credit card sales from most vendors.
- Stay safe. Large, established markets are prime spots for pickpockets and grifters. My father had his wallet stolen as he exited the Paris market and it changed our trip.
- Get there early for the best bargains and light traffic, or get there late to haggle over prices before people start packing up.
- Bring water and stay hydrated.
- When you see a toilet use it or ask about where the cleanest ones are.
- Pace yourself. Plan on eating at the market to keep your energy up. Look for the freshest and unique local foods.
- Go with a buddy. Big markets are fun with a companion to compare and consult with. Conversely…
- Don’t force a travel buddy to shop with you if they’re not into it because neither of you will enjoy the outing.
- In larger markets, if you see something special and can get a decent price – go for it. You may never find that booth again!
A short list of the biggest flea shopper destinations in the world.
US Flea and Swap Meets:
The Grand Bazaar on the Upper West Side has special events and every Sunday more than 100 vendors show up. The Brooklyn Flea is in DUMBO and close to the bridge each Sunday. It’s one of the area’s best.
Daytona, Florida – This runs every Friday through Sunday, rain or shine and includes a Farmers Market as well. USA Weekend includes it in the top five flea markets in the country.
Pasadena Rose Bowl Flea Market – For over 50 years this has been going strong on the 2nd Sunday of each month. There’s an admission and prepare for crowds as over 25,000 buyers attend. Come rested and wear good walking shoes to better navigate across over 2,500 vendors.
Southern California Swap Meets have become synonymous with flea markets featuring used and new goods, professional and amateur vendors.
In my hometown, San Diego, Kobey’s Swap Meet has been going strong for decades. It takes place in the Sports Arena parking lot every weekend and welcomes novice vendors with equipment rentals from tents to racks. Admission is $1 Friday and $2 Saturday and Sunday.
Orange County Swap Meet is open year round except during the County Fair each summer. Over 2 million visitors enjoy “5 Star Homes (two manufactured homes fully decorated and appointed), Market Place Motorsport Area, Artisans’ and Crafters’ Corner, farm-fresh produce, a butcher shop and two full-service hair salons.” Orange County Register
International Flea Markets
Don’t expect to find ‘flea markets’ in London. Seasoned secondhand hunters look for “Car boot sales,” “jumble sales” and “bring and buys.” Over 100,000 vintage hunters gather at Camden Market in North London each weekend. Portobello Market is another of the largest on Fridays and Saturdays. The Market has sections for second-hand clothes to antiques. Sundays are big along Brick Lane and specialized markets are open on Thursdays through the weekend. The Sunday Up Market offers new designer clothing and goods.
Istanbul – The Grand Bazaar is a destination to itself. Haggle and eat to your heart’s content.
Paris – Boasting one of the largest and longest-running flea markets in the world, Paris doesn’t disappoint. The market is close to the Metro Line but be careful walking through the neighborhood where pickpockets and con-artists sell stolen jewelry. I’ve written about my father being mugged the last time I was in Paris. We were lucky it was at the end of our trip.
Budapest – There are at least three large flea markets in Budapest. One of the most fabled is the Ecseri Flea Market.
The markets across the county are full of antiques and old kimonos, vendors and food stalls. As a dedicated flea shopper, imagine what you could bring home from these markets.
Bangkok – The Chatuchak Weekend Market is a contender for the largest flea market in the world spreading out over 35 acres with more than 8,000 stalls. It is estimated that the market receives between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors each day. Most stalls only open on Saturdays and Sundays. Strategize when tackling Chatuchak!
Being a flea shopper has opened my eyes to different cultures and people and there’s nothing like shopping with locals to feel immersed in that destination’s daily life. I’ll never forget stepping out of my small hotel in Kosice, Slovakia and unexpectedly into the weekly street market. We were in a small square in the center of the old town and discovered that the market has been going strong for several hundred years. Strolling through the farmer’s stalls was an adventure in eating with many vegetables we didn’t recognize. At one table we bought several packets of seeds and now, two years later, we remember that day every time we bite into green beans or harvest oregano from Slovakian seeds.
Share or pin for your next trip: