It's that time of year again: time to frantically find Christmas presents for those nearest and dearest and farthest away from you. Since this is my most read and most shared post, I thought it might be a good idea to update with what's worked well for us these last few years, and offer suggestions from some of my long-distance friends.
If you're a fellow expat, or love an expat, or just live too far way from family, here are a few ideas to make Christmas gift-giving (and shipping) not such a pain in the neck.
1. AMAZON WISH LISTS
A couple years ago, Asher's grandparents surprised him with a parcel from Amazon.co.uk for his birthday and it was a huge hit. Actual mail in the post AND a shipping fee that wasn't exorbitant. We tried this out again for Ella's birthday, making a wish list for things she'd like. When a gift was purchased, Amazon took it off the list, so we never ended up with duplicates. Huzzah! If you live outside the US, but need to send gifts there, Amazon.com is a perfect option. Ask for a couple of ideas - or a wish list - and enjoy sending them exactly what they want.
Cons: Purchasing and shipping from another country does confuse the billing process a bit. My family from the US will pay things in British Pounds (sometimes with a higher exchange rate) which then have to be shipped to Ireland (not a nominal fee, but infinitely cheaper than using USPS to ship internationally). Also, Amazon.co.uk isn't on the ginormous-scale that Amazon.com is, leaving fewer options than its sister site.
2. PHOTO SERVICES
In the past we've sent calendars and photo books to family via Shutterfly, Blurb or Snapfish. In 2014, though, there are so many more options for photo-based gift giving! This is a fab idea if you have grandparents in need of printed photos of the kids or happen to live in a scenic environment or European capital (ahem). Besides calendars and photo books, most companies offer cards, mugs, posters and even specialized canvas prints.
Cons: I always feel a little weird sending pictures of myself (and family) as presents. Also, these services can get overrun at the holidays, sometimes delaying shipment (we had this happen with Minted last year, with the holiday card ornaments not arriving till a couple days before Christmas... even then, I'm not sure everyone received them).
3. GIFT CARDS + VOUCHERS
Depending on where you live - or where you're sending gifts - chances are good you can buy gift cards or vouchers online for a particular location. Investigate the restaurant and shopping options near your loved ones. Most big box stores, movie theatres and chain restaurants will allow you to purchase gift cards online (arriving via e-mail or postal service). The same is true for web-based shops like iTunes, Amazon or Groupon.
Cons: Gift cards or vouchers don't exactly offer a personal touch. And there's always the chance they will go unspent.
This is probably the easiest option for gifting overseas, but I actually hate asking for it. I know my family doesn't mind, and truth be told, I loved giving my nephews a tenner so they could pick something out they wanted. Giving money for Christmas is easy, especially with services like Paypal where you can give a "gift" of cash through them. If you've linked up your bank, you can transfer in (or deduct out) fairly efficiently. This comes in handy when one wants a particular thing that can't be easily bought and shipped.
Cons: Feeling icky. Asking for money is hard and awkward and, sometimes, more than a bit humbling. Also, you run the risk of money being used for something other than gifts: petrol, groceries, doctors' visits. But actually, those are pretty great gifts to some people.
This is a new idea, and something I would really like to do (but like I said, keep putting it off). When money is tight or when it's just not prudent to buy and ship things, write a letter. Write several, actually. Inside the Christmas cards, write out your thoughts, your love and affection, your hopes for the coming year. Include letters from the children; maybe some drawings, too. Write out all the things that don't suit Facebook statuses or quick emails. All it will cost you is time, a stamp and maybe a thumb cramp. But I'm betting it might be the most cherished gift one could ever receive.
Cons: I can't think of a single one.
6. BONUS SUGGESTIONS FROM COMMENTERS
"One thing we've started doing is activities. For a few years one set of grandparents bought us an annual family membership for our local aquarium. Great with little kids with short attention spans, we went 6-7 times/year." - Cara, Hawaii
"Amazon gift cards work awesome for us... We order gifts online or get gift cards for family in the US. My other suggestion is getting experiential gifts (trip to the local kids' museum, tickets to a baseball game, etc.) that we can use while in the US on furlough." - Danielle, Kenya
"A spin-off of your Amazon tip is using Elfster.com. (It's free.) You can put up a wish list there, and although it does link to Amazon as a reference, you/your gift-givers can mark items as "purchased" without actually having bought from Amazon. This way, you're not limited to what Amazon offers or charges. Another gift idea for readers abroad is credit toward e-books. It's a tad more specific than a general "cash" or gift card present." - Malia, the Far East
"Receiving food from home (salsa, BBQ sauce, spicy ketchup from Whatsburger) is always a treat." - Rheagan, Ireland
"Because our families spend so much sending packages to us throughout the year, we bite the bullet and send one back to them (just immediate family) during Christmas. Sometimes it doesn't make it on time (takes 2-3 times as long as it does for one to arrive here!), but they enjoy it nonetheless. We do different themes...weird foods to try, decorative things made by locals, etc." - Ashley, China