The Gift of Travel: Choosing Experiences Over Gifts

We’re a little over two weeks past Christmas and I’m wondering … now that the tinsel has settled and stockings are put away, how was your Christmas? More specifically, how many of the things that were purchased for the purpose of gift-giving are still giving pleasure, usefulness or entertainment?

The Christmas aftermath

That’s something that, as parents, Mike and I have struggled with over the last couple of years. We’ve never been big buyers, and we don’t have an extended family dynamic that encourages excessive gifting, and still we find ourselves in mid-January wondering how it all added up. Despite our valiant efforts to be mindful in our holiday shopping, it still seems like too much. It still feels as if some of the purchases were duds, left to collect dust or take up space until they move on to Goodwill or a garage sale.

This past Christmas we decided to go in a different direction: we would not be filling the space under the tree with gifts. In our family tradition, Santa delivers a special gift and fills the stockings. All the other presents come from Mom and Dad. Some years we tried the “Something you want, something you need, something you wear, something you read” tradition. Other years we tried to stick to a strict budget. As we’d reflect on Christmas weeks or months later, we always noticed the same thing. One or two gifts held their power as something beloved or useful, and the other gifts just drifted into the background with all the other stuff you accumulate but don’t love. Beyond the time and energy (neither of which are in full supply during the holidays) shopping for these gifts took, it just felt wasteful. And not good.

Inspired by Amy Clark of MomAdvice and her “Choose Your Own Adventure” travel package she and her husband put together for her kids last year, we decided that in lieu of gifts we’d put that money towards travel – and let Elena and Eli pick the trip. We sat down with them over Thanksgiving to let them know that there wouldn’t be the traditional pile of gifts under the tree this year. Santa would still visit, but Mom and Dad were planning a fun family gift instead. We left it at that and they seemed content.

In the meantime, Mike and I narrowed the myriad of possibilities to three different types of trips: New York City, Southern California, and a Caribbean Escape. Using Canva and PicMonkey, I created a “travel brochure” to present to the kids on Christmas morning. Inside a binder they found the ground rules (they had to come to an agreement on the trip together – NICELY, travel arrangements would be made once a destination was decided, specific trip excursions may be modified as plans were solidified, etc.) along with a description of each trip and the kinds of things we might do and see.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Binder Christmas Gift

I have to say, it seemed to go over very well. They read over all the trip details with great interest and took their time deciding. We had several discussions about the pros and cons of the different destinations. They quickly eliminated New York City from the running, but took two days to decide between California and the Caribbean. It was so interesting to observe them listening to and negotiating with each other (Elena was leaning toward California and Eli was keen on the Caribbean). For the most part, Mike and I stayed out of it, other than to offer some additional information we thought might help them make a decision. This was their gift, their trip, and we wanted them to have the final say. In the end, they agreed on Southern California.

We’re so excited to begin planning our trip! We think we’ll spend about a week there, concentrating on the Los Angeles/San Diego area. For those of you that have been, we’d love your advice and suggestions! There’s so much to decide. When is the best time to go? Do we visit Disneyland even if we’ve been to Disney World twice? Where should we stay? But this is just one of the many things I love about gifting travel over material things: beyond the time we spend together as a family on the actual trip, we’re spending lots of time together working through the planning process. It really is the gift that will keep on giving, long after the trip is over.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Binder Christmas Gift

I really hope this is a tradition we can continue. It blows my mind that Elena will be in high school this fall, and that we really only have four more years to easily travel as a family. I want to take advantage of this time as much as possible, and see the world with the people I love the most.

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  1. Tracy Barnhart says:

    What a fantastic idea! Your kids will remember the experience far more than random gifts. My sister & I decided to do the same for my birthday this past November (milestone bday). Instead of an expensive gift, we spent the week together wine tasting, sightseeing & simply just hanging out. It was fantastic.

    PS Really enjoy your blog. ?

  2. I would have thought Caribbean would win out easily. My wife and I are going to Puerto Rico at the end of March and I was amazed at how much there is to do relative to other more expensive options (Iceland/Portugal) we considered as well as past trips we’ve enjoyed (Costa Rica/Santa Fe). Was there something specific about SoCal that was the tipping point? I’m not a (7?) yo boy or (13?) yo girl though.

    • I think Elena played the Disneyland card. I also overheard her reasoning with Eli that the Caribbean only has the beach, but California has the beach and all these other things we can do. Elena has been begging to see Hollywood for quite some time now, so I think her persuasive skills won out in the end. Mike and I spent a day and a half in San Juan before heading out on a cruise a few years ago and absolutely loved it. You’ll have a fantastic time!

  3. Fwiw, flights were ~$450 and 1-2 BR condos were ~$150/night. Activities we are considering: caving, rain forest (waterfall/lookout tower) hike, zip line/rappelling tour, old San Juan, rainforest ATV tour, the San Juan Fort, kayaking and snorkeling, plus beach time. We are also doing a food tour and a spa half day, but idk how appealing that is for kids.

  4. “…and we don’t have an extended family dynamic that encourages excessive gifting..”
    Oh, you can gift me anytime sister-in-law! Love you and the article!

  5. I love San Diego! One of my favorite places to stay happens to be in San Diego… look up Paradise Point ( I really want to go back soon! Hope you guys have a fantastic trip!


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