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GIFT VOUCHERS GAIN CURRENCY WITH TRAVELERS.

Byline: Marla Matzer Rose Correspondent

Imagine putting a ribbon on a weekend in La Jolla or a spa vacation in Santa Barbara. More and more people these days are doing just that by buying gift certificates to high-end hotel chains and resort properties, especially for the holidays.

``People never used to give travel as a gift,'' said Joe McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. ``I was with Sheraton during the '60s, '70s and '80s, and it was never a big thing. It just wasn't part of our core business. Now, it's an area that's really growing.''

Thanks to the Internet and a surge of competition in the luxury travel business, today you can easily gather information on and buy gift certificates for almost any resort or hotel in the U.S. Though some require you to order by phone and others tack on as much as $10 for standard delivery, chains typically are offering flexible gift certificates or cards that allow the recipient to use the gift amount toward products and services as well as room charges at their resorts.

A couple of obvious benefits to giving your significant other the gift of travel: It's a gift that gives twice, since the receipt and anticipation are as much fun as the actual stay itself. And psst, it's a lot nicer way to slyly give a gift to yourself - much less suspicious than, say, giving your wife a satellite dish for Christmas. We bet she won't mind at all if you want to play golf all day while she's getting pampered at the resort's spa.

Here are a few ideas with an emphasis on Southern California travel to get you started:

Top chains

Hotel chains are getting more and more creative with their gift offerings.

Marriott, which owns properties in several price ranges, not only allows you to order gift cards in $50 and $100 denominations on its Web site, www.marriott.com - but also the chain will give you express delivery and some fancy chocolates for an extra $25.

Starwood also owns several brands, including Sheraton, Westin and St. Regis. Its cards can be ordered from its Web site, www.starwood.com, in denominations ranging from $25 to $1,000. Standard delivery in a carrier envelope is free; a gift box costs an additional $5.

A gift from Ritz-Carlton is sure to impress. And you can even add those three little words we all want to hear: Club Level Suite. In addition to selling dollar-amount gift certificates ranging from $25 to $500 on www.ritzcarlton.com, the chain offers certificates for a one-night stay including extras for $350 and up.

A stay on the Club Level, which includes private concierge services and food presentations in the exclusive lounge throughout the day, is $500.

Local luxe

For those who have been yearning for a luxurious little getaway to the Santa Barbara area, there are several good (if pricey) choices.

Our favorites include the Bacara Resort and Spa, though gift certificates cannot be ordered on the hotel's rather minimalist Web site, www.bacararesort.com. Prepare to be generous: rack rates start at $425 per night.

The rustic-chic San Ysidro Ranch also offers gift certificates - though again, it doesn't exactly make ordering them online a snap. You can fill out a request form on the hotel's Web site, www.sanysidroranch.com, but little information is given about denominations, shipping costs, etc.

Listed rates for San Ysidro Ranch's 38 rooms and suites start at $399, though it sometimes offers attractive midweek packages with extras such as luxury car rentals thrown in.

The gift of choice

For the lover of history or those who just appreciate hotels with character, Historic Hotels of America sells gift certificates redeemable at nearly 50 of their member hotels, including locations in Santa Monica, Napa and La Jolla. One of the historic hotels, La Valencia in La Jolla, is a charming hotel that sits right at the edge of the cove.

As a bonus, the organization's Web site - www.historichotels.org - is offering a fancy pen and a six-month membership in the National Trust for Historic Preservation with any gift card purchase valued at $225 or more. Shipping is $5 standard, $17 via USPS Priority Mail.

For those who particularly enjoy value and using the Web for travel planning, top luxury travel auction Web site LuxuryLink.com offers gift certificates personalized in calligraphy; they can be used toward any of their auctions or buy-now packages.

Standard denominations are in $100 increments up to $500. Hint: We found it a little hard to find gift certificates on their site. Look under the ``On Sale'' tab.

Finally, for those who can't make up their minds or desire a one-stop shop for city-specific research - particularly handy if you're getting a gift for someone in another state - GiftCertificates.com offers certificates from a number of individual properties and chains, including Marriott, Ritz Carlton and Omni Hotels.

The site also offers a SuperCertificate that the recipient can redeem for any gift certificate for sale on their site.

CAPTION(S):

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San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara is among the growing ranks of merchants in the travel industry selling gift certificates.

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TRAVEL GIFT CERTIFICATES
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 28, 2004
Words:876
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