Twenty-Four Gift Ideas (Plus A Bonus Idea) for Travellers, Expats, Minimalists, and all other Human Beings

In Japan they have a word: Chindogu. Tofugu defines it as “the refined Japanese art of making unuseless inventions“. Now, I’m not sure which word stood out to you in that sentence, but to me, it was art. I can’t think of a better way to categorise Chindogu, except under the heading of Conceptual Art.

So this Christmas, before I buy someone an “unuseless invention”, I’ll be asking: is this person a collector of conceptual art? And if not, what on earth makes me think they’d want to curate something “unuseless”?

We all love showing we care for people, but we also know how problematic it can be when our homes (not to mention our suitcases) get piled high with stuff we don’t value and can’t “accidentally” break or leave behind. Let’s not add to a socially-empty, ecologically-questionable ritual when we can use our gift-giving to add to people’s lives!

Huzzah! I mean, huzzah, right?

I’ve racked my brain to come up with gift ideas which are thoughtful, enjoyable, meaningful, packable, and sustainable, and here’s what I have so far. You should add to this. Please add to this! I beg you. (Let it be your gift to me.)


T at computer.

One screen for e-books, and the other for Civ.

1. E-books

Wasn’t it embarrassing when charity shops ended up with millions of unsaleable, unrecyclable copies of Fifty Shades of Grey? By contrast, a virtual bookshelf is available on whatever soon-to-be-obsolete device you were going to upgrade to anyway. Ebooks make the perfect gift for avid bibliophiles and those forced, by prolonged flight delays, to grudgingly read things.  May I be the first to recommend Scroogenomics, which will help your recipient grow comfortable with the philosophy behind this list. These tips on gifting e-books may also help.

2. Electronic/digital/off-site/media storage

What do you get for the person who’s been everywhere, and taken four hundred and seventy-three photos of each piece of it? Digital storage! As someone who once lost nearly two years’ worth of holiday snaps (not to mention other memorabilia) in a Computing Incident brought on by an international move, I can’t tell you how much the gift of virtual storage means to me. Say “I care” by helping preserve precious memories. We currently use Phanfare and Dropbox (not a hint, or a paid advertisement).

3. Virtual mailbox 

Snail mail and permanent addresses have long been the bane of everyone who travels for long stretches or moves frequently. Now you can give the gift of hassle-free utilities billing anywhere, any time. Permanent addresses with scan-and-email forwarding systems are available for (usually) annual fees,  and can help travellers and serial movers communicate with those as old-fashioned as the tax department. If anyone knows of an Australian-based service they recommend, let me know.

4. Downloadable games

It doesn’t matter if the people on your list prefer iPhone apps or PC Games. Not to me, anyway. I wouldn’t go into it with A unless you want to be up all night. Either way, you can parcel up something to keep them entertained through their medium of choice. Here’s a step by step guide to gifting apps. For PC/Mac games, A recommends Steam. And P wants a Concorde.

5. Downloadable Movies or TV Series

These will be especially cherished by those who live far from where they grew up, especially if they’re facing a foreign language/sense of humour and are anti-piracy (or you think they should be).

6. Online magazine/newspaper/media subscriptions 

Just like a printed one, only not printed. Possibilities are numerous, and most of the time you just need an email address and a starting-out password which you can reveal to them on the big day (and insist they change at their earliest convenience). We’d love it if National Geographic got with its fan base on this one and started offering online subscriptions for kids. P also recommends Reading Eggs, because he isn’t yet tweenagerish enough to think that educational = lame.

7. Frequent flyer points

Nothing says “I love you” like letting someone go. Inviting them, in fact, to go. To go far, far away. And then enabling them to do so.

8. Phone home service

Phone credit invites your friends and family to feel the warm fuzzy glow of familiar conversation wherever they are, even if they were trying to get away from it. We use Skype. It works. We’re used to it.


For example, they will let just about anyone fly a plane these days.

For example, they will let just about anyone fly a plane these days.

9. Spa treatments

When you gift someone a spa treatment, they’ll feel appreciated for their efforts and invited to relax. They won’t feel you’re calling them ugly and smelly. If you’re worried, stress that in your card.

10. Active adventures 

Sky diving. Horse Riding. Vintage plane flying. Walking tours of far-flung lands, possibly through shady and war-torn neighbourhoods. Tell someone, “Get out there and don’t come back!” in no uncertain terms this holiday season.

