Shoppers without borders

We found the world's best vacations for discount-loving shopaholics.

Of course the Great Wall was spectacular. And the Summer Palace, where Chinese emperors holidayed hundreds of years ago, was breathtaking. But what really excited Lindsay Reid on her recent trip to Beijing were the bargains. Cashmere sweaters selling for less than $10. Designer handbags at $4 a pop. DVD movies for an unbelievable $1 apiece.

“My customs limit was $750, and I think you would have to really work at spending that much,” says Reid, 31, now back at home in Kingston, Ont. “We went to the bank machine on the first day and I took out $250. By nightfall, I had an armful of stuff, and I’d spent only $40. It was ridiculous.”

Ridiculously attractive, that is. For shopaholics, China is now one of the world’s top two travel destinations. Its appeal begins with the opportunity to experience a different cuisine, language and culture. But what makes this country truly great for diehard deal hunters is the prospect of loading up at the world’s biggest non-stop discount sale. A dedicated shopper can emerge with enough in the way of savings to pay for a large part of the trip.

Is China too exotic for you? Don’t worry. The world’s other top shopping destination is a lot closer to home. You even speak the language — sort of. New York City is a cornucopia of off-price merchandise, at least to those who know where to look. Amy Ziff, editor at large for the Travelocity Web site, says smart shoppers can pick up designer-name handbags, watches and clothing for a fraction of what they would pay at Bloomingdale’s or any other department store.

The trick in both Manhattan and Beijing is knowing who to talk to, where to go and what to expect — not all of those designer labels are exactly accurate. If you’re looking for the ultimate shopping trip, read on to get the goods on how to get the goods:

Mandarin collars

One of Reid’s prized finds on her December 2003 trip to Beijing was a North Face outerwear jacket. Waterproof, equipped with a hood and lots of pockets, it’s the perfect weight for dog-walking or hiking, and normally retails for $250 in Canada. However, in Silk Alley, a large, well-known open-air shopping area that runs past the U.S. Embassy, Reid was able to talk a vendor down to about $40 (all prices in Canadian funds unless otherwise noted).

Another of her favorite Silk Alley buys is a red leather Gucci carry-on bag with tuck-away wheels. Reid paid just $25 for it. “I’m sure it’s not real Gucci,” she says, “but it is real leather.”

Therein lies the key to being a satisfied Silk Alley shopper. If you’re the fastidious sort, who insists on the genuine article, you will probably be disappointed. Although you’ll see plenty of high-profile designer names, the merchandise is largely made up of knockoffs. But if you’re prepared to be adventurous — and at these prices the risk isn’t large — you just may be surprised at the quality of what you buy. Thanks to China’s huge supply of cheap labor, many bona fide brand names, such as Gap, Gucci and The North Face, are manufactured there. Silk Alley offers a few of those genuine articles. The remainder are produced by factory owners who see the real stuff up close, then make their own versions and sell them for a fraction of the price. As a result, the knockoffs can be almost indistinguishable from the genuine article. Even the California-based top dogs at Callaway Golf were impressed with the Chinesemade knockoffs of their Great Big Bertha driver. “These look like the authentic thing,” Callaway’s head of security Stu Herrington told CBS’s 60 Minutes II. The corporate robot also had difficulty discerning the difference: it hit a ball 240 yards using the knockoff, barely shy of the 250 yards it achieved with a genuine Great Big Bertha. The big difference: you pay $350 for a full set of knockoffs in China versus $499 for a single genuine driver here.

Not everything sold in Beijing is a knockoff. For instance, Hongqiao Market (southeast of Tiananmen Square) is known for its dazzling array of real freshwater pearls, which you can have strung or set any way you’d like. And if you’re looking for anything made of silk, you’re unlikely to find better prices anywhere on earth.

As for Reid, by the end of her two-week trip to China she had become a master shopper. At first she was taken aback by the vendors’ strange bargaining technique — they handed her a calculator and told her to key in the price, in yuan, that she wanted to pay. (About 6 yuan equals $1 Cdn.) Thanks to the guidance of some experienced expats, Reid learned that she would always pay less if she told the vendor to key in his or her asking price first. That allowed her a chance to counter with a lower offer. “I felt a bit guilty,” she admits. “These people have so little, and here I was bickering over what to me is $2 or $4.”

All the same, the vendors do expect you to bargain with them, and will often go lower than you might suppose. “Most tourists think that if they get the vendor down to half, they’re doing well. That’s not necessarily true,” Reid says. For example, many sellers of pashmina shawls will open with prices as high as 260 yuan. But Reid’s companions insisted she not pay more than 40 yuan, about $6.50.

Transportation’s cheap, too. Although taxicab meters start at 10 yuan the second you step in, Reid says, “You can go an awful long way before you hit 11.”

When only the best will do

Gotta have the latest fashions? Next time you’re headed to New York, give Pamela Parisi a call. As a former showroom model, manufacturer, designer and retailer, Parisi is exquisitely connected within the city’s Garment District, and makes it her business to know where and when the best designer clothes and accessories can be had for wholesale prices. Often, these sales are industry-only; some are so secret that Parisi is forbidden to give the names of the designers involved. But if you book one of her Tightwad Treks (log on to or call 1-800-808-4614), Parisi will ensure your entrée.

Her $90 (U.S.) Garment Center Tour includes four hours of shopping and lunch at a nearby café. On past tours, designers have included Max Mara, Gianfranco Ferre and yoga-chic Hard Tail Sportswear. Prices start around $10 and can top $1,000 for suits that you’d pay three times more for in a boutique. In general, items that retail in stores for $100 (U.S.) sell here for $35 or $45 (U.S.). The shopping experience is so addictive, says Parisi, that “sometimes people don’t even want to stop for lunch.”

For an even bigger selection of high-end goods, albeit at slightly less spectacular savings, check out the Chelsea Premium Outlets with nearly 40 locations across the U.S. Men and women can grab deals on Prada, Chanel, Armani and many others. If you’re in Manhattan, hop a Gray Line day tour ($35 U.S.), which departs daily from the Port Authority Terminal for the Woodbury Common Premium Outlets in Central Valley, N.Y. If a bus is too plebeian, treat yourself to a private limousine tour to the outlet mall from All Occasion Transportation for $375 (U.S.) and up. Or splurge on the ultimate: a luxury helicopter-and-limo escort from Manhattan to the outlet mall ($2,600 for up to five people; book ahead by calling Liberty Helicopter at 908-474-9700).

For bargain-hunting vacationers who prefer to go it alone, Century 21 Department Stores are legendary for offering deep discounts on designer clothing and shoes for men, women and children, as well as housewares, electronics and linens at 25% to 75% below retail.

If you crave a not-quite-so-exotic version of Reid’s Asian adventure, check out what’s on offer by New York City street vendors. For men’s and women’s wristwatches, the place to be is outside Bloomingdale’s in midtown Manhattan. All the big names in timekeeping are represented: Gucci, Rolex, Swiss Army. Are they the real thing? No. But when it’s on your wrist, no one besides you will be able to tell the difference, says Ziff. While a fake time-piece may not be the best gift to bring back for your boss, she says, “for yourself or your kids or your friend back home as a little pickup, do you really care if it’s virtually the same product?”

Same goes for the big-name handbags on Canal Street, in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. The bargains on almost-Kate Spade and pseudo-Louis Vuitton carry-alls are so hot, says Ziff, that “one of my girlfriends works in the handbag industry and she keeps saying, ‘I can’t wait to meet you for lunch so we can shop for handbags on Canal Street.’ “