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Enjoying the whirlpool spa at Hotel Astoria in Bled, Slovenia

A Christmas list worth wishing for: 10 ideas for experience gifts

It might be an unpopular opinion, but I’m personally not a fan of the Christmas gift-giving tradition.

I used to love everything about Christmas. As a child, I would count down the days in anticipation. I loved the family get-togethers, setting up the Christmas tree, the festive foods, receiving and sending seasonal cards, and the exchange of gifts with loved ones.

Fast forward to adulthood, and that excitement slowly morphed into something else… something that included a feeling of dread for the upcoming holidays. It happened slowly, over many years, as I became more of a minimalist and placed increasing value on life experiences over consumer products.

I started noticing all the advertisements that encourage holiday spending, especially those that focus on ‘stocking stuffers’ or ‘Secret Santa’ gifts. The concept of buying shit just to stuff a stocking or exchanging worthless junk with co-workers makes me cringe; it seems like such a huge amount of unwanted crap that often ends up carelessly discarded.

I am still very fond of many aspects of the Christmas holiday–it’s just the consumerism that comes with it that I can’t stand anymore. The waste that ends up in landfill, whether it be from unwanted gifts, excess packaging, mountains of wrapping paper, or food that doesn’t get eaten, is not healthy. It all contributes to increasing levels of pollution on the ground and in our atmosphere.

Now I’m not saying that we should all stop spending money at Christmastime and forego gift-giving completely. Personal relationships can be nurtured from continuing this tradition. But we need to do it more carefully, with a mindful approach that focuses on sustainability and our environmental impact. This is why I’ve encouraged my family members to start giving me experiences whenever my birthday or Christmas comes around.

Experiences are more eco-friendly than physical products, and they make meaningful Christmas gifts. When I think back on all the things I’ve received over the years, experience gifts are the ones that I treasure the most. They create memories that last far beyond the lifespan of a material possession.

Here are some tried-and-tested experience gift ideas that are guaranteed to be a hit this Christmas!

Skydive Zone, New Zealand
The location of my skydive in New Zealand

1. Give a travel experience

In the past I’ve asked my family for travel experiences instead of physical gifts, and these experiences are always things that remain in my memory for years after. It works especially great as a gift when Rob and I have upcoming trips planned!

Some of the travel gifts I’ve received are a brewery tour in NYC from my brother, and a skydive in New Zealand from my parents. My family love knowing that they’ve helped to make my trips extra special!

2. Give a local activity voucher

For my brother’s birthday this year, I asked if he wanted a voucher for any activities in Hobart to support local businesses during the pandemic. He requested a voucher for a nearby ‘escape room’ experience, which I thought was a fab idea! In the past I’ve had some success using the Australian website RedBalloon to discover interesting activities, or you could look up ideas on the local tourism website.

Most people will have an activity that they’ve been meaning to try but haven’t gotten around to doing, so you can ask your gift recipients if they have any thoughts. Maybe there’s a museum or gallery they’d like to visit, or a day cruise on a local river that they want to do? How about a street art tour of their neighbourhood, or entry to a wellness day spa? The possibilities are endless!

A tiny house in the Snowy Mountains, NSW, Australia
Staying at a tiny cabin in the NSW Snowy Mountains, Australia

3. Give an accommodation voucher

As someone who has lived in major cities since 2012, I’m a huge fan of escaping the crowds and concrete every few months for a weekend nearer to nature. Why not give your friends/family members a hotel voucher to spend on a luxe getaway? They could find a tiny cabin in the mountains (which is exactly what Rob and I did for our anniversary this year!) or book a beachside retreat for a few days by the seaside. I’m pretty sure there’s no-one who wouldn’t love to receive this as a gift!

4. Give a restaurant voucher

When Rob and I were living in NYC, one of our friends back home in Australia gifted us a voucher for a fancy vegetarian restaurant nearby. It was so nice to go out and eat a meal at a place that we may not have visited otherwise. Since then, I’ve given numerous family members restaurant vouchers as gifts!

