The highs and lows of gift 'experiences'

Since her retirement, Barbara Watson has done wing-walking, abseiling and had a go at piloting a plane

Adventurous pensioner Barbara Watson is not ready for a quiet retirement. The former school secretary celebrated her 70th birthday by wing-walking on a bi-plane.

"It was like being up in heaven, I suppose. The only thing that wasn't nice was the cold air up my nose. But, apart from that, everything was wonderful," she says.

It is not the only daredevil act that she has enjoyed during her retirement.

She has piloted a plane, abseiled, walked around the 192m-high edge of the Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand, and even had a go at skydiving.

"Something inside me says I must do these things," she says.

She is not the only person - young or old - to get the bug for extreme sports and rare treats.

As a result an industry has built up over the last 20 years in the UK selling "experiences" - basically vouchers for an unusual day out - parcelled up as a birthday, wedding or anniversary gift.

Barbara Watson (centre) with son and daughter after parachute jump Barbara Watson (centre) was joined by her children on a parachute jump
Barbara Watson on the Sky Tower She clearly has a head for heights. Auckland's Sky Tower walk is 192m up
Typical spending

The variety of experiences now on sale is huge, and range in price from £10 towards a spa treatment to hundreds of pounds for something more extreme.

Drives around racing circuits are among the most popular packages, but there are also more sedate experiences such as chocolate making.

There are about 10 specialist firms, which sell a huge range of experiences from a host of different suppliers, according to the UK Gift Card and Voucher Association.

However, it is easy to find individual companies offering gift vouchers for their own services.

Start Quote

Go through the terms and conditions and find out exactly what you are going to get on the day”

End Quote Laura Whitcombe Deputy editor, Moneywise

The average amount spent on these vouchers is about £50, the association says.

Small print

While many of these packages have attention-grabbing promises, the detail in the terms and conditions can be complex.

As a result, it can be easy to be caught out by some of the restrictions in these packages, certainly if someone buying or receiving the gift does not do their homework.

Laura Whitcombe, deputy editor of Moneywise magazine, says that the availability and location of these experiences are the key factors to bear in mind.

"Go through the terms and conditions and find out exactly what you are going to get on the day," she says.

"If you are going to be racing supercars for the day, you need to know how long you are going to be driving for, what you are going to be driving, if you can take your husband or wife along and whether they might have to pay.

"Lots of other people might be there doing the same thing on the day. Really look into the detail."

Insurance cover

She points out that some experiences, such as hot-air ballooning, can be weather dependent. If there are restrictions on the time of day or the week when the vouchers are accepted, then it can be months after a birthday that the activity actually takes place.

Hot-air balloons Some experiences are weather dependent so can take time to organise

Some vouchers are only valid for nine or 10 months.

Insurance is also an issue, with some packages including insurance in the price. Others might ask for participants to sign a disclaimer, and such activities might not be covered by a customer's existing policy.

There are different rules regarding refunds, so again it is worth checking who is responsible for issuing a refund - the gift experience trader, or the provider of the event - and when.

All this advice will be taken on board by the family of Barbara Watson, who shows no signs of slowing down.

As she watches young men less than half her age flying around the go-kart track near her home in Melton Mowbray, she says that the race looks a little tame.

"I think that driving around [Formula 1 circuit] Silverstone should be next," she tells her husband Carl.

As with her other daredevil exploits, he will be taking the photos and happily keeping his feet firmly on the ground.

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