“It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into the giving.”

~Mother Teresa

It’s the holy grail of the holiday shopping scavenger hunt. Finding that special gift, that something we know our friends and loved ones will really enjoy. We tell ourselves that we’ll know it when we see it, but the annual shopping journey – be it virtual or the brick-and-mortar kind – can be fraught with detours and dead ends.

For travel-loving friends and family, holiday gifts can be especially meaningful. Whether it’s bringing back that perfect present from our own travels or finding something at home, it’s a great feeling to connect with someone over a special destination.

I’ve put together some travel-themed ideas that I hope will be helpful as you embark on this year’s holiday shopping season. Some are gifts I’ve given or received; others are interesting possibilities that are worth checking out. They all share a common vision: Personal, creative and a little outside-the-gift-box thinking.

My Top Ten Travel-Themed Holiday Gift Ideas:

1. Honor a special place or experience.

Readers of this blog will know that I became slightly obsessed with penguins after spending time with them earlier this year in Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. I still think about those beautiful creatures, and I imagine other travelers feel the same way about their own special wildlife encounters. Organizations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and World Animal Protection safeguard animal populations throughout the world, preserving habitats and combatting cruelty. They offer a donation option to give a gift “in honor” of someone. IFAW’s “in honor” link can be found after clicking “Donate” and then “Other Ways to Give.” AWP’s “Please Donate” asks you to select your nearest country before giving a gift in someone’s honor.

The glorious King penguins of the Falkland Islands. 2017.

2. Donate to a museum or non-profit in someone’s honor.

If someone on your gift list has a favorite museum – art, science, history, anthropology – or concert hall, check out its website for an “in honor of” donation to the non-profit’s foundation. Or consider giving a one-year membership if the venue isn’t too far away. The opportunities for gift-giving are as varied as the organizations they benefit.

The Guggenheim offers a global membership that includes free admission to its museums in New York, Venice and Bilbao (above). 2016.

3. Donate to a destination’s building or expansion fund in someone’s honor.

For many years, Disneyland was our family’s favorite vacation spot. We’d make the six-hour drive from our home in the Bay Area and spend a couple of days soaking up everything the park had to offer. When Disney announced plans to open California Adventure, the company offered a chance to purchase a personalized paving stone that would be placed in the planned Esplanade between the two parks. I loved the idea of saying thank you for so many great memories and leaving a little piece of ourselves commemorating our time there. Disney sent us a certificate and map and a small wooden model of our brick that we still display on a bookcase shelf. I’ve noticed similar “buy-a-brick” programs at various locations in our travels, including a recent visit to California Tower in San Diego’s Balboa Park, where steps leading to the top of the tower are inscribed with donors’ names.

Our family’s Disneyland brick paver. 2002.

4. Seek out items that reflect someone’s favorite destination.

From coffee mugs to decorative pillows, travel destinations can be found on just about anything requiring a themed design. I’ve recently run across several that are especially intriguing for gift-giving. Grafomap.com creates custom map posters using “a highest quality print on the finest grade paper.” Type in a location, select the color and size and whether or not you want it framed. Award-winning travel and food blogger Jodi Ettenberg offers “food map” canvas tote bags that feature a typographic map of a country’s food arranged around that country’s shape. Jodi’s designs are available at her legalnomads.com website. A couple of years ago, I discovered a line of beautiful international “city plates” created by Los Angeles design firm notNeutral. It was a great gift for commemorating a special city, and I especially liked the plates’ dual use as decorative art and serving platter.

We gave our daughter Emily these notNeutral city plates of New York City’s Central Park and San Francisco to commemorate special places she has lived. Each plate is packaged in a gift box and includes a legend that highlights city landmarks featured on the plate.

5. Look for special destination books – art books, coffee table books, guidebooks.

The Christmas following our trip to Paris, Herb gave me two beautiful books I still treasure – a charming collection of Paris scenes created in pen and watercolor and a coffee-table style art book of the Musée d’Orsay. I had wanted to bring home a book from the d’Orsay, but the weight alone would have wreaked havoc with my carry-on! A good place to look for special travel-related books is a museum’s online shop. And of course, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and local bookstores are also terrific resources.

Memories of Paris in a wonderful gift!

6. Find a meaningful travel ornament that reflects a place someone loves or hopes to visit.

One of my first posts for this blog was called On Souvenirs, an essay on my love of bringing back ornaments when I travel. No matter how many times I hang these little travel treasures on our tree, they always take me back to the places where I found them. I also love giving meaningful travel ornaments as gifts, but for places I haven’t visited, I’ve discovered an abundance of online sites that carry ornaments depicting just about every city, landmark and travel destination imaginable. A quick check on Google will lead to more options than are possible to list!

This gondola ornament I brought back from Venice – in all its souvenir plastic splendor – never fails to make me smile.

7. Pick out a map or poster designed to track where someone has traveled.

For people with stamp-filled passports or lofty travel dreams, a poster map for tracking their adventures might be the perfect gift. Available in several formats – pushpin, scratch-off, stickers – the maps are a creative way of combining wall art and travel planning. Brilliantmaps.com recommends a variety of poster maps, with links on where to purchase them.

Pushpin World Map for Tracking Travel - the modern postcard
Our friend Jay uses color-coded pins and flags on this map to mark the places he has been and where he hopes to travel.

8. Give the Maptia Manifesto.

The founders of online travel writing and photography website Maptia.com have created a “pledge” for how they believe traveling the world should be experienced. The manifesto is available in an artistic typographic design on tee-shirts, posters and tote bags. All proceeds support maptia.com’s vision of “inspiring and impactful storytelling.”

“I want to see the world, follow a map to its edges & keep going.

Forgo the plans, trust my instincts, let curiosity be my guide.

I want to change hemispheres, sleep with unfamiliar stars

And let the journey unfold before me.”

~Maptia Manifesto

9. Look for a digital photo frame or put together a special photo album.

Several years ago, our son Andrew gave us a digital photo frame for Christmas. It was a wonderful gift, but what made it really special was the memory card he included with it – photos he had taken on our trip to visit him when he lived in Hong Kong. It’s always fun when I walk past the table where the frame sits to see which photo is playing.

And although digital technology has forever changed the world of photography, I believe there will always be a place for photos we can hold in our hands. I love giving framed photos as gifts, and I also enjoy creating gift albums from a special trip, place or event. My favorite mini-album is Kolo‘s Noci. Its elegant book cloth covers are available in a range of colors, and each album comes with a grosgrain ribboned closure, space for 24 photos and a window in the front to place a picture that identifies what’s inside.

One of my Kolo Noci albums…the perfect size for gift-giving or keeping photos from a special place.

10. Give experiences instead of things.

“I want to spend my time and money on experiences, rather than things,” my friend Julie told me as she was describing plans for an upcoming African safari. That word really struck me. Experiences. It’s one of the main reasons we travel and one of the greatest gifts we can give our loved ones. I thought about all the experiences we’ve given our family over the years. The Disneyland guidebook with tickets tucked inside wrapped up like a present under the tree. Theater tickets to a Broadway show when we lived in Connecticut. And our most recent post-holiday family adventure, finding our way out of a San Diego escape room. The memories are as fresh and richly colored as if they had happened a moment ago.

Experiences offer the chance to spend time with the people we love…and that may be the most wonderful gift of all.


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