Though many may try, traveling at the holidays is almost impossible to avoid. Whether to visit far-flung relations or to take a vacation at the only time everyone in the family has some time off, the two weeks around Christmas and New Year's are the only time many folks can make it all happen.
If you've gotta go, you've gotta go ... but where you go can make a big difference. Following are some destinations and types of trips to embrace — or avoid — this holiday season. Got others? Share them on Independent Traveler's message boards.
FIVE TRIPS TO TRY
For Americans these days, traveling to Europe is not quite the jarring experience it once was — most Europeans speak at least a little English, consume copious amounts of American entertainment and are extremely accustomed to U.S. tourists. Christmas, however, remains a totally different deal. While the U.S. entertainment industry can overwhelm the movie theaters and radio waves, it is a lot harder to infiltrate centuries of religious, family and holiday tradition that rule during this time of year.
For example, living nativity scenes pop up all over Tuscany and in Portugal, while Christmas markets can be found throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Back in Italy, the seven-fish Christmas Eve dinner still rules, while Germans drink traditional mulled wine. And it was the Germans who came up with both the Advent wreath and the Christmas Tree (the former in the 19th century and the latter in the 16th century). Not to be outdone, the Dutch lay claim to Santa Claus himself.
Here is a good starting place to learn more about European holiday traditions.
If Europe is too ambitious for you during your holiday downtime, Hawaii might be a better fit. Sun and sand sub in for cold and snow without sacrificing the Mele Kalikimaka spirit of the holidays. Oahu in particular puts on a blow-out Christmas spread, with holiday decorations everywhere you look, and more than 20 annual Christmas parades. There are also major surfing contests until the last few days before Christmas, so you can get into the spirit of the islands as well as the holidays.
I recommend setting up house outside of the major tourist areas, however, as Hawaii attracts visitors from all over the world, and can be overrun with people in a way that rivals only Orlando at this time of year. The Big Island, Kauai, Maui away from the west coast, and the interior sections of most islands are very promising in this regard.
3. Midtown New York City
From the tree and skating rink at Rockefeller Center (not to mention the LEGO store) to the horse carriages and FAO Schwartz store (and underground Apple store for the tech geeks) at 59th and Fifth, the upper Midtown neighborhood between Rockefeller Center and southeastern Central Park may be the most Christmas-y dozen blocks in the world, bar none. Yes, it is crowded, and undeniably commercial, but you don't have to go inside amidst all the crowds to check out the life-size diorama window displays. Or you can stop in at St. Patrick's Cathedral at 51st and Fifth for a spiritual — or architectural — fix.
The Times Square area holds its own as well, with a giant Toys R Us store, a three-story M&Ms store, a Disney store and, of course, the New Year's countdown.
When it comes to New Year's in New York, here is an insider tip: for most of the night, the folks who actually attend the New Year celebration largely get cordoned into small pens, which keeps the streets somewhat open. This allows you to stroll through the famous and nutty scene without committing to a full night out in the cold waiting for the stroke of midnight, which of course has already happened in other parts of the world. Don't try this too close to midnight, though; at some point, all bets are off when it comes to Times Square.
For more ideas, see 10 Reasons to Visit New York During the Holidays.
4. Casino Towns — (But See Below for a Crucial Caveat)
Casino towns pull out all the stops on the holidays — they want to get you out of the comfort of your home into their hotels and attractions — and also pull the rug out from under their prices to do it. For example, Christmas is the most affordable day of the year at most Las Vegas restaurants, and many "50 percent off" holiday lunch specials last the whole season. In Atlantic City, many shows are heavily discounted, and you can get almost ridiculous deals on hotel rooms.
Here's a good resource to check out for Sin City: Christmas in Las Vegas.
5. Your Childhood Home Town
Home towns do not necessarily bring back the fondest memories for everyone, but you might be surprised what spending a little bit of the holiday season in your childhood home town can feel like, even if it is not exciting, interesting or your real home at all anymore. My strong recommendation: Get outside early in the day, on foot, as you did when you were a little kid out of school and enjoying new toys and neighborhood friends. The air, the light, the lack of activity except your own, all can capture something that has become an inexorable part of your being, whether you know it or not. If the holidays often bring on bouts of (sometimes unwelcome) nostalgia, this experience can be more tactile, elemental and sometimes deeply resonant than mere memories. There are parts of ourselves that took shape in early childhood that we may never know or understand, but this may give you just get a small glimpse of the kid you were in the adult you've become.
FIVE TRIPS TO AVOID
1. Famous Big-City Luxury Hotels
Most big-city luxury hotels are not in a charitable mood when it comes to the holidays, as they know that a romantic luxury holiday for you translates into maximum income for them. Don't think so? How about a room at the Plaza in New York City, across the street from FAO Schwartz as well as the main gathering spot for horse carriages, which will cost you $1,095 per night from December 23 - 26. On New Year's weekend, it is $1,695 per night. The Plaza is expensive to start with, and holiday markups are in the range of 200 - 300 percent.
While you won't find these astronomical prices at most hotels, the holiday season can be one of the hardest and most expensive times to book at a "name" hotel, worldwide really. My suggestion: Book at a less famous hotel in the same neighborhood, where you will get all the benefits of a cool location at a fraction of the price. For example, the new Jewel Hotel at Rockefeller Center costs $229/night for the Christmas dates above, and the Hilton New York costs $300 a night for the New Year's weekend.
2. Casinos Proper
As noted above, casino towns pull out all the stops on the holidays — but the casinos themselves are even more godforsaken and soul-crushing than usual. I grew up and had my first jobs in a casino town, and while the double-time pay was great on Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was almost not worth the money to experience the depths of human despair and loneliness on display. Casino towns have as much non-gambling entertainment as any major city, and you'll feel a lot more festive at a holiday show than you will at a slot machine.
3. Major Theme Parks in Warm Climates
The major theme parks such as Disney World are all but overrun during the holidays, beginning especially the day after Christmas, when families tear open their presents and then bolt from their homes to find a place to run out the rest of the kids' winter vacation. Save perhaps for spring break, the parks are never more crowded, lines are never longer, and your experience rarely more likely to be intense and even nerve-wracking. And that's not to mention flying into and out of the neighboring airports, which is an experience in itself.
That said, if this is your only family vacation and you really want to take the family to Disney, look into on-site hotel packages that offer extended theme park hours exclusively for guests. Many of the theme parks embrace the holidays full strength, with characters and staff dressed up in holiday gear, attractions decked out with wreaths and lights, and Santa showing up every few hours on a strict schedule.
4. Ski Resorts
In my experience, no crowd is quite so excruciating as a crowd at a ski resort. With beginners snowplowing down hills as experts plummet past, long lines in very cold temperatures, everyone trying to cram in as many runs as possible, and probably even some nipping at flasks on the lifts, at times it even feels borderline dangerous.
A lot of folks go nonetheless, and most ski resorts do all they can to make sure your white Christmas really feels like a holiday, so it's not all bad news.
5. Drunk Behind the Wheel
Our advice to avoid this one is applicable all year round, but during the holidays the police know you are out there, and will be out in force themselves. Drunk driving fatalities surge during the holidays; not only are there more cars on the road in general, but there are also more drunk drivers on the road, increasing your chances of encountering an impaired driver dramatically (it turns out that Thanksgiving is the most dangerous day of the year to drive as a result). Most adults have probably defied this advice, but if there is a time to think about a resolution not to get behind the wheel while impaired, the holidays are it.