Put down that garish sweater and the goofy gag gift. Back away from that useless kitchen gadget. It may be mid-December, but there's still time to find great presents for the frequent travelers on your list. Here are some great last-minute gift ideas:
1. Airline gift cards and gift certificates:Most every airline website has a section with gift certificates for sale in you-decide denominations that can start as low as $10 (Southwest Airlines www.southwest.com) and ratchet all the way up to $10,000 (Continental Airlines www.continental.com). Delivery methods vary: some airlines will announce your gift with a cheery e-mail message while others provide a downloadable gift certificate or a list of shipping options that can range from overnight to two weeks. Be sure to read the fine print about restrictions on use and expiration dates; some certificates cannot be used for certain fares or upgrades, and while most certificates have no expiration date, some must be used within a year.
If money is no object and the travelers on your list have been very, very good, then consider a Holiday DreamCard from the folks at Halcyon Jets (www.halcyonjets.com). The company is offering a gift card for $5M (yup, five million dollars) good for single or round-trip travel on a private jet anywhere in the world. The service comes with a personal concierge, who can not only assist with any conceivable travel-related need, but also help you dream up an imaginative way to deliver the sky-is-the-limit gift on short notice. "What about a 50-foot banner announcing the gift being towed at 2000 ft. above your home on Christmas morning?" says company CEO Jonathan R. Gilbert, "Or how about having the card presented aboard a private jet headed for a romantic surprise holiday getaway? Or fly it into your living room on a model airplane?"
2. Airline club memberships or day passes:For those not privy to private jet travel, airline club lounges promise travelers a little bit of peace and quiet, along with free drinks and snacks, comfortable chairs and a place to get some work done. Club memberships cost between $150 and $500, depending on the buyer's status with the airline, but many airlines clubs also sell day passes ($25 — $50) that a traveler can keep tucked inside a briefcase or wallet as insurance against a frustrating day hanging around an airport. To purchase, check airline websites or stop by an airport club room.
3. Emergency kits:Like seatmates, emergencies come in all sizes. A tiny but mighty travel flashlight, a stash of great chocolate or first-aid supplies, a phone card, a dual-voltage immersion coil or a universal cell-phone recharger are among the "just in case" gifts that can save a life or salvage a disastrous day on the road.
4. Travel-sized toiletries:The upside of the 3-ounce limit on containers of liquids and gels at airport security checkpoints is that toiletries need to be replaced more often. You can fill a few fresh quart-sized zip-top bags with small bottles of intriguing, upscale potions and lotions or consider letting the folks at www.minimus.biz make up and ship a kit for you. The company specializes in travel-size items and recently introduced a product-filled Carry-On Caddy specifically designed for security checkpoint use. Electronic gift-certificates and FedEx shipping is available.
5. Privacy:Travelers who spend a lot of time in busy airports and on crowded airplanes can shut the out the racket, for a bit, with noise canceling headphones. Look for them in many airport shops and on-line for $50 to $350.
6. Directions: Cookie-cutter hotels, airports and conference centers can leave even a GPS-equipped traveler disoriented. That's why paper maps are still around. Order a new or old map from Maps.com, www.maps.com (get a 20% discount with the Holiday20 promotion code), or consider an easy-to-pack multi-purpose map printed on a silk handkerchief or scarf from the folks at Silk Road Marketing (www.microsoie.com.) Check the websites for fast shipping options.
7. Travel treats:Gift cards are easy for you to buy and deliver and even easier for frequent travelers to keep stashed in a wallet for that rainy, or more likely, snowy day when schedules go wacky. You can't go wrong if you choose a card for a food or merchandise vendor such as Starbucks, McDonalds or Barnes & Noble, with branches in multiple airports.
8. Truly last minute options:If you've left your holiday shopping to the very last moment and yourself at an airport after all stores have closed, you may still be able to shop. Just look for a vending machine.
ZoomMachines in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, Indianapolis and Minneapolis-St. Paul airports dispense skincare products from Proactiv and Elizabeth Arden and electronic gadgets and accessories from Apple and Sony. At Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport, there's even an automated Shop24 stocked with gift bags and wrapping supplies, so no one needs to know how much of a last-minute shopper you really are.
9. In a pinch:Sometimes the best gifts are the ones you make yourself. Frequent travelers might appreciate a book of vouchers good for rides to or from the airport. And a novice traveler might cherish a certificate for on-call trip planning assistance.
Harriet Baskas writes about travel etiquette for MSNBC.com and is the author of Stuck at the Airport.
Have you found a great last-minute gift for the travelers on your list? Share your discoveries: