The Giant List of Experience Gift Ideas (to give instead of physical gifts)

Full Disclosure: some of the links in this post are for affiliate sites.  These are links that–if you make a purchase–I get a small commission but at no additional cost for you.  I take my recommendations very seriously and I want you to know that I will never recommend something that I haven’t tried-and loved.


Why you should give experiences instead of material gifts

Oh, the memories from childhood of tearing into my newspaper-wrapped gifts–both on my birthday and on Christmas morning.  The frenzy and fun I had! But wait…..I just realized that all I can remember from those days was the actual activity of unwrapping;  I cannot actually remember most of the gifts I received when I was young. Sure, I still remember the year I got a mountain bike for my birthday–but mostly because of all the amazing places I went on it and the people I rode with.  But other than that, I can’t remember any other stand-out gifts. Unfortunately, it still seems to be the convention for most major holidays and birthdays to buy a material gift that–chances are–won’t be remembered years later. Thankfully, recent research has started to show some of the benefits of giving experience gifts instead of material ones.  

The Research

In this study by Cornell University, the happiness that one gets from an experience far outweighs that of happiness from material gifts because of one key factor: the experience belongs wholly to ourselves.  Take, for example, if you and your friend both decide to buy a camera. You choose a model that fits your needs and budget and you are happy with it–until you see your friend’s camera. Now, you are filled with doubt about your choice and anxiety about what could have been if you had purchased that other model. Conversely, when you spend money on experiences, it is impossible that someone will experience exactly the same feelings or have the same memories as you. Even if you both went to the same place with the same itinerary, the experiences–and ultimately the feelings and perceptions of the experiences–will still be wholly individual to each person.

This leads to the next point about giving experience gifts: they are often meant to be shared with the person you are giving it to.  This again–as explained above–creates longer-lasting happiness than a traditional gift would. The memory of doing something fun, exciting, or educational with someone you care about is one that sticks in the brain far longer than a material gift.  As I already said above, I cannot remember most of the gifts that my father gave me as a child, but I remember every single camping trip that he took us on, all the overnight fishing memories, and the time we went whitewater rafting through Yellowstone.    

Do it for the planet, yo!

Need another (environmentally-friendly) reason to give experiences instead of material gifts?  Well, not to worry, I’ve got one! According to a recent survey, people in the US give an estimated $16 billion on gifts that are just pitched out. Take a minute to absorb that and make sure you didn’t misread that.   $16 BILLION. In addition to that amount of waste being dumped into our nation’s dumps, you can also think about the 277,000 miles of wrapping paper that the UK threw away just this past holiday season (as a comparison, the moon is, on average, 238,855 miles away).  Finally, as expats, we need to consider the emissions cost of any material gifts that we send to our families from our hosts countries.  Even if you are not living abroad, imagine the emissions and carbon cost of all of the online shopping parcels you ordered.

So, what can we do to combat the excessive waste surrounding traditional-gifting without seeming like a miserly grump?  Why, you can buy experiences for your loved ones instead! Below, I’ve compiled a list of experience ideas that you can give as gifts.  Now, on to the list!

  • Event tickets

This first one on the list is probably an easy one to come up with on your own.  This category, of course, includes concert, cinema, and sporting event tickets, but be sure to think outside of the box as well.  Check your local area to see if there are any theater shows, ballets, museum exhibitions, city tours, drag brunches, or adult-ball-pit-with-bottomless-Prosecco nights (this was an actual event that I SOOOOO wanted to attend in London.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it. Next time!).

  • Classes

For the loved ones in your life that love to learn (or when you want to buy a gift for yourself), consider buying them some classes.  Now, I know that sounds a bit dull when said like that, but this could mean things like salsa dancing classes, photography classes, Spanish language classes, or even French cooking classes.  Most cities have at least a few classes (some of them may even be free!) but if you live in an area where the classes that you or your loved ones want to take aren’t available, check out some classes online!  My personal favorite site for online classes is SkillShare. I have been using this site for about six months now; my list of classes to watch is so long! The best thing about SkillShare is that you can try it out for free first.  

  • Travel

For those of you that like to travel with your loved ones or have loved ones that like to travel but can’t often go, give them the gift of travel!  This can mean credit towards flights (but whenever possible, we all use ground transportation, right??), accommodations, or even paying for rail passes as a gift.  When I travel, I usually use (if I am going to use a hotel-but they’ve got all different types of accommodations) or (for when I stay places longer term and want a home-away-from-home).  I know that I would ADORE anyone that got me vouchers or credit with either of these two websites.  (Eh? Mom? Dad?? Any takers???? Bummer……)

As a side note, now that we are on the topic of Airbnb and experience gifts, be sure to check out the experiences and tours available in your local area (even if you aren’t traveling)!  These are usually inexpensive, pay local people, and again, less wasteful than a material gift (If you are new to Airbnb, click my link to get up to $40 off of your homestay or up to $15 off of your experience or tour).  I have done the local experiences in London and two in Mexico and had amazing experiences during each of them!

Other ways to contribute to your loved ones travel expenses could be in the way of gift certificates (online of course–no gift cards) that they can use in various restaurants or cafes during their travels.  This works best when the receiver will be traveling within the same country though. Some companies do not allow certificates or codes from one country to be used in another. I learned this the hard way with a Starbucks certificate that I received in Japan and tried to use in Korea.  

  • Pampering

Who doesn’t love getting pampered??  Pamper gifts are things like massages, manicures, pedicures, facials, make overs, and other spa-type services.  I know that some of these experiences can run a bit on the pricy side, but if you are lucky, you are in one of the countries worldwide that participates in Groupon–if this is the case, you can find inexpensive spa experiences there.  If not, check your local discount sites for deals–sites like Rakuten in Japan and gmarket in Korea sometimes have similar deals in their respective countries.

  • Outdoors

If you and your loved ones are outdoorsy types of people, you can give the gift of adventure!  Experience gifts in this category include things like camping/glamping trips, exploring new hiking spots, skiing, snowboarding, or other winter sports, fishing, surfing, SCUBA diving, whitewater rafting, or even going bouldering together (I know that it is winter in many places…if it is too cold to go outside for bouldering, get your loved one an indoor bouldering membership instead!).  Really, the list of outdoors and adventure types of experience gifts is endless and really is up to the person you are giving it to and what they like! 
This site
has loads of different experience gift ideas for the adventurer in your life.

  • Self-Improvement  (Fitness guides, cooking guides, self-improvement)

Now this category might not be for everyone.  Some people get really bent out of shape when they receive a gift that implies they aren’t perfect just the way they are and others would welcome a gift that means improving upon themselves.  Please make sure that you know the person you are giving this type of gift to would welcome it and not be offended by receiving a gift to get healthy. Once you are sure that the receiver won’t be offended, you are safe to proceed!  

Self-improvement covers many topics and can include things like the classes that were mentioned above, or fitness guides or programs, cook books, books or programs on relieving stress, meditation or yoga classes, memberships to clubs or other things.  Just to make sure that we are not adding any additional material waste to our dumps, I would highly encourage you to either get e-books or to use an online class or program whenever possible.   



This list is by no means an exhaustive list of all the types of experience gifts and I am always on the lookout for new gift ideas!  What are some of your favorite experience gifts to give and what are some ideas you have that aren’t on my list? Share in the comments!

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