Virtual gifts are the ideal way to be thoughtful this holiday season

For many people, the coronavirus pandemic is making it too risky for groups of friends and relatives to visit in person this holiday season; it can even violate local COVID-19 restrictions. And postal delays have made online gift ordering and shipping gifts a dicier proposition than most years. But as folks are separated from their loved ones and business colleagues, many are still looking for ways to send a perfect, personalized gift for the holidays.

One option that avoids virus transmission risk is sending a virtual gift, whether that’s a digital copy of a new book, a video game, or a ticket to an online experience. Digital presents can still be personalized to the person getting the gift, says Alexandra Schrecengost, founder and CEO of virtual events company Virtual With Us, which offers events such as Zoom-based wine and cocktail tastings as well as guided vineyard tours for gifts and corporate events.

“They are really going the extra mile and trying to make that person feel at home, which is really heartwarming to see,” she says of her customers.

Here are a few options for virtual gifts for this holiday season.

Something educational

If you have a friend or relative who is looking to learn a new skill, trade, or hobby during the pandemic, considering giving the gift of an online class. MasterClass, the sleek, celebrity-dominated online learning platform, is offering two-for-one subscription deals, so you can get a membership for yourself and gift a membership to a loved one for the price of one. You can also buy an individual class, or buy someone a course from another platform such as the Great Courses or Udemy.

A virtual tour

While it may not be a good time to plan a vacation just yet, you can find online experiences designed to be the next best thing. Airbnb Experiences is offering online virtual tours and other immersive options to let you travel from your couch. There are plenty of other niche virtual tour options available online, from a Breaking Bad-themed RV trip through Albuquerque to a live remote tour of Jane Austen’s historic home.

Eat, drink, and be merry

Even noted chefs and restaurants are offering online cooking classes during the pandemic. You can treat a loved one or even take a class together. If people you know are doing a lot of home cooking, you can also consider signing them up for a digital subscription to a magazine and recipe database such as Cook’s Illustrated or Bon Appétit or giving them a digital cookbook that matches their interests. If you’re missing sharing meals with a group of friends or colleagues, consider setting up a virtual tasting through a service like Virtual With Us. (Or you can simply order everyone food from the same restaurant and plan to hop on Zoom together.)

Remember that many of these events will require a little lead time for people to get the necessary ingredients, whether they’re being shipped as part of the event package or need to be gathered from local grocers, restaurants, or liquor stores.

Digital books, games, and movies

If you want to share a book, movie, or video game with someone, you don’t have to buy a physical copy. Instead, you can pick an e-book from digital booksellers such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook, or choose an audiobook subscription or specific audio title from Amazon’s Audible or Apple’s audiobook service. You can also give gift subscriptions to most streaming media services—from Hulu to Spotify—as well as specific movies or songs through Apple and other sellers.

For video game lovers, you can usually gift someone a specific game or credit toward a game or subscription on their platform of choice. Naturally, for all of these options, make sure you know what devices and platforms your loved one uses before purchasing a gift: There’s nothing an Xbox gamer likes less than a brand-new Nintendo game.

Digital gift cards

One of the most tried-and-true types of digital gifts is a digital gift card. Major online stores such as Amazon and Etsy, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and video game platforms such as Steam and Xbox Live all offer digital gift cards, usually delivered to the recipient by email. PayPal even offers a virtual mall of third-party e-gift cards, similar to the physical gift card displays at many supermarkets, as do other sites such as the aptly named If you’re worried about a physical gift card arriving on time in the mail, you can often take a photo of its codes and send them to a recipient in an email or text message.

A virtual greeting (card)

If you don’t want to send a physical greeting card, consider sending a virtual one. It’s a little bit more personalized than a “Happy Holidays!” text or Facebook message (with many including customizable text, images, and even video), and can be a good accompaniment to another digital gift or gift card. You can find options at Paperless Post, Blue Mountain, and—naturally—paper greeting card giant Hallmark. If you’d prefer something more personal, consider creating your own custom card with a tool such as Canva or even using a scan or cellphone photo of a card you (or your kids) design on paper.

Money, money, money

Sending a favorite relative a check or crisp $20 bill in the mail is so 20th century. If you’re not sure of the right gift or where to get someone a gift card and just want to send the equivalent of cash, you can use money transfer services such as PayPal, Venmo, and Square’s Cash App. Just make sure you have the best email address, phone number, or username for the person you’re trying to gift, since getting refunds can be a pain—and not how you want to spend your holiday season.

A message from the stars

With life being unpredictable, astrology is all the rage these days. If you have a family member or friend who’s interested in knowing more about what the stars are said to have in store for them, consider giving them a birth chart or a reading through an app like Co-Star or a Zoom session with an astrologer. There are also online options for friends or family who have another preferred form of divination, whether it’s tarot or tea leaves.

Making a donation

If you’re not sure what to get someone but want to do something generous, you can always give a donation in that person’s name. Plenty of charities have a way to make a donation in the name of a recipient through their websites, and you can also go through platforms such as GlobalGiving that allow you to donate to your choice of charities through one common platform. Check the details for how the recipient will be notified.

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