10 Shopping Tips for International Visitors to the US


1. Buy discounted gift cards.

You can buy discounted gift card online for various stores you might be shopping at during your travels. You then use these gift cards like you’d use cash.

We purchase discounted gift cards all the time. In fact we do it most of our everyday shopping using discounted gift cards. Some cards have small discounts e.g., around 4% for Whole Foods. Other stores have large discounts e.g., 20% for TJ Maxx. You can also get great discounts on restaurant gift cards e.g., PF Changs and Cheesecake Factory. Clothing store brands that have gift cards include Old Navy, The Gap, Ross Dress for Less, Nike etc. You can use the Old Navy and The Gap gift cards interchangeably as they’re the same company.

Some gift cards cards are physical cards, which won’t necessarily be practical for travelers. However many others are printable or electronic gift cards. Often just having the gift card on your phone will work so you won’t even need to print it.

Some of the sites I’ve used for purchasing gift cards are: Raise, Giftcard Zen, and Cardpool. Giftcard Zen will also you to pay with Paypal, which is great for those people who have USD in their Paypal account but where your credit card charges a foreign transaction fee (all NZ credit cards do, so we used to be stuck in this position!)

2. Shop at Ross Dress for Less.

This is my favorite store for buying clothing, bras, and bags. It’s a great store for if you need a $20 dress, a great bra for $6, or an extra piece of luggage. Note that their items are seasonal so don’t expect to find swim suits in the middle of winter, unless you’re shopping at Ross in Hawaii, which always has swim suits and sarongs year round.

Pro tip: Buy a Ross Gift Card at one of discount gift card merchants mentioned in #1 for additional savings! This is what we do.

3. Take advantage of returns policies.

At most stores in the US, you can easily return items. Often you can return to a different branch than you purchased at. If you see something and you think you want it, grab it and return it if you have buyer’s remorse.

4. Sign up for an Amazon prime trial.

If you think you’re going to do some shopping on Amazon during your trip, take advantage of a month’s free two day shipping. This will allow you to get packages shipped to your hotel and be much more sure of the time frame than if you were using other shipping methods.

Many stores aren’t reliable with their shipping time frames, especially around Christmas. Zappos is reliable for fast shipping, and I’d tend to stick with either Amazon or Zappos if you’re moving around quickly.

5. Use Ship to Store or In-store Pickup.

You can usually ship to a hotel or hostel. Another option is that you can do “Ship to Store” with many merchants. This helps if you’re below the minimum order for free shipping. It’s also useful if you want to make sure the store has the item before trekking out there. Often, websites will show a particular location as having an item in stock and then when you get there, it isn’t in stock. At least call ahead to check the store has your item in the size you want. Sometimes you’ll still get wrong information when you call, so better to actually order it for in store pickup, to be sure your item is waiting for you. In store pick up usually just takes a few hours for them to process your order and get it ready for you to collect, whereas “Ship to Store” can take up to a week, so plan ahead.

6. If they’re out of your size, they can send it from another store.

You’re on vacation and don’t want to be trekking all over town to find the size you need. Stores, including outlet mall stores, can often get the item you need from another one of their stores. This usually takes a day or two. If you’re organized, you can call ahead and get them to hold the item for you at the store you want to visit. For example, if you’re just buying the same sneakers you always buy each year and want to get them at an outlet mall.

7. Get data on your phone.

Having data on your phone allows you to cross check prices and see if what you’re looking at truly is a good deal. Apps like Red Laser allow you to scan a barcode and look up prices for that item across the web.

8. Utilize price matching.

You can utilize price matching to get online prices in store. For example Best Buy will price match Amazon. Remember that the USA is customer service orientated (even though Americans don’t generally think so ;-)) so it’s not a big deal to ask for a price match. As a NZer, I find I’m a bit shy about doing this, but sales associates are generally happy to help and friendly about the request.

9. Shop for big items in no sales tax states.

There are five states in the US that have no sales tax. Most other taxes have 5-9% sales tax, which is added on to the advertised price. For example, if you’re buying a Mac or an iphone, buy it at Apple in Oregon (no sales tax), rather than an Apple store in next door Washington or California.

10. Shop online at stores that don’t charge sales tax in states where you’re shipping the item.

If a store doesn’t have a physical presence in a state, they usually don’t charge sales tax on items shipped to that state. For example, BH Photo often has the same prices as Amazon but they don’t charge sales tax outside New York. They’re good for things like headphones and computer stuff, as well as camera-related items.

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