You see it on TV, a woman ripping open an envelope and breaking into smiles. "Two tickets to Hawaii!!" she gushes when her husband gives her the gift.
But is giving a trip for a gift in real life a good idea — or an expensive mistake?
"It would be heartbreaking to have a gift like this rejected," says Robin Weber Pollak, president of Journeys International tour company in Ann Arbor, Mich. But, yes, she has seen a few surprise gift trips actually work.
Once, a woman arranged a surprise trip to Costa Rica for her elderly mother who was dying of cancer, "fulfilling her mother's lifelong wish for an exotic adventure to see the ocean and rain forest," Weber Pollak said.
Another woman arranged, as a last-minute surprise, tickets for her husband to join a group trip to Israel, his dream destination. The couple had previously canceled because of family obligations, but the wife made sure her husband could go after all.
Many times, parents surprise their young children with family gift trips.
But to surprise an adult with such a gift is admittedly tricky.
"The gift givers have to have a good sense of the recipient's wishes," Weber Pollak said.
Not to worry. There are ways.
The trip that keeps on giving
The idea of giving a trip as a gift is a good one. People, especially millennials, increasingly value experiences over material possessions. Travel is recalled as an "extraordinary experience" just below life's milestones, according to a study on happiness done by researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania in 2013. More important, experiences like trips are far better remembered over time than are material comforts, and they get a rose-colored patina with the retelling of memories, found Cornell University researchers in a 2014 paper aptly titled "We'll Always Have Paris."
Message? Even a gift trip that doesn't go so well will eventually be remembered fondly.
"We can all give material things, but those things will break, or not be needed in the future, be forgotten or become obsolete," says Carol Burgess of Frisco, Texas. She and her husband gave their adult sons and their families a gift trip in 2007 to Las Vegas for a four-day vacation. The group of seven had good times mingled with minor mishaps: someone sprained an ankle, they could have used an extra car. But that trip is now a grand memory made even better by the hazy eight-year passage of time.
"All my kids still talk about the wax museum, the food, the New York New York roller coaster, the gambling, and even the ankle problem," she said.
Not one of them reminisces about the iPhones that Burgess once gave them as another gift.
Ellen Prebelich, owner of World of Travel in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., sells travel gift certificates at her travel agency. People can buy them in any amount, then give them to someone for airfare, hotel, cruise or toward a package trip.
"I actually just sold two $1,000 gift certificates to a company that gave them to employees who were retiring," she said. "One of them used it toward a trip to Hawaii, and the other one redeemed it for a weekend in Las Vegas. What a great way to kick off your retirement, right?" (And what a great employer, we can all agree.)
Kelly Warner of Saginaw, Mich., got a 40th-birthday gift trip from her mother, Mary Weaver: $2,500 toward anywhere she wanted to go. She thought about going to the Dominican Republic, then decided to use it to take her sister to Miami for five days of sun and fun instead.
Warner is grateful for her mother's gift and glad her mom left the trip destination and arrangements up to her.
"I was happy booking the trip. I knew the times of the flight, the type of room I wanted and where I wanted to stay. It was actually easier for me to book it; it would have been a hard surprise to pull off" had her mother made all the arrangements.
How to give a trip
How exactly can you properly give someone a trip, a honeymoon, cruise, passport, family vacation or airline ticket? It depends on the gift itself.
Giving someone a trip: Unless you are positive the person will go at a certain time and date, make your gift somewhat open-ended, or make sure they are able to change the reservations. One good way is to wrap up a travel guidebook or get a travel brochure and enclose your gift inside. The gift could be as simple as a letter explaining what you will pay for or an actual gift certificate, gift card or check.
Honeymoon: Many couples now are asking for pieces of their honeymoon as a wedding gift. Sites like honeyfund.com let you pay for things as specific as "shuttle ride from Paris airport to the hotel" or "entrance tickets to the Louvre." If you know a couple's destination, you also could get them a gift card for a great restaurant meal, spa appointment or watercraft rental. Some resorts like Sandals have their own gift registries.
Cruise: Unless you plan to surprise someone with cruise tickets you already bought, it is best to get a gift certificate from a travel agency or buy a gift card from a cruise line. Double-check the cost, because you don't want the person to be in the position of having only half the cruise paid for and being unable to afford the balance. If you want to take someone with you on a cruise, make sure they are available before you surprise them with the trip. Cruises generally are nonrefundable, and you can't change a passenger's name once booked.
Passport: This is a great gift for someone. A new passport costs $110. You can't actually get it for them, but you can download the forms from travel.state.gov and give them the money so they can get a passport, which is good for 10 years and can take them anywhere in the world.
Family vacation: If you are trying to surprise your children with a trip, make sure you leave a few of the decisions to them. Parents might decide on the destination — Disney or Colorado, for example, along with lodging and transportation — but let the children have a say on some of the activities to make them feel they are part of the planning fun. Some parents keep kids in the dark about where the family is going until that very day, but that robs the kids of the anticipation of going — which is half the fun of traveling.
Airline ticket: Yes, you can buy someone else an airline ticket. You also can use your frequent flier miles to buy someone else a ticket. Either way, probably, simply enclose a card with a handmade coupon explaining it. Otherwise, airlines sell gift cards that can be used toward tickets.
What kind of trips could you give? Here are five examples:
Multigenerational trip: Usually, you want to have everyone on board before booking this type of complex trip. It can be easier to have a company do all the detail work for you. One example is "Costa Rica Rainforest Adventures for Families"; seven days, $2,475 adults and $1,475 for those under age 12, not including airfare, Journeys International (journeysinternational.com, 1-800-255-8735).
International trip: These are often bucket-list trips that are certain to be memorable. One I can recommend that is reasonably priced and exciting is "12 Days in the Middle Kingdom" in China. It includes Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and other cities, $1,599 per person including airfare from San Francisco and three other U.S. cities (chinaspree.com, 1-866-652-5656).
Alaska cruise: Find a brochure or cut out a photo of a cruise ship and wrap it up, along with a Princess gift card for amounts up to $2,000 throughprincess.com.
Weekend getaway: Many bed and breakfasts have weekend packages, and you could pay for it and let the gift recipients choose their own weekend. Or get a gift card from bedandbreakfast.com. Right now you can get a free $20 gift card with a $100 gift card purchase.
Airline ticket: You can buy a ticket for someone else with your frequent flier miles. In addition, all airlines have gift cards. For example, the Delta Air Lines e-gift card or physical gift card can be purchased for amounts up to $1,000 at delta.com.