Why Experiences are the Best Gifts

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Gifts for Travelers

As many of you probably know, I’ve been dating the vivacious and gorgeous Richelle from Adventures Around Asia for around six months now. With her 26th birthday falling over the weekend, I wanted to do something special to commemorate the occasion.

It can often be hard to think of the right gift for a full-time traveler. They don’t want the same clutter and gadgets that they might want if they had a house and weren’t on the road for most of the year.

While both Richelle and I have our apartments here in Beijing, we both know that China isn’t home for a whole lot longer, so it didn’t make sense to buy her something she’d have to sell, ship home, or leave behind when it came time to hit the road again.

With that in mind, I decided to take a page from her own book and give the gift of an experience rather than a traditional gift.

A Beijing Christmas Tour

We’d only been dating for a month or two when I visited Richelle last December, but she’d gone out of her way to plan a joint Christmas/birthday Beijing experience for me.

Shrugging off the bitterly cold Beijing day, we ventured out for what would be the day that really confirmed for me that Beijing would someday be my home.

After a delicious brunch at Cafe Zarah with her roommates, we embarked on a day of exploring that included wandering around the partially frozen Houhai Lake, visiting a local Christmas market, making friends at her favourite cat cafe, eating delicious Sichuan food at Zhang Mama, and finishing it all off with an alcoholic Rager Pie pie-shake.

It was a wonderful day spent with somebody I was already more than a little smitten with, and all the more memorable as a gift because it was a day of memories rather than a simple object I’d put in my room.

A Romantic Beijing Birthday Weekend

When Richelle’s 26th birthday came around, I decided I wanted to replicate the experience of spending a day (or two) together rather than me simply trawling Taobao for gift ideas.

With that in mind, I concocted a three part surprise:

  1. Book a room for her at The Orchid, a wonderful hutong boutique hotel with amazing brunch;
  2. Construct a delicious picnic basket with a little help from Bubba’s Deli;
  3. Get a driver out to a wild section of the Great Wall where we could have a picnic.

The plan went better than I expected. The Orchid gave us a complimentary bottle of wine, we visited a local foreign grocer to compliment our delicious treats from Bubba’s, and the section of the Great Wall we went to ended up being ridiculously private.

I mean, so private that we didn’t encounter another soul and our driver informed us we were the first people he’d ever known to tackle it.

For those curious, the section is called Shuicheng (Water Wall) and it was insanely difficult. More ruin than wall, really.

It made for one hell of a picnic spot, though.

Why I Love Experiential Gifts

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with giving a genuine gift.

I bought Richelle a pair of Tanzanite earrings back from Tanzania last year, and I always go just a bit crazy buying gifts for my siblings, parents, nephews, and niece every Christmas.

But when it comes time to buy a gift for a traveling type, I’ll always go down the experience route.

It saves them space and it plays into their own love of collecting unforgettable experiences and fascinating tales.

In this case, we were able to stay at a hotel Richelle had always wanted to stay in and recreate our first Great Wall Picnic that kind of acted as the ‘sign’ that we were going to progress from being friends to being something more.

It’s tacky as hell, I know, but it was a really fun way to celebrate her birthday together.

Tips for Planning Your Own Gift Experience

There are any number of reasons why you might wish to give the gift of an experience rather than a tangible gift:

  • The person you’re buying for leads a location independent lifestyle;
  • The person is one of those “the person who has everything” types;
  • You’re in different countries and you want to avoid crazy postage costs;
  • You can’t think of anything they’d want or need etc. etc.

Whatever the reason, the gift of an experience is one of those things that will not only stand out at the time, but will also linger long after a bouquet of roses, a box of chocolates, or a pair of socks has exhausted its use.

Here are my tips for planning your own gift experience:

  1. Do your research

    It pays to not only know the person you’re buying the gift for, but also to do your research on the area you’re shopping in and the activities you’re looking for.

    I can’t give you tips on how to better get to know the important people in your life, but Google and reading travel blogs centered on your area of interest can be invaluable in planning your gift.

    I read a number of Beijing blogs ahead of planning this recent gift, and did the same when I was trying to find a romantic Chiang Mai cooking class back in 2013.

  2. Don’t be afraid to improvise

    If you’re based abroad, you probably already know how difficult it can be to get things just as you’d like them.

    When planning our Great Wall Picnic, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get all of the ingredients I’d want to do the meal the way I might have at home.

    I had to use sunflower seed crackers instead of bagels for the smoked salmon, herb cream cheese instead of lox, goat cheese instead of a sharp cheddar to accompany the strawberries, a moscato instead of a prosecco, and fingers instead of utensils.

    These improvisations don’t need to feel like a cheap cop-out. If anything, the effort you’ll go to in finding alternatives will be all the more endearing.

  3. Ask for advice

    Don’t be afraid to ask for a little advice in planning your surprise.

    Whether you’re going to their friends or family to ask for some insight or you’re reaching out to your hotel to get a little extra guidance, you’re going to be glad you did.

    I emailed back and forth with The Orchid ahead of the trip to arrange some extra picnic ingredients and to also get their help in facilitating the ‘surprise check in’ after our usual brunch.

  4. Use a service

    Don’t have the time or the ideas for yourself? You’d be surprised how many sites exist out there who do all of the work for you.

    In Australia, Everything But Flowers is a great service that can arrange anything from an afternoon cooking class to a multi-day excursion to some of the most beautiful places in Australia.

    They also do some inventive gifts of the more tangible variety, if you’re looking for ideas on that front.

Your Say

Have you ever given the gift of an experience? What were your successes and failures?

Have you ever received an unforgettable experience as a gift?

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