-- It's been quite a few holiday seasons since the economic news was so grim, and undoubtedly many Americans will be cutting back on their travel budgets. This presents an opportunity for you to deliver the perfect gift for family and friends: the world. Or at least a little part of it, through travel gift cards, certificates, and coupons.
There is an array of gift options for a wide variety of travel products, and many major travel suppliers offer such gifts right on their websites. However, each comes with certain rules, restrictions, and caveats. So it pays to educate yourself before you add travel to your holiday shopping list.
You don't always have to buy gift certificates directly from the travel company, since they're often available from banks, rewards programs and other institutions. Third-party gift sites offer products for many companies, including major travel brands. GiftCertificates.com, for example, sells certificates for household-name airlines, hotels, vacation packagers, cruise lines, car rental firms, and travel sites.
Other travel certificates might be transferred or resold; last week I spotted an Avis gift card on craigslist. But beware of buying such certificates second-hand, since travel suppliers may not redeem them in certain cases. You also need to be particularly careful about redeeming with certain franchised travel companies—such as some hotel chains and car rental firms—since rules can vary from location to location. Many travel blogs contain horror stories from consumers who were told their gift certificates were invalid.
Many larger carriers will be happy to sell you certificates you can wrap as presents this holiday season. Each card carries its own caveats so it pays to learn about the fine print on policies such as expiration dates. Also, redemption rules may or may not allow purchases of products other than air travel, such as access to airport lounges.
American Airlines offers gift cards in any denomination between $50 and $1,500, and the recipient can use up to eight cards for one ticket purchase on flights originating in the U.S., Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. The good news is there's no fee and they carry no expiration dates. You can choose either a plastic card for mailing or an electronic card for e-mailing. If you select the priority shipping option, order by Dec. 17th for arrival by Christmas. Details at aa.com.
In addition to selling certificates to purchase tickets, some airlines also allow you to purchase frequent flier mileage as gifts. For example, Delta charges "$0.0275 USD per mile plus a 7.5 percent federal excise tax" (which also gives you some idea of the monetary value of your miles); learn more at delta.com.
United even allows you to purchase a year of extra legroom for a loved one: An Economy Plus annual gift subscription costs $349, and includes companions traveling on the same itineraries; learn more at store.united.com. In addition, United offers a one-year Red Carpet Club membership for its airport lounges for $500.
Here's a brief rundown on what other major domestic carriers offer:
• Continental not only sells gift certificates, it even provides a gift registry so would-be recipients can let their family and friends make deposits into their "TravelBank" accounts; more at continental.com.
• Delta sells gift certificates that can be used for air travel as well as purchasing Crown Room Club memberships at delta.com.
• Northwest sells WorldPerks miles, gift certificates for air travel, and gift cards for NWA World Vacations at nwa.com. (Although Northwest is merging with Delta, that process is expected to take up to two years so for those who live near Northwest hubs, it can still make sense to purchase NWA gift certificates.)
• Southwest offers the southwestgiftcard, which allows users to monitor remaining funds on the card online; more information at southwest.com.
• US Airways promises volume discounts and free shipping for corporate orders on its airline gift card, which can be purchased at some Walgreen's stores as well as online at usairways.com.
Hotels and vacation packages
Many hotel chains offer gift certificates, though not all properties participate in such programs so you need to inquire in advance. If you're staying overseas, generally the current exchange rate will be used to calculate credit.
Among the major brands offering some sort of gift card are Marriott, which customizes certain cards for dining, spa, golf, or wedding themes at gifts.marriott.com; Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which offers gifts all the way up to $100,000 at fourseasons.com; and Hyatt, which allows recipients to use gift cards at restaurants or lounges even if they are not hotel guests; details at certificates.hyatt.com.
BedandBreakfast.com offers Getaway Gift Cards from $25 to $1,000 that are redeemable at nearly 4,000 B&Bs in the U.S. and Canada and carry no blackout or expiration dates. The site recommends purchasing two weeks prior to Christmas to ensure on-time delivery. They can be bought at a variety of stores nationwide or directly at bedandbreakfast.com.
