Last-minute holiday shopping at airports, train stations and Sheetz

You can find more than neck pillows and gum at airports, rail depots and gas stations

(Photos by Jeff Elkins for The Washington Post)


Black Friday sales have long expired. Cyber Monday is a ghost on the screen. Weeks of prime shopping opportunities have passed. If you’re rushing to start your Christmas vacation, with two feet out the door, same-day delivery can’t save you now. But you also can’t skip any of the stockings in your in-laws’ mantelpiece lineup or show up empty-handed at the neighbor’s white elephant gift exchange. Luckily, the most unlikely of retail heroes — airports, train stations and gas station convenience stores — can help you avert a holiday crisis.

“If you are looking for something unique, you will be surprised by these locations,” said Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation. “When you’re traveling, keep your eye out for something unique and personal.”

Slightly more than half of U.S. consumers shop for gifts in the week leading up to Christmas, according to a December survey by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. Male shoppers improved from last year, now equaling women, but the 25-and-younger set are still the biggest procrastinators, at 58 percent. Even Cullen, a self-professed early-bird shopper, has resorted to the Hail Mary purchase. Last Christmas, while at Reagan National Airport, she realized that she needed a present for her young cousins. Before her flight, she dropped into the Smithsonian Museum Store and picked up some freeze-dried astronaut ice cream.

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“I was very grateful to have a store like that in the airport,” she said of the celestial snack, which was a hit.

During your pre-departure downtime or refueling stop, take advantage of the bounty of gift ideas steps from your gate, platform or gas pump. Many airports and train stations are as large as malls, with dozens of stores and even holiday markets with local vendors.

To help last-minute gift givers, we embarked on shopping sprees at three transportation centers in the Washington area: Reagan National Airport, Union Station and a Sheetz in Sterling, Va. Before setting out, we established a few ground rules: We’d buy gifts for three generations of recipients and stick(ish) to a $100 budget per destination. Also, we would refrain from souvenirs that would turn loved ones into billboards for D.C. tourism or super sports fans. But all else was fair game, even a gas station 12-pack, if that’s all Granny wants for Christmas.

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At Reagan National Airport, I had to clear TSA security before I could enter the shopping arena. Since November 2021, when the airport unveiled a reconfigured layout and new 14-gate concourse, only ticketed passengers can access the stores and restaurants in National Hall and Terminal 2.

This arrangement has several advantages. With security out of the way, you can shop until T-minus boarding time. The stores are post-security, so you can carry on any liquid-y gifts, such as liquor, fragrances and lotions. And because you need a ticket to shop here, the likelihood of the same gift appearing beside the menorah or under the tree is slim.

DCA has nearly 40 retailers with more on the way, according to Veronica Marshall, a spokesperson with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. During this time of the year, she said the most popular purchases are perfume, jewelry, bags/luggage, toys, local goods and the official White House Christmas ornament. A Chick-fil-A gift card was not on her list, probably because the fast-food chain doesn’t offer them at this location, as an employee curtly informed me.

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I immediately started hunting for inspiration elsewhere and found it by Gate E56. I flagged down a passenger carrying a tub of Fisher’s caramel popcorn with Old Bay seasoning, imagining the kernels sparking the grandparents’ memories of wanton summers at Ocean City, Md. He directed me to Capitol File News by WHSmith, which has a regional food section. I combined the sweet-and-spicy snack with a package of Capital Candy Jar’s chocolate-covered Oreo cookies, which come dressed up in D.C. iconography (a flag and boundary map of the city, for instance). My niece and nephew would never go back to plain-old creme-filled cookies. Sorry, sister.

On the opposite end of the store, I discovered a trove of nonedible local products. I selected a Naked Decor pot holder adorned with a D.C. map for my mom, which I would personalize by adding a dot of barbecue sauce to mark my neighborhood. From a rack of veggie-themed cloth ornaments, I picked a pickle, honoring a tradition of indeterminate origins (possibly German) but certain rewards (an extra present or year of good fortune). The first one to find the gherkin hidden on the tree would win more food they can’t eat — a pair of pizza and hot “dachshund” dog stickers.

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At the checkout counter, the employee ringing up my purchases translated my shocked facial expression. “The airport is so expensive,” she said sympathetically, as I watched more than half of my budget vanish.

In National Hall, a Maryland couple runs Elsen, a kiosk stocked with multitasking beauty products, such as the coconut and avocado oil that hydrates skin and hair. I chose a bar of cool mint soap that doubles as shampoo, perfect for the minimalist travelers in my life or their bathing-averse kids.

Ink by Hudson is the bohemian sibling of the establishment Hudson News. Instead of pain medication and neck pillows, it sells an indie bookstore’s mix of titles, plus a curated collection of vinyl. I dove into the LP rack and pulled out Bruce Springsteen’s latest. I solicited advice from a customer who had asked the manager for Bono’s memoir. “It isn’t his best,” he told me. “Only buy it for a hardcore fan.” I put Bruce back and pulled out a John Coltrane album. A nod of approval. Then Jon Batiste. More nodding. Then Dua Lipa. A shrug. I settled on the Batiste, who has multigenerational and multigenre appeal.