Alternatively, you could give a cooking class if your giftee is into this kind of thing. It would be especially nice if they haven’t tried making a specific type of cuisine, like Thai curries or Italian pasta.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child showing in Melbourne, Australia
The theatre where we saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in Melbourne, Australia

5. Give tickets to a performance, show, or event

There have been multiple occasions where I’ve asked family members to purchase tickets for a show I want to see. Going to see a Broadway-style musical is one of my favourite things to do for a special occasion. My brother and sister-in-law also gifted me tickets for a circus-style performance one time, which was interesting because it was the kind of event that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

It doesn’t have to be just musicals and shows–tickets to movie theatres or outdoor cinemas, music performances, or sports games make great gifts. There are a huge number of choices in this category! Take a look through local event websites to find events happening in the area nearby. I sometimes use the Australian Ticketek or Eventbrite websites (or their international equivalents) to get ideas, or you can use TicketNetwork to search for theatre, sports, or concert tickets throughout the US.

6. Give digital games

For my Dad’s birthday this year, my brother and I chipped in to get him some car racing games that could be downloaded from the internet straight to his computer. Mum reported that he spent a lot of time in his study playing the games during the pandemic, so it was a successful gift! My bro was the expert for buying digital games and he used a website called Steam to find some good options, which also offers gift cards. This would be an especially good idea for a teenager or someone who likes spending a lot of time at home.

Perisher ski lift, NSW, Australia
Skiing at the NSW Snowy Mountains, Australia

7. Give a course, class, or lesson

How about giving a course or class (either online or in their local area) for someone who wants to learn a new skill? My brother and I did this for our Mum when she was learning photography and wanted to know how to properly use her new DSLR camera. We gifted her a session with a local photographer, and she loved it so much that she immediately booked a second lesson for herself and her friends!

Another one that I’ve had for this category is when my family chipped in for a ski lesson for my two nephews while we were on a family trip to Queenstown. The oldest one had such a great time learning to slide down the kiddy slopes that he has continued asking to go on another ski trip… and it’s been over a year since he did this! Even though he was only five years old at the time, it definitely made an impact. I think this proves that experience gifts work great for children, too.

If you can’t think of something in this category that your giftee might want to do in person, another option is to give them a gift voucher for digital classes on websites such as CreativeLive or Skillshare. This means they can choose the course that they want to take, and complete it at a time that suits them.

8. Give digital subscriptions

I’m not just talking about paying for Netflix (though I’m sure that would make some people very happy!). A subscription gift can be something thoughtful, like a few months of Headspace (my favourite meditation app) or an online magazine that aligns with the person’s interests. There are endless options for subscription services these days.

Flying over the Rocky Mountains in Colorado
Flying over the Rockies in Colorado

9. Give carbon offsets

I’m a huge fan of carbon offsets. For those of you who haven’t heard of this term before, carbon offsetting is basically paying a company (usually a not-for-profit) to invest in taking carbon back out of the atmosphere. This can be done in many ways, but it’s sometimes done by planting trees or investing in green energy technology to reduce emissions in the future.

Rob and I donate some of our tax return money every year to Carbon Neutral Fund–a carbon offsetting program in Australia–to account for any emissions that we might have made throughout the year (including from our flights). This would make a great gift for anyone who travels a lot and also cares about their environmental impact.

10. Give a charity gift

My brother and I often do a charity gift exchange for our birthdays, and it’s honestly one of my favourite things to receive! We let the other person choose a charity for their gift. The knowledge that an organisation which is doing good work for humanity or the earth is getting monetary help makes me feel super warm and fuzzy inside!

The other way you can do a charity gift is by giving the person money and allowing them to donate it in any way they want. My parents gave Rob and I money for our birthdays this year, so we decided to use it for food supplies to fill a local community pantry in Newtown which offers free groceries to people who are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. The people running the pantry were really grateful and it felt good knowing that we were helping those who might have been going through a tough time instead of buying something for ourselves.

So there you have it. These 10 ideas for experience gifts are sure to please, and many can be purchased last-minute without you having to venture into a crowded shopping centre (heck yeah!).

What experience gifts are you giving your family and friends this year?

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