Gift Vouchers for Expats: A Very Thoughtful Bank Deposit

gift vouchers for expats

Vale. /ˈβa.le/ adj. and n. This means both “OK” and “Voucher” in Spanish. You’ll hear it all day everyday in Spain, but unfortunately it’s normally the former meaning. If only every “vale” heard here was referencing a holiday gift voucher. 

The holiday season for travelers and expats is a complicated time of year. Where do we spend it? Is it too sad to dine alone? Why the hell is a ticket home over a thousand euros? Can I sell both my kidneys?

This will be my fourth consecutive Christmas away from home; I no longer remember the smell of pine or the feel of my favorite ornaments. I sing Jingle Bells in a lifeless tone. But I can’t entirely blame the high price of airline tickets, because I also choose to stay in Europe to jet-set around over the 2-week winter breaks I’m allotted. So while missing the holidays at home is hard, the consolation prize is travel. And not hearing my mom blast her Messiah CD on repeat.

Anyway, as exciting as it is to travel, it’s still bittersweet when December rolls around and an ocean separates you from family. That’s why really thoughtful holiday gifts are all the more appreciated.

Except here we run into our second problem. Expats and travelers are hard to buy for.

The Expat Gift Dilemma

The Gift Dilemma is a complex problem, compounded by two main issues: Expats/travelers are usually transient, so don’t like to acquire a lot of STUFF. And also, it can be unbearably expensive to ship packages overseas, particularly to Spain where customs insists on slapping a massive pick-up fee on anything remotely resembling a gift. Take it from me—while studying abroad in Granada my parents shipped the sweetest Christmas care package for 100 whopping dollars, and it cost me an equal amount to collect the damn thing from the Spanish post office. All in the name of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.

Never again. By the second year, my creative parents found the solution.

Gift Vouchers.

Really they just ripped the idea off my sister and me. Throughout our entire childhood we would skimp on buying real presents, and instead write my parents coupons: “Good for one batch of homemade cookies” (using ingredients they had bought) or “I’ll take one hike with you without complaining.” Really heartfelt stuff. It’s a wonder they didn’t put us up for adoption.

Luckily their vouchers to me included a little more thought. Gift vouchers for expats solve both dilemmas: They don’t accumulate stuff, and they’re light and easy to mail. A simple bank deposit has the same end result—basically, extra money to enjoy on a poor English teacher’s salary—-but adding the vouchers element is so much more personal.

And remember when I said I forgot what my favorite ornaments look like? Or what spiced cider tastes like? We expats need a touch of personal at this time of year!

The Many Forms of Holiday Gift Vouchers

Last year I let it be known that I’d be traveling to Granada, Edinburgh, London and Amsterdam for the holidays. That’s essentially all I said—in a break from typical Jenny fashion, I didn’t even drop a hint suggesting that a whopping wad of cash would really help foot the bill. So imagine my shock when a package arrived in the mail for me mid-December with about fifteen individually wrapped coupons (complete with drawings and cutouts, thanks to my artist sister who lent a hand), all to be cashed in during my upcoming travels.

“Good for four rounds of tapas and beers at your favorite old haunt in Granada.”

“Good for a ride up the London Eye (Disclaimer: We won’t assume responsibility for vertigo).”

“Good for a bus tour of the Scottish Highlands (and a chance at spotting Nessie).”

“Good for admission to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, as well as a hot chocolate afterwards to cheer yourself back up.”

“Good for a riverboat trip for TWO on the Amsterdam canals, so your friend Miles doesn’t have to wait for you on the dock for two hours.”

All these were things I wanted to do, but wouldn’t necessarily splurge on myself. My family had researched the places I was going and came up with what they thought would be some fun activities in each city. They didn’t book anything in advance, in case things conflicted with my actual plans (it rained the whole time in London, so I didn’t end up going on the London Eye, for instance), so it was essentially travel money with guided ways on how to spend it.

Scottish Highlands gift voucher

Chasing Nessie at Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands

How to Gift the Perfect Vouchers

A little research and planning, and maybe some cute drawings and cursive writing, make the difference between a piece of paper and a cherished gift voucher. In general there are two categories I’d give an expat: Travel Vouchers and Life Vouchers.

Travel Vouchers

Travel Vouchers are, as the name implies, for when you’re on the move. Think about where your friend or loved one will be heading over the holidays, and try to make the trip as special as possible. You may not know their exact itinerary, so certain specific gestures—booking a night in a fancy hotel, upgrading to first class on a train ride—may get tricky. But research main attractions, or off-the-beaten-track activities, in the place they’re going, and come up with that nice balance of realistic (Can they fit it into the trip? Will their travel companions be on board?) with a hint of special. (Museum entrance = ok. Museum entrance + hot chocolate to cure the sadness = winning.) The activities in the above list are all what I’d consider travel vouchers.

Life Vouchers

Life Vouchers are those that make day-to-day expat existence a little spicier. I’m based in Barcelona, and there are so many opportunities to take advantage of here that I’m sure I’m only covering a fraction. And after paying for food, rent and cafés con leche, not a whole lot’s left over to indulge all the extras.

Case in point: I’ve never gone inside either of Gaudi’s two major works, Casa Batlló or La Pedrera. Oh, how a voucher for that damn 21.50 euro entry could change things.

It’d also be a cute idea to look up something of the culture of the place the expat is located, and plan a fun activity around that. For example, Barcelona is very into “vermouth hour,” and it’s really typical here to grab a glass or six of vermouth before lunch or dinner. You could plan a vermouth crawl for your dearest loved one, and create a gift voucher for several glasses and tapas around the city. Maybe include a list of some of the best vermouth bars you’ve researched, or a little printout of Google Maps with stars pinpointing a suggested route.

Clearly you could gift Life Vouchers for any place in the whole wide world. But how about the other Spanish cities I’ve lived in? In Granada, you could gift an evening of Flamenco—a voucher for dinner and a show in the Albaicín or Sacromonte neighborhoods. In Bilbao, you could send a voucher for a Saturday morning surf lesson on the coast, or a day spent gorging yourself at a typical Sidrería (cider house).

Life Vouchers would cover all things easily accessible in or around the adopted city, and something the receiver could take advantage of on a random afternoon or low-key weekend. Something to spice up expat life, which, no matter how romanticized, could still use a lil’ something extra every once in a while.

Christmas lights in BCN

Christmas time in Barcelona

The great thing about vouchers is that they work for any budget; they accumulate experiences, not stuff; and the cost to ship is little more than a basic envelope. They won’t get stopped at customs, and they’re infused with 3000% more thought than a bank statement notifying you of a recent deposit.

Now if only I managed to get this post out before you spent $300 shipping all of Trader Joes’ dessert aisle.

What are your favorite things to give and receive for the holidays? 

Disclaimer: My parents have already shipped me a small Christmas package (vouchers, no doubt), so this post has no bearing on the quantity or quality of what I shall receive. If it just so happens they’re further inspired to gift a vermouth crawl and entrance to Gaudi’s houses, chin chin.