How to give the gift of travel

A surprise trip takes planning, but it's more memorable than a sweater

Summer Hull
Personal Finance Writer
Summer Hull writes the weekly "Get to the Points" column for CreditCards.com

Get to the Points

One of my favorite holiday gifts to give won’t fit under any Christmas tree. It’s the gift of travel. 

The gift of an experience and memories that you can keep with you for a lifetime is usually far more valuable than anything you can order on Amazon. From a selfish perspective, it is also way more exciting giving the gift of travel than yet another gift card. 

On the other hand, gifting travel can be complicated, especially if you are trying to pull off a surprise trip. Having pulled this off a few times myself, here are some tips if you want to give the gift of travel. 

Be 100 percent sure before gifting a booked trip

Heading out of town for a trip isn’t nearly as simple as heading out to dinner, so before you surprise someone with a totally booked and nonrefundable trip, be 100 percent sure about their interest level and availability. 

This means factoring in their work, kids, pets, finances and other obligations before handing over a ticket to Cabo. 

If it is your spouse or partner you are surprising, travel availability may be a little easier to ascertain than if your travel gift recipient is a friend or other family member. Just be certain that the recipient is interested and available for the getaway you have in mind, so that the amazing gift doesn’t turn into an unintentional burden. 

If you aren’t certain your gift recipient will be cool with a getaway to a warmer climate (or some other surprise trip), that’s OK. I’ll get to some other gift-of-travel ideas other than making actual nonrefundable bookings. 

Add recipient’s frequent-flyer numbers later

If you are going all-in on making surprise travel reservations, leave off the recipient’s frequent-flyer number and other contact information such as email addresses to avoid accidentally tipping your hand. 

You typically can add this information to the booking later once the gift has been given, but if you include their frequent-flyer number on the reservation it is quite likely that the flights will show up in their list of upcoming trips in their airline account and may even land in their inbox. 

It goes without saying, but you also will want to avoid using any of the travel gift recipient’s miles or points when making the booking since he or she will likely get that notification, too. 

If you share a credit card with the lucky intended target of your travel gift and both of you keep an eye on the statement, you may want to factor in that as well. 

Consider using miles that allow changes

A great way to give a trip without risking too much in case it doesn’t work out is to use airline miles that are more forgiving of any unexpected-but-necessary changes. 

For example, Southwest Rapid Reward points can be redeposited without penalty, and American Airlines allows award date changes as long as the trip is at least 21 days out. Also, British Airways permits award changes or cancellations for as little as the cost of the taxes paid, which can be as low as $5.60 for a domestic flight on a partner airline such as Alaska Airlines or American Airlines. 

Think through the travel details

If you want the trip to be truly a gift, be sure you have thought through the details so the recipient can just get excited about the upcoming adventure. You don’t want the trip recipient getting stressed over what still needs to be planned or paid for out of his or her pocket. 

This includes thinking through ground transportation, lodging and perhaps even a few activities to do along the way or at the destination. 

Wrap up your gift in a fun way

In my family, half the fun of the gift is in the presentation, so try to come up with a fun way to give the generous gift of travel. 

Some ideas? You can use themed clues, destination guidebooks or items he or she may want on the journey to build the suspense and excitement. 

Don’t tell my husband, but I am surprising him this Christmas with an island trip for just the two of us, and that gift will be packed in a box along with a pair of sunglasses he has been eyeing! 

Give travel gift cards if you want to play it safe

If you aren’t sure enough to make actual travel reservations as a gift, you can wait to firm up those booking details until you have surprised someone with the idea of the trip, or you can always give travel gift cards for the gift recipient to use. 

Many airlines such as Delta and American sell gift cards online, and you are likely to run into Southwest, Delta, Disney and Hyatt gift cards on the gift card rack on your next trip to the supermarket or office supply store. Pay for the gift card (or gift cards) with your rewards credit card and you get miles, points or cash back on your purchase. 

Final thought: Giving the gift of travel takes some thought and investment, but being able to surprise someone with an adventure, instead of a sweater, is almost always worth it!

See related: Giving the gift of flight with airline gift cards, Gift card regulations: Fees, expiration limited by US law, Video: 4 creative ways to wrap gift cards


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Updated: 09-22-2018