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Gifts for travelers: Think local, edible, useful

This Christmas, make an early New Year's resolution: I will not bring home T-shirts made in China as souvenir gifts from my travels.
Image: gifts related to cranberries
Cranberry gifts on sale at Flax Pond Farms in Carver, Mass.Lisa Poole / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

This Christmas, make an early New Year's resolution: I will not bring home T-shirts made in China as souvenir gifts from my travels.

Instead, when you're looking for something to bring home to family and friends, seek out locally made items. And consider sticking to products that can be used up — think edibles or cosmetics — so that you don't add to all the stuff people already have clogging up shelves and closets.

If you're stuck home this year and can't do your shopping in far-flung locales, many products can be ordered online from the places they are made. This lets you give a friend or relative a reminder of a beloved place even if you haven't been there, whether it's a hometown or favorite vacation spot.

Often these types of gifts are also unique to their localities, like products made from fireweed, a colorful herb that can be seen growing tall by the roadside in Alaska. If you can't make it there before Christmas, fireweed soap, lip balm, teas and jams can be ordered from Denali Dreams and the Alaska Herb Tea Co.

Just remember that Transportation Security Administration rules apply to jams, syrups and other items brought home by plane. Either pack them in checked luggage, or if you're buying last-minute at the airport gift shop, observe the 3-1-1 guidelines (items under 3 ounces, in a 1-quart size clear zip-top bag, one bag per traveler). Many vendors make 3-ounce gift sizes for items like jam to help you get through the airport. Details here.

From Maine, don't forget fragrant pillows or sachets filled with balsam and fir, or classic balsam incense cones from Paine Products in Auburn. Wild Maine blueberry jam is another local favorite, from Stonewall Kitchen in York, Maine. From elsewhere in New England, Flax Pond Farms in Carver, Mass., sells cranberry soap, cranberry tea, cranberry candy and can ship boxes of cranberries.

If you want your gift to have a little spice, bring home hot sauce or Creole seasonings from New Orleans, or order some Aunt Sally's melt-in-your-mouth Creole Praline candies, which come wrapped, six or 12 to a box, in crushproof, nicely designed cardboard sleeves.

From Norway comes the iconic Bjorklund cheese slicer, designed by a Norwegian engineer in 1925. If you can't make it over, order from a Wisconsin company that imports nearly all of its wares from Scandinavia: $23. And from Israel, a pack of Dead Sea Mineral Mud from Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories is perfect for a home spa day, $25 in case you can't get to the Holy Land in person.

Here's a novel idea for delivering international cuisine as a wrapped gift: Destination Dinners Recipe Kits $25. Each kit includes spices, sauces and dried items as well as cooking instructions, a shopping list for fresh ingredients and fun facts. Kits include chicken garam masala (Bangladesh), jerk chicken (Jamaica) and jambalaya (New Orleans-style).

Above all, use your imagination to seek out something yummy or unusual that might transport the recipient to a beloved faraway place.

Just remember the wise words of Suzy Gershman, whose "Where to Buy the Best of Everything" book (Frommer's) offers this advice for traveling shoppers: "Don't buy into the national craze at a foreign destination and bring gifts back to the U.S. 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."

If you prefer more utilitarian gifts, here are a few for folks who send a lot of time on the road. A new travel pillow that just begs you to snuggle up and take a nap is called Travel Rest, $26.95. Unlike little blowup collars that sit on your shoulders, it's a long inflatable tubular design that curves around one side of your neck, then lies diagonally across your chest like a shoulder belt. The design is particularly inviting for kids on a long car or plane ride. Inflated it's 30 inches long and 6 inches wide; deflated and folded flat, it's 2 by 9 inches.

For the hipster traveler who equates retro with cool, check out retro flight bags with graphics vaguely reminiscent of the Cold War era at the travel store Flight 001, $52.

The Nirvana Organizer ($40) is a nifty bag that you can attach to a seatback tray table or use for the backseat of a car to keep all essentials straight, whether for a grown-up or a child. It folds up to about 8 by 12 inches, opens to 19 by 20, and comes with a shoulder strap. It has pockets and holders for a phone, cup or bottle, pens and pencils, memory cards, documents, tickets, passport, and money, plus a key chain clip, mesh pockets and a large zippered pouch.

Laptop bags designed to help travelers get through airport security faster also make a good gift, like Samsonite's "Checkpoint Friendly Laptop Case," around $80 from many retailers. When opened and lying flat, screeners can see the laptop in an inside, insulated pocket with a strap to keep it from slipping out. The other side of the bag has pockets and dividers for papers and gadgets.

Finally, TravelSmart is selling the Adventurer's 7-In-1 Tool, $26 (including shipping and handling), which comes with an LED flashlight, compass, digital thermometer, magnifying glass, safety mirror, whistle and dry storage compartment for matches and medications, under 5 inches long and just 2 ounces. Buy it for bikers, hikers, campers and even drivers, to keep in the glove compartment.