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For travelers, a vending machine can be a welcome sight. Perhaps it’s just for a quick snack when the rest of the airport is closed. Or, overseas, an easy transaction without any language hurdles. But these days, the vending machine is diversifying. Now travelers can find all sorts of things inside these contraptions—items that range from the practical to the absurd.
“We love vending machines because their very nature will always remain consistent,” says Christopher Salyers, author of Vending Machines: Coined Consumerism. “Some of us would prefer having access to goods 24 hours a day, devoid of human interaction or adult supervision.”
Fresh Pizza, Italy
If you came all the way to Italy to see a guy toss pizza dough in the air—well, a vending machine is still pretty cool, right? The “Let’s Pizza” machines, found in a few shopping malls and airports—such as Malpensa in Milan, and Palermo and Trapani in Sicily—will make an individual pizza from scratch in just under three minutes. Push a button for your desired toppings (tomato, bacon, ham, or fresh vegetables), then watch through the little window as the machine mixes and kneads dough, adds toppings, and bakes.
Price: Between $5 and $8.
In case the dollar or euro fails during your flight home, you can always shore up your assets by picking up a few gold bars at a Gold to Go vending machine, debuting in the above airports in May 2010 after a successful 2009 test run at Frankfurt. You can also buy South African Krugerrands, Canadian maple-leaf coins, or even a $100, one-ounce Australian Kangaroo coin.
Price: They fluctuate, supposedly pegged to real-time prices. We were quoted $50 for a one-gram gold bar, complete with fancy gift box. Turns out you could do a little better, price-wise, on eBay, but as airport gifts go, a gold bar still beats another dumb T-shirt.
Raw Eggs, Japan and California
In a country that sells bags of rice out of vending machines, it’s perhaps no surprise that you might find bags of fresh eggs inside vending machines along the side of the road, set up by local farmers. But you need not go all the way to Japan for fresh eggs from a machine. At Glaum Egg Ranch, outside Santa Cruz, $3 gets you 24 cage-free-chicken eggs, accompanied by a “live show” performed by dolled-up stuffed chickens (as in Beanie Babies, not former egg layers).
Gold Handcuffs, Miami’s Mondrian South Beach Hotel
Hotel gift shops—so passé. At this chic South Beach hotel, one full wall of the lobby is taken up by the Semi-Automatic, an enticingly mod, purple vending machine. Some go-to items: a feather vest ($400), a $28 T-shirt emblazoned with the word recession, or, our favorite, the 24-karat-gold handcuffs ($350). You can even buy a nearby condo, or rent a 1953 Cadillac DeVille convertible.
Price: Ranges from $10 to $1.2 million. For the super-high-end items—say, buying a car or condo—you pay a deposit, which you lose if you later opt out.
Live Bait, Across the U.S.
Finally, a way to buy leeches at 2 a.m. Placed in fishing-friendly locales across the U.S.—with several in Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, and Illinois—these 24-hour machines have filled a gap left by bait and tackle shops that went under due to competition from big-box stores. PA Live Bait Vending owner Gary Harsel says that the machines’ best seller is probably the dozen night crawlers, but some machines also offer live minnows, crayfish, bloodworms, and leeches. They also carry non-living items such as hooks, bobbers, sinkers, motor oil for boats, and, of course, frosty beverages. (Good news: unbought bait doesn’t stay in the machine longer than a week.)
Price: $3 for a dozen night crawlers.
Bicycles, the Netherlands
In this pedal-happy nation, it’s actually surprising that we hadn’t seen bicycle vending machines before now. The new Bikedispenser machines—currently found at railway stations in Arnhem and Nijmegen and coming soon to Delft, Duiven, and a dozen more locations by 2011—rent out bicycles for up to 20 hours. Just bring them back to the same station.
Price: About $16 your first time, then about $4 for each rental during the following 12 months.
One downside of a pedestrian-friendly city: being out and about in the wrong shoes. Asics has a roving vending machine—previously in London’s Carnaby Square but now in Liverpool—that sells its popular Onitsuka Tiger “trainers” (as the Brits call sneakers) for about $75 a pair. Seeing as it’s in a store with clerks nearby—who are, for the record, also selling shoes—this one seems more novelty than function. If it’s after 5 p.m., though, look for a Rollasole. Found mostly in nightclubs (such as Oceana), these machines offer comfy-but-flashy flats for ladies who have had it with dancing in stilettos. For just a few quid ($10 for Yanks), you can choose among small, medium, and large, in the colors Back to Black or Hi Ho Silver. The machines are headed to U.K. train stations and airports this summer, as well as nightclubs in New York, L.A., and Vegas.
With cigarette machines on the outs, A Novel Idea at least provides an idle diversion that won’t alienate the person sitting next to you at the airport. Found in airports (such as Heathrow) and hotels (such as Radisson Blu at London’s Stansted), the machines offer a variety of titles—best-selling authors such as Maeve Binchy and James Patterson, but also puzzle books and kids’ titles. Machines are also coming to Australia and Asia.
Price: About $10 each.