5 great souvenir ideas for your summer travels

by Katy on July 4, 2016 · 60 comments

The following blog post first appeared over at Clark Howard.com.


Souvenirs are an interesting purchase category. They function to demonstrate that you traveled to a certain area, as well as to prompt your memories. They’re also for gift giving, a memento to show that you thought of loved ones at home while out traveling the world.

Unfortunately, they often veer towards pointless doo-dads stamped with the name of wherever you happened to have visited. Went to Florida? Here’s a thimble stamped with the word “Florida.” And guess what? That dust collector was probably manufactured halfway around the world! The problem is that while it’s fun to browse through souvenir shops, your purchases can quickly become useless clutter once you get back home.

Here are five great souvenir ideas that won’t have you staring at your purchases and wondering whether you underwent a brain transplant while traveling.

Regional foods

Whether you’re buying Alaskan canned salmon, Belgian chocolate or Louisiana hot sauce, it’s a smarter purchase than that enormous clunky wooden shoe from your great aunt Ethel’s trip to Holland. Tasty treats have the culinary power to remind you of your delicious vacation, without becoming a unwelcome knick-knack that’s doomed for the Goodwill donation box. Plus, it’s perfect as gifts as everyone loves food!

Things you actually need

Shopping while on vacation is an opportunity to pick up a thing or two with practical purpose. An example would be a kitchen utensil or high quality pen. Not only would they easily fit into your suitcase, but they can actually become a welcome part of your daily routine once home. Perhaps even trigger that relaxing vacation mindset on an otherwise dull Wednesday afternoon.


You may have bought clothing as a souvenir, but it was most likely an unflattering boxy T-shirt that proclaimed the name of your destination, something you probably never even wore again once your airplane deposited you back home. But clothing can actually be a wonderful souvenir, because it doesn’t need to advertise the name of the resort or beach town to remind you of your trip. Plus, whenever anyone asks “Where did you get that gorgeous top?” You’d have an opportunity to reply “This old thing? I picked it up in Paris.”

A splurge purchase

Vacations are an opportunity to spend in a way that you never would at home, and if you’ve saved your pennies ahead of time, it can be wonderfully guilt free. Your souvenir might be a foreign antique, a luxury scarf or even an indulgent meal in a four-star restaurant. Whatever you choose, you might discover that the temporary loosening of purse strings can be a special memory from your vacation.

Things for resale

I know that I’m wired differently from other spenders, but I like to browse thrift shops with an eye for resale while on vacation. I get the enjoyment of window shopping, but with the possibility of generating income to actually cover my vacation costs. With the eBay app on my phone, I scope out completed listings and use that information to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. (I just got back from a mini-vacation where I scored a $3.99 doll that I’ll soon list on eBay for $200, which should cover the entire cost of our motel!)


Who among us hasn’t come home from traveling and been baffled by the crap that we’ve felt impelled to buy as souvenirs. Whether it’s a big Mexican sombrero or a “I ♥ NY” snow globe, you can instead choose to bring home a souvenir that’s both practical and welcome as a gift. Be smart and deliberate with your money, even if you’re on vacation.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

Mand01 July 4, 2016 at 4:19 am

Souvenirs are actually my most hated of all things. There is nothing I hate more than having a loved one travel to some amazing place and return to give me some pointless piece of crap that was not even made in the place they went. The only thing I have ever received from somewhere someone else went was Herdez salsa from California (before we could get good salsa here) and an original piece of Aboriginal art, that my friend bought for me. As she lived in the community, I know that she knew the artist and paid a fair price. I love it. But the tea towels, car hood ornaments, tshirts and other crud just makes me want to claw my eyes out. Sounds ungrateful, I know.


Mand01 July 4, 2016 at 4:21 am

That should say, the only thing I have ever received that I liked


Jennifer July 4, 2016 at 4:40 am

I do always get one of those squished penny souvenirs if I go to a new place. They only cost 51 cents and take up very little space. I have a book I put them in. I really do enjoy looking at those from time to time. When we went to Florida, I let my kids get a shell bracelet for $1. I try to only get things we will use, other than the pennies, of course. They are a splurge I guess, lol!


