A gift of travel can surprise

Are your loved ones frustratingly hard to buy gifts for?

Get in the holiday spirit and send them away.

Often one of the last things people think to wrap up and put under the tree, travel is not only getting easier to give; it sometimes comes with great perks for the giver.

That includes the best perk of all: going along on the trip.

“Especially for couples, giving the gift of travel is a great way of saying, ‘I want to spend more time with you,’ ” said JoAnne Verboom, a travel agent in Grand Rapids, Mich., who helps her customers give trips as gifts. “How much more personal can you get?”


Need more incentive? Buy a gift certificate to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations and the recipient will get $100 off a first reservation while you get $150 off a future trip. Through Dec. 31, you can also get $150 off a membership-style gift to the Essex Resort & Spa near Burlington, Vt., which includes one night’s stay and a voucher for a second night at half price, two-for-the-price-of-one massages, dinners, and cooking classes, free wine and food tastings, and discounts on bottled wines. Or give someone a treatment at the Guerlain Spa at the Waldorf Astoria New York — including use of a private steam room, champagne, and truffles — and get 20 percent off a gift card of more than $300 through the end of the holiday season. Big family? Buy 10 gift trips with Montana-based Austin Adventures and go yourself for free.

Like most airlines, American sells gift cards toward flights and vacation packages, but the twist is that, for every $50 worth you buy, it will give $5 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the USO, or the United Negro College Fund.

AAA, the auto club, sells memberships as gifts, and, for members who buy at least five through Christmas Eve, will waive the usual $5.95 fee for American Express gift cards toward travel. It also sells gift certificates in any denomination for its own travel services, which can be applied to flights, cruises, hotels, and other travel costs, packaged in a travel wallet alongside maps, tour books, guides, and brochures.


If there’s any reason most people have never given these kinds of going-away presents, it may be that it’s hard to wrap a cruise or flight and put it under the tree.

“It’s not an iPhone, it’s not a gizmo, it’s not something they’re going to use that day,” said Beth Steucek, CEO of the New England Inns and Resorts Association, which offers gift certificates for any of its more than 275 member properties and, for an extra five bucks, will put them in a classy-looking confetti-filled pillow-style gift box.

Verboom, the travel agent, encourages her customers to wrap their gift certificates around bottles of suntan lotion or put them inside beach towels. That way, she said, the people receiving them “may be expecting a surprise, but not a trip to Aruba.”

Nor does everyone make buying travel easy. Amtrak charges a $5 fee for gift cards, for instance, and they can be used only at ticket offices — not online. Airline gift certificates are typically good for just one year. United offers only electronic gift certificates, e-mailed to the recipients. Other airlines, including Delta, give buyers a choice between e-gifts and gift cards, but American charges $5 each for gift cards.


Some frequent-traveler programs let you cash in points for gifts. American Express Membership Rewards, for example, now lets users convert their points into gift cards they can give away for stays at Hilton hotels, theme park visits — even safaris.

“They earn all these points all year and a lot of people like to use them to help extend their holiday budgets and to shop,” said Melanie Backs, an American Express spokeswoman. “Gift cards and vouchers for travel are a popular way to use those points.”

Well, not quite “popular”; barely 30 percent of consumers have ever given travel as a gift, a new American Express survey found. But that’s been inching up.

“The gifting of experiences, which includes travel, seems to be a rising trend,” Backs said. “It’s something you can do together. It’s something that’s unique.”

Travel companies are making it easier. Most cruise companies sell gift cards. So do large hotel chains. Ski resorts sell gifts of season passes and lift tickets. And high-end tour operators sell gift certificates, including Abercrombie & Kent, Cox & Kings, Quark Expeditions, Tauck, Globus, Celtic Tours, and Intrepid Travel. Contiki even lets relatives and friends make gift contributions to a trip a traveler has already booked.

There are other ways to give enduring experiences like these.

Disney gift cards can be used for anything from theme park tickets and cruises to hotel stays, dining, and merchandise, have no fee, and never expire. You can send your college kid to Europe with a gift certificate from Cambridge-based EF College, which has launched a “Gift of Travel” campaign this holiday season. CityPASS ticket booklets, available for New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and eight other cities (including Boston), are good for nine days once they’re activated for up to 50 percent savings at each destination’s top attractions. SeaWorld in Orlando sells a backstage “Beluga Interaction Experience,” and Disney’s Animal Kingdom a three-hour private VIP tour of its re-created African savanna. The Kennedy Space Center’s “Astronaut Training Experience” includes interactive antigravity activities and a meet-and-greet with an actual astronaut.


Travel is an especially good gift for “the hard-to-get people,” said Steucek, of the Inns and Resorts Association. “They have all the tchotchkes they need. Buy them something at the mall and they’ll forget it. Travel is something they’ll remember.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.