I had enough money to buy a three-pack of “Elf”-themed scrunchies. This season, Will Ferrell was going to bring holiday joy to our living room and the heads of family members with ponytails and man buns alike.

Total: $101.58 for nine gifts

The train station: A beard-trimming vacuum and some dad jokes

Union Station could use some holiday cheer: Over the past few years, a number of businesses have shuttered, including H&M, Papyrus and Starbucks, which is always good for a grab-and-go gift. However, enough shops are still open that I didn’t have to resort to my emergency plan: Amtrak gift cards.

The street-level arcade is dominated by chocolate shops and beauty stores such as the Body Shop and L’Occitane — all solid gift generators, though not the most creative. For presents with a surprising provenance, I headed to the lower-level food court, site of the sleeper hit of holiday shopping, Walgreens.

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I beelined for the middle aisles, which were packed with toys, candles, games and gags. Standing before shelves filled with $5 gifts, I was tempted to sweep all of the items into my cart — 20 and done. But I resisted the urge and hand-selected gifts for the shaggy people on my list: a beard-trimming apron with suction cups and a mini USB vacuum to catch the hairs that escaped. For “dad” comedians running low on material, I grabbed a 50-card deck of jokes that will have everyone groaning around the fireplace.

Mad Libs are always a hilarious activity on a wintry day, but more so when participants are under the influence of pure sugar. Hence, the perfect pairing: a Christmas-theme version of the word game with a tube of green frosting. Players can squirt the icing directly into their mouths without spilling any on a “part of the body” or “article of clothing.” Also in the children’s section, I discovered Clay Cracking, which encourages creativity and destruction to an ASMR soundtrack. The kit includes molds of baked goods that kids (or adults) can paint and then smash, creating a crafty version of crinkly candy wrappers and crackling ice cubes in a holiday punch.

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On my final lap around the store, I picked up an illuminating winter hat: Press the button and the black beanie lights up like a string of holiday decorations on a peaked roof. I also threw in a pack of thank-you cards, because, honestly, Walgreens gifts deserve handwritten gratitude.

With half my budget left, I dropped into Uniqlo for a beige shoulder pouch — technically a fanny pack that has migrated north. I tucked a matching cotton satchel inside, for more expansive toting.

At Union General, on the top floor, a display featured heavy glass jars that were shaped like hand grenades and contained red and green substances. Metal dog tags dangling from the safety levers read “The General’s Hot Sauce,” the veteran-owned company that unapologetically scorches mouths. An employee recommended the milder Grunt Green, but I chose a sauce higher on the heat register: Danger Close, a fiery combo of red cayenne and orange habanero peppers — milk not included.

I spent my final $10 on a slim volume of the U.S. Constitution, because every family gathering needs an official fact-checker.

Total: $100.45 for 12 gifts

The gas station: Gingerbread house with a beer chaser

My game plan for gas station shopping was much better coordinated than my approach to filling up on road trips, when I usually pass station after station until I am dangerously flirting with E. I didn’t have time to screen or string together several minimarts. I had to park, shop and go.

Sheetz eerily read my mind. “We know you don’t have time to run all over town for the things you need,” its website stated.

The Sterling location sits on a busy intersection near Dulles, where drivers with diverse needs converge. When I entered the store, a chatty man was paying for his soda and pack of cigarettes and a woman in a pink puffer coat was waiting for her order at the food counter. I took a second to assess the situation, coaching myself to look beyond the obvious.

I followed a trail of beef jerky, chickpea puffs and motor oil to the Beer Cave, a walk-in fridge of hops and hard seltzer. I selected a variety 12-pack of India Pale Ales by Wicked Weed Brewing of Asheville, N.C., knocking off everyone on my list who was born in or after 2001. Back in room temperature, I threw into my cart a pair of Must See TV mementos: “Friends” slipper socks, which I could’ve used in the Beer Cave, and a “Seinfeld” food bag clip featuring a mystery character. (The opaque packaging prevents a sneak peek.)

For aspiring young bakers, I chose an Elf on the Shelf gingerbread house kit that kids can construct with minimal adult supervision. No baking or knife skills required. For lazy chefs, I bought a Kinder Joy, which involves a single step: Crack open the egg.

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Friends committed to buying straight from the source — no knockoffs — will proudly wear the trucker hat that comes with a badge of authenticity: The cap is part of Sheetz’s “exclusive new line of custom headwear,” the tag declared. House plant collectors, meanwhile, will generously make space on the windowsill for a blooming Christmas cactus, which I rescued from a corner table near the cheap wine display. Small Christmas trees were also looking for a home.

According to Sheetz’s research and insights team, the most common items sold during this time of the year are gift cards and hot beverages. Fortunately, I didn’t have to try to keep a to-go cup of coffee hot for several hours. Instead, I re-created the gas station experience with a bag of Sheetz Bros. Winter Wonderland ground coffee and an insulated travel flask. The reusable mug comes with a free drink, for whenever the recipient is ready to take your gift on the road.

Total: $99.89 for eight gifts

Shopping at transit hubs surpassed my expectations. I discovered original and creative items that I would be equally proud to give and receive. I might even make last-minute shopping a new holiday tradition, now that I have discovered a trio of guardian elves — airports, train stations and gas stations — who will come to my retail rescue on the fly (or rail or drive).