This blog post was updated on November 29, 2021.

The columnist/humorist Dave Barry once wrote that the holiday season was “a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.”

You don’t have to be a social critic like Barry to note that the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is America’s annual period of consumerism and materialism. It’s estimated that the average American spends $929 each Christmas on gifts for loved ones. Blogs and social media begin generating gift guides before Halloween. And Black Friday and Cyber Monday kick off the season with the best deals on items ranging from clothing to electronics.

But there may be fewer visits to the mall and fewer wrapped boxes stuffed under trees this year than there was last year. And there may even less next year and the year after that. Because it seems more and more families, especially parents to their adult children, are opting to give a gift that can’t be wrapped and handed over. Instead of presents picked up from the mall or ordered online, they’re giving the gift of travel.

Memories > Things

There are a lot of different factors that can be credited to families choosing to give trips over traditional gifts: the overall lowering of airfares, the rise of travel points and credit cards, the influence of social media on travel FOMO, book now pay later flights, etc. But the trend could also be credited to the fact that millennials value experiences over things. In fact, more than 3 in 4 millennials (78%) would rather spend money on an experience than an item.

“I mean sure, there are always material things that we’d like to have,” Danika admits, — “newer and nicer clothes, a new phone, jewelry, etc. — but I don’t think that want and desire ever goes away, there’s always something else we want, but we don’t really need any of that.”

Nearly everyone I spoke to whose families gift travel, made similar comments. The memories of the trip were far more valuable than any gift. But if the gift-giving traditions of Christmas are important to you and your family, there is a way to do both.

“Sometimes we’ve skipped gifts altogether. Sometimes we’ve smuggled small gifts in our luggage. Sometimes we’ve visited kitschy gift shops with a cash budget and made a game of finding ridiculous things to wrap for each other,” Brittany Austin of Alpine, Utah says. Her family travels nearly every year for the holidays. “When I was younger, my mom would bring extra luggage filled with gifts and even a mini Christmas tree for our hotel room.”

You may also enjoy: Why Winter Travel is the New Family Vacay

The Beginning of a New Tradition

For Hannah Barton of Gainesville, Florida, her family’s tradition of giving and receiving trips began when she and her siblings started families of their own. “In-laws and grandchildren entered the family and my parents wanted to give experiences and memories to us instead of things we wouldn’t remember getting a year later,” she explains.

Hannah’s parents now surprise everyone on Christmas morning with token presents that reveal the trip they are planning to bring them on that year. “One year they gave us a trip to Hawaii and each couple got a ukulele and shorts,” she says. “The grandkids got matching swimsuits and sunglasses. In our stocking was an envelope telling us where we were going and when.”

Danika Wright, who hails from Salt Lake City also credits her family’s shift to gifting travel to the increase in ages, but for her family, the Christmas holiday is when they go to their yearly destination (instead of finding out where they’re going) on Christmas. “We used to take a family trip every single year growing up,” she says. “But since all of us have gotten older and have real jobs and families, it seems harder to make it happen. Christmas is the perfect time since everyone can get time off work.”

Vancouver-based Katie Johnson, says her family’s Christmas was always traditional, but this year they’re changing things up by going on a cruise. “My Dad was just diagnosed with cancer,” she says, “so we jumped at the opportunity to have this experience to make memories that would last longer than gifts, especially for my kids.”

The Logistics

The most difficult part about adopting the new tradition comes down to logistics – probably because gifting a trip is potentially problematic. After all, who decides where to go every year? Who pays for what? And more importantly – how do you line up everyone’s schedules?

Most families seem to discuss the trip in length beforehand. “Since we’re adults, everyone has a calendar of their own commitments,” says Brittany. “So setting dates a few months out is helpful, and I also find that the anticipation of holiday travel is half the fun. We take turns researching the best hikes, the best restaurants, the best spot to catch the sunset, etc.”

But if you want to gift a surprise trip, it’s possible to do so in a safe way. Keeping the gift open-ended is ideal. Some airlines allow you to modify your trip for free, but if not — plan to book the trip after you’ve discussed details. Wrap up a travel guidebook or brochure to give a hint. Or give a letter explaining that you’ll pay for a plane ticket or hotel.

Kelsie Christensen of Salt Lake City, Utah says that her parents usually take her and her sister’s families on a trip every year for their Christmas present. “Though one time,” she says, “our schedules didn’t align, so my parents scheduled a separate trip for my sister and brother-in-law to take on their own.”

Being flexible as the gifter allows you to make the experience one that everyone in the family can enjoy. But most importantly, giving the gift of travel means more quality time with the people we love the most.

According to Brooke Tams of Gainesville, Florida, her family had to cancel their vacation to Colorado one year because her brother was on a donor list to get a new liver. “Instead my parents decided to fly everyone out to see him in Jacksonville where he was getting the surgery,” she says. “It’s amazing what being together does for your soul.”

Travel takes us away from our norm and reminds us that the world is diverse and wonderful and big. It gives us more time with the people we love the most. And in the long run, it matters way more than the latest iPhone or gaming console. Doing stuff wins out over having stuff every day of the week.

Or at least, every Christmas.

What are your thoughts on the gift of travel? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below!

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About The Author

Hey I'm Mandy. Writer, traveler, wife, mother, author, woman, over-sharer. I like to talk about the grit of travel, the beautiful, and the people that I meet. Oh yeah - and traveling with kids.