11. Culinary adventures

Everyone I know eats. Except this one person (it’s complicated). For the rest of us, there’s wine tasting cheese tasting, cooking classes and chefs who can be hired to cook for you at home. And fancy restaurant dinners! Bonus points for offering to babysit any children or pets. And actually, even people who don’t eat can take advantage of the cooking classes. I’m pretty sure most of them don’t make you.

12. Season/annual passes 

This year we’ve enjoyed our Jewel Card and our Science Centre membership. Next year we might try something new. Singapore is all about the annual passes and memberships, so we have lots of options to choose from. I would go so far as to say that if we got nothing but annual passes this year we would be supremely happy. And very busy. And probably more learned and active. And we might blog less, so… your call.

13. Cultural Events

Movies, sports, concerts, theatres, or (for the less glamorous) netflix subscriptions to enjoy at home. I often ask my Grandparents to book a day off in their calendar before I make the purchase – just to make sure they don’t have any other plans. My Grandparents have a more hectic social calendar than most people I know.

14. Professional photo shoots

You can go for the old studio shoot – which is nice – but for bonus points, maybe see if there’s a photographer-slash-tour-guide who can show your travel-loving friends around a city they plan to visit this year and professionally document the day. Or for that real paparazzi feel, have them tracked by a private investigator!

15. Swanky hotel stays

A gift and a house-sitting opportunity rolled into one.


P looks for our family's brick at the entrance to the new RSPCA.

P looks for our family’s brick at the entrance to the new RSPCA.

Charitable gifts can be a hard sell – more so for the giver – unless they’re giving to someone very earnest about doing socially responsible things. On the other hand, I think they’re a nice addition to a smaller gift – especially if care is taken to personalise the choice of donation, or if something tangible (like (16.) an inscribed brick or plaque) will result.

We’re the sorts of parents who like to put (17.) charity gift cards representing a school lunch for a deprived child into our kids’ Christmas stockings, just to head off any complaints about how much more cousin X got from his parents this year. Some people – but I’m going out on a limb here – may also accept (18.) acts of service on their behalf for organisations close to their hearts.

Update: Danielle at Bubs on the Move talks about how she uses charitable gifts and deeds to give her children a sense of giving during the Christmas season. (She also has a couple more ideas.)


Do you know how many times I've regretted having a year's supply of coffee? No times. None.

Do you know how many times I’ve regretted having a year’s supply of coffees to share? No times. None.

19. Foodie gifts

Wines, exotic foods and spices, imported weirdness – whatever you choose, it should be both delicious and out of the ordinary. And not confiscatable by customs or against the recipient’s religious or medical advice, but mainly delicious and out of the ordinary, or alcoholic. Or coffee.

20. Craft (hobby) supplies

I’m assuming you can have too many washable, non-toxic finger paints, but probably not for long. This section also extends to sandpaper and nails for the DIY expert, or engine oil for the vintage care enthusiast (provided you can distinguish one vintage engine oil from another).

21. Anything you know the receiver actually wants or uses

This is where I defend the fallback of socks and underwear. (Otherwise it would look suspiciously like traditional-style gifting.) Note: it’s usually not enough to know they want “a new phone” or “some T-shirts” – many people have highly specific preferences. That’s the kicker with trying to buy people stuff and why this section is short.

Mathematical and Scientifical 

Some well-meaning twat used this awesome vulcanologist costume to wrap an unuseless gift.

Some well-meaning twat used this awesome vulcanologist costume to wrap an unuseless gift.

22. A shiny, new mathematical theorem

For real.

23. Your very own star

Available from several different and also varied sources of which many exist (some of which start at free). (Disclaimer: nothing to do with the IAU.) Unfortunately, at the time of writing, if you want a new bug named after you, you still have to be a hot celebrity the discoverer would badly like a date with.

Home Made… able

Every year my mother asked us for the gift of playing nicely together. And we ignored her and bought soap.

Every year my mother asked us for the gift of playing nicely together. And we ignored her and bought soap.

24. Never underestimate the joy you can bring someone by offering to clean their toilet, walk their dog, mind their kids, massage their feet, or demean yourself for their amusement.

25. Or you could make them a scrapbook, video or playlist. Suggested: Story Of Stuff movie playlist. To go with their Scroogenomics ebook.

I’d love to hear more suggestions (especially on the mathematical/scientifical front). What are your clutter-free – but magical and meaningful – gift ideas this season (and please can I steal them)? Do you know any collectors of Japanese conceptual art, and if so, can I have their address so I can send them something? Answers appreciated. (Really, truly appreciated.) (Especially the addresses.)