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Family Christmas Gift Ideas: Giving Experiences Rather Than Stuff

Coming up with fun and unique Christmas gift ideas year in and year out can be a challenge. For some stymied shoppers, it can even turn gift-giving — what should be a true joy of the season—into a tedious chore.

Recently, I decided I didn't want to buy my kids more stuff for Christmas. They already have toys and gadgets galore. And over the past few years, I've noticed that the Christmas morning thrill of finally getting the most coveted Christmas present on their wish list was fading fast  sometimes by our holiday dinner that evening.

So I focused last year's holiday planning on the best experience gifts instead of toys. I figured that focusing on family time would create more meaningful memories. In the months leading up to Christmas, I avoided the mall and skipped Black Friday. Instead, I shopped online for an experience, for a family gift idea.

On Christmas morning, my kids opened a letter from Santa. In it, he explained that we'd be leaving on a trip that very day. There were no Christmas presents to unwrap, but there were no tears, either. My kids were too excited about the adventure ahead — wrapped up as an experience gift to think about what they didn't get.

The cost of Christmas

U.S. parents spend an average of $330 per child on Christmas, according to a 2017 study by RetailMeNot. But even as we spend more, its not clear whether the outcomes we get are any more meaningful.

Trading pricey Christmas gifts for quality time might in the form of experience gifts may just improve your family's health and well-being. Studies have shown that kids who communicate with their parents tend to do better at school, and teenagers who actively spend time with their parents tend to have fewer behavioral problems.

Experience togetherness

Though some experience gifts for kids can be more expensive than the Nintendo Switch your 8-year-old might want, you don't necessarily need to spend more to make these experience gift ideas more meaningful. You can't place a dollar value on spending time together as a family or on the memories that will come from family experience gifts. Here are just a few ways to replace "stuff" on their Christmas list with family experiences:

Take a Family Trip

  • Maybe this year you can pass on the iPad or Xbox, which can cost upwards of $400, and instead take your family on a train ride, such as a scenic ride up the California coast. Traveling daily between Los Angeles and Seattle, the Coast Starlight train passes through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland.
  • If you're looking for something both peaceful and adventurous, pack up your family and head to the Treebones Resort in Big Sur, California, whre you can stay in a beachside yurt overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This idea is an amazing experience gift for men, women and children alike.
  • On the more budget-friendly side, you can give your children a field trip. Venture out to a zoo, a kid-friendly art museum or science center. If you enjoy your time together, buy a yearly family pass, so you can return month after month and extend the fun throughout the year.
  • In the months leading up to the holidays, ask the kids what destinations they might like to visit, then check rates on websites like Airfare Watchdog to find the best deals on family travel and be inspired for affordable, fun trip options. Once you book your flight, think about entertaining activities and games you can do together on the plane.

Buy Tickets to an Event

  • If your children have never seen a live stage production, add it to your Christmas list ideas. Some of the best shows from Broadway, such as Wicked, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, hit the road each year around the United States. Visit your local performing arts center to see what they have planned for 2019, or check out sites like Ticketmaster to see what shows might be coming to a town near you. This is one of the best experience gifts for aspiring performers.
  • Hit up a sporting event and let your family soak in all the action. Whether your kids are into professional hockey or college basketball, they will love the experience gift of tickets to see their favorite team or player compete.
  • Check out what concerts, comedians, art shows and more are headed your way in the months after Christmas and surprise your kid (or the whole family) with a cultural experience they will remember forever.

Try Something New

  • Give the gift of learning and pick up a new skill as family. Sign up the whole group for cooking classes (many Sur La Table stores offer family lessons), art classes or horseback riding lessons. If you live close to water, scuba or sailing lessons for the group are also great family gift ideas. Maybe your kids are budding photographers, and you can all take a class in photography.
  • Instead of spending hundreds on new tech gadgets, you could give your crew a hot air balloon ride as a family experience gift. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, you can take off at sunset for the ride of a lifetime over scenic Southwestern landscapes. Top off the experience with a special meal.

It's worth a try

How did our family getaway stand up to shiny, wrapped packages filled with iPads or video games?

Years later, my kids are still talking about our adventures, saying, "I hope Santa brings us a trip next year, too."

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