WilliamB July 5, 2016 at 4:37 pm

In Europe they’re 1-2 Euros, can you believe it? Nonetheless, I support my niblings’ squished penny collection – it’s pretty innocuous and small for a souvenir … as long as the decoration is related to the place. It needs to be the Eiffel Tower, not a heart.

For myself, I look to get something to use a Christmas ornament. One can almost always find something relevant to the location, that can have the date written on it and a loop attached. Also fridge magnets – inexpensive, small, usually not delicate, but admittedly a bit cheesy.


janine July 4, 2016 at 4:42 am

Good article!
I don’t often get trinkets, but appreciate the thought. I have sports fanatic sons and often buy them t-shirts /hats bearing the logos of the teams where we are vacationing. My best ‘score ‘ was at an upscale thrift shop in Florida where I bought a hat that was authentic (I think that means better than Wal-Mart quality) . My husband wore it while we were on vacation and then we passed it on to a son who has a collection. He was very pleased until he found it was too small! Big disappointment, couldn’t take it back, but comforted in the fact that it was a charity shop so proceeds to good causes. We also once shipped oranges to my parents which didn’t work out causing much frustration. Oh, almost forgot the coffee cups purchased but not packed correctly which broke in transit! None of these experiences will probably stop me from looking for a thoughtful gift for my loved ones, but the road to h*ll is often paved with good intentions!
Have a wonderful patriotic 4th of July everyone and thanks to Katy for volunteering to work on the holiday!


Maureen July 4, 2016 at 4:55 am

We’re actually leaving for Holland tomorrow. My husband said to me that he wanted to cash in his coin jar. I said we have enough money to travel, save it for something else. And he said “but I have a lot of wooden shoes to buy!” LOL

Personally, I’m a magnet person and will fill my fridge with magnets.


Marilyn July 4, 2016 at 7:11 am

I go for the magnets too!


Emily N. July 4, 2016 at 5:11 am

In addition to local consumables (yum!), my husband and I usually buy an ornament for our Christmas tree while on vacation. It’s fun to have a little reminder of our travels and it doesn’t take up much space.


Mariana July 4, 2016 at 5:17 am

As I am sure you have seen before (since ou come to nyc quite a bit) these souvenir stores in Times Square or by the Penn Station always amaze me. Huge floors of just crap. Plastic toy NYC cabs, statues of Liberty, cheesy mugs, I heart NYC t-shirts (made in China of course) you name it. The prices are crazy and the funny thing – these stores are full of tourists who just mindlessly swipe their credit cards.


me July 4, 2016 at 1:10 pm

Dissing the ‘ I heart NYC ‘ shirt just seems unpatriotic on the 4th of July. geez. If I ever get to New York City I am buying one.


Stephanie July 4, 2016 at 11:14 pm

I think souvenirs often seem tackier when you are a local. I’m an Aussie and while I would never buy anyone something like a souvenir boomerang, I still love the things I brought back from New York. My dad and brother adored their NYPD t-shirts and wear them all the time, my son loved his toy cab and I feel happy whenever I hear ‘new york, new york’ on my musical snow shaker which I keep on my desk. But I definitely agree with Katy about avoiding the cluttery, unwanted doodads.


Mand01 July 5, 2016 at 12:28 am

Lol, those fake boomerangs


Effie July 4, 2016 at 5:18 am

I have bought bars of soap in different countries that I have visited. They are small and cheap. Buying them takes me to different grocery stores where I might not be able to read food labels, but I can figure out what is soap. There are so many types of soap. Even if it is “Ivory” soap the label will be printed in the that country’s language. I always say “when I die my kids can use my collection and not have to resell it”.


Trish July 5, 2016 at 10:37 am

I like this idea! I would use them though!


Gina in Ky July 4, 2016 at 5:38 am

Like Jennifer, I am in the squished penny camp! For just a couple of quarters and a penny, it makes a great frugal souvenir for my sons. I am also in the food gift camp and, if traveling somewhere special (like the two months I spent in Puerto Rico for work last year). I always visit the grocery stores and buy regular local foods like coffee or candy. It’s much cheaper there than the souvenir shops. I also thrift when I travel for my own amusement and can tell you where many of my favorite things came from. If you really want to give coffee mugs or plates as gifts, you can even find them in your own local thrift shops and save them for when you return from travels! 🙂


Jennifer July 4, 2016 at 6:05 am

Funny you mentioned buying souvenir stuff from thrift shops. My brother, who doesn’t have a job and is in dire need, has Florida t-shirts from Florida and thrift stores. He doesn’t know which came from where.


