Giving the gift of travel

With the holidays upon us, people have begun asking and answering that time-honored question, “What do you want for Christmas?” (or the winter holiday of your choice). If the answer is, “Travel” or “A vacation,” there are ways to go about fulfilling that request … and ways to avoid.

One of the difficult aspects of giving the gift of travel is how to make it happen. Airplane tickets and, to a slightly lesser extent, train tickets cost a fair bit to change if travel plans change so purchasing tickets to a specific destination on specific dates could cost either you or the recipient dearly if, for some reason, plans had to be changed.

Instead, consider a more open-ended approach and employ more creative ways to pay for this gift than pulling out the credit or debit card.

If you are a frequent flier and have accumulated a significant amount of miles, that may be the most economical way of providing airline tickets as a gift. All three major U.S. carriers - United (NYSE:UAL), American (NASDAQ:AAL) and Delta (NYSE:DAL) - as well as Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) and Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) allow their mileage plan members to use their accrued miles to purchase tickets for others.

While there is no additional fee for doing so, that will mean that you will have to do the online or telephone work when the time comes to make the travel arrangements and may have to pay whatever charges are not covered by the miles, including taxes and airport fees. If that doesn’t appeal, you might consider transferring miles to the recipient, though the cost of doing that could be as much as, or more than, buying a ticket outright.

The three major U.S. carriers all have different fees and different limits when transferring miles.

Delta allows its SkyMiles members to transfer up to 30,000 miles in increments of 1,000 miles for $0.01 per mile plus $30 per transaction, the lowest cost of the three major U.S. airlines. American’s AAdvantage members can share up to 50,000 miles at $12.50 per 1,000 miles ($0.0125 per mile), plus a $30 transaction fee while United MileagePlus members can transfer from 500 to 25,000 miles at a cost of $7.50 per 500 miles ($0.015 per mile) plus $30 per transaction.

Alternatively, America, Delta and Southwest all offer travel gift cards while Alaska and United offer gift certificates. Likewise, most major hotel chains from the Four Seasons to Best Western offer gift cards or certificates if you plan to pay for lodging.

If you are inclined to give a fixed amount toward travel, specify the amount instead of a more open-ended offer to buy the tickets (“Aunt Kristen and I would like to contribute $1,000 toward your trip”), and include a check, gift card or gift certificate with your note.

The reveal

Everybody likes to open gifts, so appropriate presentation is in order. And of course, it should be travel-themed.

For that presentation, buy a guidebook or foreign language CD for some place you know the recipient wants to visit. Inside the front cover or case, include a note that details what you are actually giving, such as, “We know you’ve always wanted to visit Venice. If this is the year, we’re buying (whatever you have decided to give: the plane tickets, the hotel, the whole package).”

If the recipient has always wanted to take a cruise, get a cruise brochure from a local travel agent or the specific cruise line in which they have expressed an interest and put the note in there. Or head to a site like Ticket-o-Matic, which allows web users to generate fake airline tickets. Put the ticket inside a small box, then wrap it for presentation. Be sure to include a note that lets the recipient know you intend to provide them with the real thing when they firm up their plans.

Consider a new set of luggage or luggage tags, a passport wallet or money belt with an airline gift card tucked into each tag. Be creative, and have fun.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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