Pick, Click, Gift: E-Gifting for the Traveler

Taking a cue from the wedding and baby industries, e-gifting and online registries have started heating up the travel market just in time for the holidays. Airlines, tour operators and other travel-oriented companies have made giving the gift of travel as simple as a few mouse clicks.

By offering e-gift cards, e-mail friendly gift certificates and online registries for money, miles and even specific trips, E-gift options are a quick, convenient solution to the annual dilemma of what to buy – and, considering the $30 billion in gift cards that goes unused every year, according to some estimates -- they’re far more likely to be used by the recipients because they’re tailored to their specific travel interests and needs.

Here, some e-gift ideas for the travelers on your shopping list – no wrapping required.

For the Weekend Jetsetter: Most frequent flyer programs have long since allowed members to share miles, but recently at least two – Continental and U.S. Airways – have officially introduced gift registries for travel on their airlines. Continental’s has a contribution minimum of $25, and U.S. Airways’ program allows users to easily link to social media accounts, as well as send mileage requests via e-mail. And while buying a ticket outright is often cheaper than purchasing miles, periodic deals offering double mileage and the like are a good time to take advantage. Alternately, several airlines, including Southwest, JetBlue and American, sell virtual (and plastic) gift cards. Most cards do not expire or diminish in value if the card goes unused, even for years, though there’s often a two-three day period before it’s activated. Despite its recent Chapter 11 filing, American has announced on its website that it’s still “continuing to sell and honor AA Gift Cards as usual.”

For the Urban Adventurer: Your best friend may have lived in San Francisco since college, but has she ever taken a ghost tour of Chinatown? With to FunSherpa.com, you can gift any of 2,000-plus activities in 12 cities across the country, from the conventional (a SoHo shopping tour in New York) to the crazy (a pole-dancing class in Dallas). Activities are conveniently grouped by city or category (“Winter,” “Gourmet” or “Under $100,” just to name a few) and ready to gift via e-mail or, for a small fee, physical shipping. In addition, givers can specify the amount of a gift and let the recipient pick their own activity. Based in Chicago, FunSherpa.com was launched around the 2008 holiday season and shifted its focus to gifting in 2009. Since then, it’s seen a marked shift in its client base from corporate gifting to individuals buying gifts for friends or family, says founder Anton Dy Buncio. “It’s an easy way to give a very thoughtful gift,” Dy Buncio says. “We see sales all the way up through Christmas Day.”

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For the Trip Organizer: Launched in the fall, San Francisco-based travel planning and gifting website MyTab.co has several layers of functionality that can help cut time and annoyances for travelers. But for the social coordinators who always seem to find themselves taking the reins of group trip planning, the site’s ability to create a centralized location for correspondence and exchanging money is a sanity-saver. No more long e-mail chains, no more wondering who owes whom how much: The site, which works in conjunction with PayPal, Expedia, and Facebook, allows users to easily book the same flight and hotel and aggregates information like trip reminders. Plus, its financing functionality allows users and non-users to gift money, helping offset the cost of a particular trip. Company founder Heddi Cundle said the site will eventually expand to include car rentals and other travel services, as well as coordinate discounts with its partners on specific trips.

For the Student Traveler: It’s never too early to start thinking about Spring Break, but users on Dallas-based STA Travel, the world’s largest student and youth travel agency, have already started backing up their daydreaming with actual dollars via the company’s online Travel Registry. It targets high school and college graduates who need some financial help to supplement their journeys, whether that’s a Spring Break getaway or a loftier travel ambition such as spending a semester as an exchange student in Thailand. Members create a profile page with personalized photos, images and info about their upcoming trip and break down expenses, such as airfare or rail tickets, into specific increments, some as low as $5, for generous souls to purchase with their credit card. Funds generated are stored in accounts with Bank of America and Wells Fargo and are accessible for two years (members are charged a 7 percent fee, however). There’s even a function that keeps track of donors’ contact info for follow-up – but it’s up to the student to write the thank-you card.

For the Altruistic Armchair Traveler: Tour operator Intrepid Travel, a pioneer in cultural and responsible travel, offers adventure-minded trips to 160 countries on all seven continents. But for people on your list who are better at imagining journeys to exotic destinations than actually taking them, the Intrepid Foundation, the organization’s global charity, has a gift idea that’s guaranteed to spread goodwill: its Global Gift program. Available in amounts from $10 to $160, each “gift” goes toward a specific need for 13 of Intrepid’s global projects, from providing a Braille cane for a child in Tibet to a year’s education for a child in Vietnam. Each comes in a printable, e-mail friendly format with a photo and description of how the donation will change lives. In addition, the Intrepid Foundation matches every gift card, dollar for dollar (and doesn’t press those who purchase gifts for repeat donations). “I think for a lot of people Christmas has become really commercialized, and this is a way for people to take it back to what it’s supposed to be,” says Eliza Anderson, spokesperson for the Intrepid Foundation.

For the Spa Lover: SpaFinder, the online spa-travel giant, makes the gift of wellness as simple as a few mouse clicks with its Spa Gift Certificates. They’re accepted at more than 6,000 spas all over the world, and recipients can use them for any treatment they choose. Gift-givers who still like the idea of a box and bow should take advantage of the free shipping and gift box offer, which is available on all purchases of $50 or more and is good through Dec. 12. Personalized gift certificates to e-mail or print are also available.