Gina in Ky July 4, 2016 at 10:09 am

Ha! I can so relate as I have picked up great t-shirts and ball caps at thrifts with sport teams or tourist logos in places far from the actual place on the shirts!


Is it a need or a want July 4, 2016 at 6:03 am

Yes Katy, I (heart) you. Everything you have mentioned we do on vacation. We have also lived in various areas of the world . If you couch surf or air band b you many times can find out the most amazing food , Fairtrade , local created items from the locals.
Yeah vacation thrift stores. My daughter brought back some lovely Icelandic sweaters she picked up in thrift stores.
Same daughter brought back back strap woven placemats from Quatemala this spring from women in a small village she was travelling through
I have a lovely classic scarf from Barcelona and for years used a pasta server bought in Rome.
I love the functional items and decorative pieces bought from local artisans. Fond memories every time used or viewed:)


Pam E-P July 4, 2016 at 6:07 am

I almost always get a t-shirt (which I do wear again!), but my favorite souvenirs are pictures. I print 8x10s (often when Walgreens has a free code) of photos I’ve taken on vacation. I try to print only 1 from each trip, so it forces me to go through all of the photos I took, and we are reminded of our travels every time we walk by the photos.


Vickie July 4, 2016 at 6:34 am

We buy regional food or wine and I buy a fridge magnet for my daughter. She loves having magnets from different places and with 3 kids, she puts them to good use.


Colean July 4, 2016 at 6:34 am

I always get magnets everywhere we travel. My husband and I decided a long time ago it was an inexpensive reminder of our trip and only takes up roon on our fridge! Every time I open the door I’m reminded of all the lovely places we’ve been.


Gina July 4, 2016 at 7:07 am

I always bring back gourmet or famous to the area consumables for family & friends. For myself, I search for a piece of art or a decor item I want for my home, or a lovely piece of jewelry that I know I will wear for years to come. It’s a splurge but I have lovely things accumulated over 30 years that I wear, use and look at daily and they give me ongoing enjoyment rather than bags of junk that just get donated or pitched. Still wear a gorgeous pair of opal earrings from Australia, lovely art hangs on my walls from Paris and the Carribean and I have utilitarian items made by local artisans in other countries and the USA. If I’m in Florida (an annual trip since I was a child) I don’t bring anything back besides lovely memories, unless I see something perfect for me or my home.


Jenny July 10, 2016 at 6:28 am

I second the jewelry recommendation (if you wear jewelry on a regular basis). I normally get a piece of jewelry on my travels (either from an art festival or from an individual shop). They are a beautiful reminder of my travels, don’t take up much room, and oddly enough, help me save more money (when I think about how much I’ve enjoyed my trips it make me want to go on another one, therefore I’m less likely to buy stuff I don’t need.


K D July 4, 2016 at 9:46 am

Great suggestions. I dislike giving and receiving traditional souvenir items, generally made in China and of poor quality. I will broaden my horizons, thanks to your ideas, when we vacation at the end of the summer.


Isabelle July 4, 2016 at 10:20 am

Funny enough, I’m just coming back from a trip and I bought 3 things:
* cranberries fudge (your #1)
* a back scratcher (your #2)
* a baseball cap (a mix of your #2 and #3)

I dislike clutter and I see no point buying random items with a city name on it.


Jackie July 4, 2016 at 11:22 am

Cranberry fudge, one of my favorites. Did you travel to the Cape Code, MA area?


Jennifer July 4, 2016 at 4:06 pm

I’m sure cranberry fudge is probably best if someone else makes it and you purchase it in a super awesome location. I just thought I would post a super simple recipe that I make every year around Christmas should you want to give it go.

1 1/2 bags of white chocolate chips
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
1/2 to 1 cup dried cranberries (or more if you are like me!)
Pecans(optional) I usually leave them out because they are so expensive but they are delightful

Just melt the chips with the milk in the microwave then stir. When smooth, add the cranberries and pecans and pour into a buttered or sprayed square dish, chill till firm.

I’m pretty much dying for some fudge since I read your post so I may have to make a batch. Thanks for the reminder!