If you'd like to provide more variety, Travelocity Hotel Gift Cards are redeemable at more than 55,000 properties and they're available in denominations of $25, $50, $100, or $500. Particularly convenient is that for a $4.50 fee, you can complete the whole process online, from choosing the design (though be warned: most feature that little gnome guy) to printing out a greeting card that is ready to be mailed. Details at leisure.travelocity.com.
In addition to hotel certificates, Travelocity also offers gift certificates exclusively for its Last Minute Packages products that can be forward immediately via e-mail. Be sure the recipient will use the whole amount, however, since any refunded "change" is provided as a new certificate that expires within one year. Find out more at lastminute.travelocity.com.
Then there's SpaFinder, which offers gift certificates in $25 increments up to $1,000, with a pricing guide that helps you determine average costs for a range of treatments. They can be redeemed at more than 5,000 spas worldwide for a variety of services. Further information is available at spafinder.com.
When it comes to the cruise sector, gift certificates and cards serve two key purposes: You can buy someone the cruise vacation itself, or offer them the gift of onboard credits to be used for spa treatments or at bars, restaurants or shops. Many travel agencies package cruise gifts as well.
Be particularly careful about buying such high-ticket items through third parties, since a slew of rules and exclusions apply. eCruises.com offers a gift certificate that is valid for two years but is "non-refundable, non-transferable and may not be stacked" so read the fine print at ecruises.com. Another option is CruiseBrothers.com, which offers gift certificates in any denomination.
In many cases, you can buy gift certificates directly from cruise lines as well. Royal Caribbean, for example, offers denominations ranging from $50 to $3,000. However, the recipient must use them prior to setting sail since they cannot be redeemed onboard.
When it comes to giving the gift of a car rental, be aware that some certificates are good only in the U.S., even when issued by rental firms with worldwide locations. There are other rules to keep in mind. For example, Budget's rental certificates can be issued in any amount, but the fine print includes this: "Once purchased, rental certificates—and any unused portion of the redeemed certificate—are not refundable." Learn more at budget.com.
Avis also has a lengthy list of rules. With gift cards, the company requires a 24-hour advance reservation and the card must be used at time of booking; in addition, a gift card can be used for only one rental. More information is available at avis.com.
Trains and buses
There are several options to consider:
• You can help a loved one short on cash ride the rails home for the holidays via an Amtrak Travel Certificate. They come in a variety of denominations: $50, $75, $100, $250, $500, and $1,000, though each carries a $5 fee. Remember, however, they can only be redeemed at a staffed station. More information at amtraktravel.ai-estore.com.
• You can assist someone on the highways as well, with Greyhound's Gift Ticket Orders and Prepaid Ticket Orders. The GTOs can be purchased online, and three hours later the receiver can pick up the ticket at the departure station. The PTOs can be bought at a bus station, so the ticket will be delivered to the recipient at another station that same day. Learn more at greyhound.com.
• Peter Pan Bus Lines offers more traditional gift certificates; they're available in denominations of $25 and can be purchased in several ways. If bought online, they'll be mailed within five business days, but if ordered by phone they're sent out the next day. If you need them immediately, you can pick them up in person at any Peter Pan ticket counter. As a bonus, every $50 purchase comes with a free priority boarding pass. Read all about them at peterpanbus.com.
Sites and attractions can make terrific gifts as well. You might want to consider CityPass, which covers 11 metropolitan regions in North America, from New York to Los Angeles and Toronto to Houston. Whether you're looking to send someone to the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower, the Seattle Aquarium or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, these booklets contain discounts that range up to nearly 50 percent. The Southern California pass bundles five theme parks and family attractions and knocks about $100 off the standard adult admission prices. You can order online and even choose the "festive red packaging option" with personalized gift card. Find out more at citypass.com.
Even some cities and regions offer gift cards that can be redeemed at multiple locations. But make sure you know what you're buying. The VEGAS.com card, for example, promotes its use for "hotel rooms, show tickets, tours, golf tee times, and nightclub passes" but even the FAQ section of the site doesn't list the participating hotels.