K D July 5, 2016 at 9:59 am

Thank you for sharing the recipe, it sounds delicious (I’m thinking about the fact that I have all the ingredients and it would look patriotic…).


Isabelle July 5, 2016 at 3:48 pm

I got it in Toronto actually, and it probably wasn’t local because I got it at a gift shop. It was just to indulge my sweet tooth!

LisaC July 4, 2016 at 10:30 am

This is a really great post! I have purchased clothing, and always remember where I got it. I live in a region that tourists often visit, and having sweatshirts from here is considered “cool” to kids and teenagers, so when they go on sale for locals during off-season, those are my Christmas gifts to family, and they love it. I also buy local seafood and make entrees to give as gifts.


JulieE July 4, 2016 at 10:52 am

Whenever we travel to a place with beaches/sand.. we always collect a small sample and have them displayed in small glass jars. My kids love it!


Carole July 4, 2016 at 12:01 pm

When we went to England, I bought a box of tea. I always thought it tasted better than American tea. After it was used I kept the box for a long time.


Bee July 4, 2016 at 1:30 pm

I also take photographs. I print just one from each trip in sepia and then mat and frame them. I got this idea many years ago when I found a vintage photo of the Taj Mahal at the Goodwill. It was dated September 1947.
Honestly, very few of the trips we take involve shopping. But when they do, I may buy local artwork and/0r consumables. My husband is a t-shirt guy, but he does wear them again.


Joy August 1, 2016 at 11:43 am

GREAT idea! I may have to borrow your idea and go through pics to create a “coffee table” book. Thanks!


auntiali July 4, 2016 at 1:31 pm

When I was a kid my parents took my brother and I on vacation every year. My Mom got the idea of me collecting spoons from where ever we went. I had two spoon racks filled but got rid of them when my father sold the house. On our vacations the kids got tshits that were put into regular rotation when they got home. Anywhere else we went that had squishy pennies they got one. Saved a lot in Disney World. They never looked at them again so I’ll take the zero on that.
But come on, that vintage ashtray from Myrtle Beach can’t be passed up!


Odette July 5, 2016 at 11:18 am

Too funny — tSHITS.


Susan July 4, 2016 at 2:21 pm

I try to find art for my walls. I bought a gorgeous water color in San Juan and a fall foliage photo at a nature center on another trip. I don’t spend a ton and like supporting local artists during my visit.


Maureen July 4, 2016 at 2:37 pm

I have a dear friend that travels frequently. She’s gifted me a gorgeous hand made bracelet from Africa, tea from England and Israel, one beautiful small plate from Italy I love and a charming small box with two French chocolates from France as well as like small gifts from other places such as beautiful, framable postcards. Each one is treasured and is used or has been eaten and has set a lovely pattern for my choice of gifts when I travel. She doesn’t shop for gifts, she gets them when she has her, “oh I wish—- could see this”, moments.


susan keene July 4, 2016 at 3:57 pm

You crack me up! We love Disney, but not the prices. Accordingly, I have curated a fine collection of Disney related shirts for my family, all from the Goodwill for a few dollars apiece. 🙂 Since we like fun and functional for souvenirs, I also pick up small travel plates at the thrift store from destinations we have visited and use them as coasters/jewelry trays. They always make us smile with a memory and not the pain of over paying.


Emily July 4, 2016 at 4:41 pm

I totally did this. I bought a beautiful clutch at a flea market in Italy. I actually was just looking but once I picked it up and then put it down the vendor kept dropping the price. I got it for like 5 euros and I love telling people where I got it when they ask. It was the best souvenir and I use it everyday


Eliza July 4, 2016 at 5:03 pm

I started doing the useful items only as souvenirs a few years ago – some have come and gone from my life, but I regularly use and love my cut-glass wine glasses from the Czech republic, compact mirror from China, olive oil topper from Italy, and pashmina from Hungary among other things. It’s a wonderful way to remember the various trips without filling my life with clutter.

Sadly, I didn’t learn this until I dragged home a number of souvenirs from my first cross-Europe trip including the requisite wooden shoe – not sure if I got rid of it or if it’s hidden away somewhere in my parents’ house gathering dust – but either way it isn’t bringing anyone any joy.


Debbie July 4, 2016 at 5:07 pm

Great ideas, Katy! I used to collect key chains until I had more than I knew what to do with, then switched to magnets, but that also got to be too much. Now we try and stick with unique local consumables (chocolates, cookies, candies or jams) or unique clothing that we will wear again. My husband bought an Ireland rugby shirt which he loves, a jacket and sweater from Norway, and I’ve gotten a small opal necklace from Australia. From our trip to Singapore, we brought back unique local pineapple cakes for our friends. Now when we walk through the local tourist shops it drives me crazy with all the random useless junk they sell, usually made in China!


Jen July 4, 2016 at 6:55 pm

My husband recently went to Turkey for work and I couldn’t go. 🙁 I requested a pashmina and baklava. He felt a little bad that I didn’t get to go too.

Last summer we were vacationing in Maine, we were in a studio with things made by local artists, I picked out 2 tiny bud vases for a total price of under $10. I also pointed out to my mom this lovely small wooden bowl with a magnetic lid. It was out of my budget, but I told her how cool it would be to use for kosher salt next to my stove (formerly I used a small Tupperware). Then I ended up getting it for Christmas. 🙂


Karen July 4, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Just went home to a family reunion. I was so excited to eat in the local restaurants and I do not like to go to restaurants. But this is a very ethnic area and where I live now I cannot get this type of food.

In fact my favorite restaurant I worked at 41 years ago. And the restaurant is still going strong. Good food and reasonable prices do work.

For my souvenir I brought home my favorite pastry from a local shop. I ate half and put half in the freezer and will eat it on my birthday next month.


Marcia July 4, 2016 at 8:00 pm

When my kids were small, we traveled every year and I “let” them collect postcards. Very inexpensive at that time, and they could keep a whole bunch of them without taking up too much space—a shoe box or a photo album. I also bring food items as souvenirs and I like to go to farmer’s markets on vacation—I get out of season fruit (to us) for the hotel room, and often some neat gifts as well. Got fantastic inexpensive granola in Florida–kept it for ourselves and ate it all up!! Since we are now in our 70’s, I try to buy consumable gifts for friends, and even for family, as their houses are pretty full of “stuff” also.


lee July 5, 2016 at 4:33 am

Yes, yes, yes – to all of this! For the past couple of years, I have found myself less and less interested in souvenirs. The photos I take (which are plentiful) have been enough. The one thing my husband and I might purchase on a “big trip” is an ornament for our Christmas tree, as someone else mentioned.

For the longest time, I have purchased postcards to send to friends and family. It helps me stay in touch with people across the country in a slightly more personal way than Facebook or email (especially when I used to travel for work a lot); and if they don’t want to keep it, it doesn’t bother me to think of the card ending up in the recycle bin. Now if the postcard companies would just print them in the USA (for American destinations, at least)…


JD July 5, 2016 at 5:24 am

Lee, you reminded me — back in the day when people used cameras that shot film, and could get the pictures processed in postcard size, a friend had one photo fail — it was solid gray when he got it back from the one-day processing while still on vacation. Rather than throw it away, he mailed it to me as a postcard, saying the beach he was visiting was lovely, if a bit foggy.
I laughed all day over that one. Thanks for bringing back a good memory!


JD July 5, 2016 at 5:18 am

I second — or is it third?– the notion of buying Christmas ornaments that remind me of the area. We looked for local art galleries that sold handmade ornaments, often cloth or wood, when we traveled, but stopped buying ornaments before we overdid it. We also have purchased a good bit of local art — signed prints, usually, but also some practical items as well. We daily use a hand-forged toilet roll spindle that I got from the blacksmith who made it. A handmade purse from a student of the Savannah College of Art & Design that I found in a Savannah gallery featuring student art work is still a favorite. I still like to bring back something handmade and local, including food, for others, but for myself, I usually just bring home photos these days.
FYI for Florida visitors, Florida has a number of small wineries, some organic, which you can tour and buy wine, and places that hand make beers, cheeses, soaps, coffees, barbecue sauce or confections in small batches. There’s much more than oranges and Disney, so go online and check out what’s out there before you go. Health food stores and food co-ops also often sell local, handmade consumables, too, as an alternative place to shop for souvenirs.


Joy August 1, 2016 at 2:06 pm

Since getting “older” (turned 40 a month ago), I have found myself seeking out the local pottery, craft fair, Farmer’s Market, etc of the region we are visiting. I loved that when we went back to where we honeymooned, I actually could afford a gorgeous, locally crafted painting. That’s when the “bug bit” to try and come back home with something handcrafted that represented the area. Plus, we have met some awesome people that way!


Mrs. Picky Pincher July 5, 2016 at 7:03 am

I traveled quite a lot when I was younger, and I learned this lesson the hard way. Those decorative candles, mugs, and wooden clogs aren’t really useful knickknacks to give to your loved ones.

On my second go-around in Europe, I brought back several small wheels of cheese and Belgian crystal. While these weren’t necessities, they were useful and/or extraordinarily beautiful enough to display.

But traveling is more so about the experience rather than the things you buy and bring back with you.


Amanda July 5, 2016 at 7:53 am

We like to bring home art. Nothing big, but small, wall-hangable things that don’t take up space and remind us of the great experiences we had traveling. If we bring home presents, and we usually don’t, it is something wearable or consumable (everywhere seems to have a special chocolate or coffee).


hmbalison July 5, 2016 at 8:23 am

I totally agree that regional food treats are fun to give and receive. If I want to buy a little something for a friend or myself while traveling, my go-to the last few years has been a pair of earrings. They are small and take up almost no room. And when I wear a pair that I purchased on a trip, it always a happy reminder.


Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life July 5, 2016 at 9:14 am

Yes, we’re of the same mind! I do have some leftover souvenirs of the tacky type, but not many! My favorites are things we see and use everyday: magnets, the occasional keychain (we use them to differentiate between key sets), the purse I bought from a boutique in Hawaii, my honeymoon earrings, soap sets from Thailand, and potholders.

We brought back gifts for friends from Italy: olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, sea salts. The UK was the source of some amazing chocolates.

The consumables are long gone but their memories last just as well, maybe better!


Odette July 5, 2016 at 11:08 am

I like to buy postcards in places I visit (many times in the grocery store where they’re cheaper), then use them as bookmarks at home. It’s fun to match the place or theme of a postcard to a book. (I am easily amused.) I also collect ticket stubs, brochures, food wrappers, etc. to put in my trip journal. The only thing I regret NOT buying was some tea in Morocco — it’s called “Gun Powder.” LOL!


Lynn July 5, 2016 at 11:14 am

When I travel, I always try to visit a local outdoor market. But the only souvenirs I buy for others are food. And the only souvenirs I buy for myself are earrings – if I can keep the price under $10. I have a lovely souvenir that I get to wear all the time, and if I loose one, I’m only out a small amount.


Nancy July 5, 2016 at 12:09 pm

the only thing I will get when I travel is a Christmas ornament for my tree. then once a year I pull them all out, and we remember all our trips, enjoy them, and then pack them away again. If I can’t find an ornament, I will find something that I can create an ornament out of. My sons, who are 30 and 34 still look at the tree and remember vacations to Washington D. C., Texas, British Columbia, Alaska and Italy.


Krystal July 5, 2016 at 5:03 pm

My only vacation purchase outside of necessities and food was one bottle of wine that should be pretty great in about 5-10 years. So excited I didn’t have to fuss with customs or baggage fees!


Marianne July 5, 2016 at 5:17 pm

We used to buy key chains for the kids on trips. They are small and we have a small bucket full. It brings back memories of where we got them all. We tried to always pick weird ones.
My son has traveled a lot and he brings back bracelets which I wear everyday or cheese. His last trip to Italy he brought back cute serving plates…we laughed and laughed as they were made in China.


melanie July 5, 2016 at 7:30 pm

My husband and I just got married a few weeks ago (after 16years!) and returned from our (gifted) honeymoon in Queenstown, NewZealand with nothing but a tattoo each! (I have 1 other, he had none:)) So special to us & the easiest thing to ‘store’ that we own, lol!


Joy August 1, 2016 at 2:11 pm

So funny! Hubby and I almost did the same thing, but then I went into my germaphobe mode about not knowing the local reputation of the shop, etc. (when we were first married, we each had one). Of course, now with so many review sites online, it would be a lot safer. 17 years ago, that wasn’t a thing!


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