The Best Places to Travel in December That Are Festive *and* Wallet-Friendly
Winter is officially here. But unfortunately for those looking to make a run for it, December brings steep hikes in travel costs for the holidays. Whether you’re looking to escape the snow or just your crazy family, there are still a few deals to be had (that don’t sacrifice any of the festivities). Here are five of the best places to travel in December that—between airfare and lodging—won’t cost you a full month’s salary.
1. LAPLAND, FINLAND
If you’re looking for a deal in December, what could be better than traveling (almost) to the North Pole? We cannot confirm nor deny that you’ll have an actual Santa run-in, but you can get pretty darn close by visiting either the Santa Claus Village (better for families with young ones) or, our personal fave, the Elves’ Hideaway Village. The latter is a compound filled with over-the-top elf houses, lodge dining, impressive holiday shopping and outdoor activities—like gingerbread-making classes and sleigh rides pulled by huskies. There are also costumed elves who will make you think twice as to whether this is the real thing or not.
The large region of Lapland, the northernmost part of Finland that mostly sits above the Arctic Circle, is further famed as being one of the best places to catch the northern lights…and December is the start of prime season. Even if you don’t see those rainbow aurora hues as you gaze up (sorry, but it’s not guaranteed for any traveler!), Lapland is home to plenty of nature-centric activities for winter-weather enthusiasts. There are visits to reindeer and fox farms, the aforementioned husky sleigh rides, alpine and cross-country skiing, plus the opportunity to partake in the tradition of Finnish sauna culture. Or you can just simply relax at Halipuu, a “hugging tree” forest slash winter wonderland filled with hammocks that are surrounded by heaps of snow. Pro tip: For an unexpected mecca of Finnish design with beautiful, functional household items you’ll want to fill your suitcase with, stop by Design House Idoli on your visit.
Where to stay: Start your trip in Helsinki to experience one of Scandinavia’s—and the world’s—biggest influences on design. Flights to the city were as low as $344 as of press time on Skyscanner, with quick and cheap connections to Lapland up north on Finnair. When you do touch down in HEL, your time will be well spent at the Hotel Indigo - Boulevard, which is walkable to all of the city’s best sites and has stylish rooms that are big on design and maritime themes.
In Lapland, there are so many different types of accommodations, from luxury lodges—like Skabma and Levi Spirit Villas—to those glass igloos and pyramids you’re seeing pop up everywhere on Instagram. With heated windows and faux-fur throws, they’re the ideal way to gaze at the night sky (and if you’re lucky, northern lights). Some notables in the area include Levin Inglut Golden Crown and Aurora Village Ivalo.
2. CABO SAN LUCAS, MEXICO
Who doesn’t love a holiday beach vacation? Ditch the impending cold and ice for a week on the Mexican Riviera. December is an especially good time to head down to the Baja for lazy beach days and whale watching. The humpbacks and gray whales head south in late fall to the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean to mate and give birth, making it one of your best opportunities to see these majestic sea creatures. Like many other destinations around this time, Cabo can get more expensive the closer you get to the holidays, but earlier in the month, Skyscanner shows round trips starting at $204. Plus, with an average high of 79°F and zero days of rain, you can work on your tan while your friends are bundled in coats and scarfs.
Where to stay: Grand Solmar occupies some pretty prime real estate at Land’s End. Tucked between the stone cliffs and the sea—and with three amazing infinity pools—it has picturesque ocean views that are perfect for peeping whales from one of the swim-up bars. The resort’s smallest rooms are suites that clock in at 737 square feet, so you’ll have plenty of space if you decide to make your vacation a family affair. Ready to let go of everything this year has brought? (Yeah, us too.) Head next door to the spa at sister resort Playa Grande for a traditional temescal. A ritual and spiritual treatment, the Mexican steam bath encourages reflection and introspection—you’ll sweat out some toxins and quickly leave 2019 in the past.
At neighboring The Cape, a Thompson Hotel, the resort is partnering with a local breathwork and meditation expert to help you start the new decade off right. Through indigenous traditions, like a “cacao breathing ceremony,” you’ll learn to become more present and mindful by being introduced to and savoring a beverage made of “hot water, raw cacao and warming spices” and by practicing accompanying breathing exercises, listening to medicinal music and working with essential oils.
3. LAKE LOUISE, CANADA
In December, visitors to Lake Louise can get their first taste of the Banff region’s best powder. And better yet, they can do it alongside the ski pros by getting in on the Lake Louise Audi FIS Ski World Cup. Lake Louise is a stop on the World Cup tour, which means you can catch some athletic events like the Men’s Super G (December 1), Ladies Downhill (December 6 to 7) and Ladies Super G (December 8) if you visit early in the month. The rest of the holiday season, you’ll find simply unparalleled, jaw-dropping views as you ski your way through Lake Louise and neighboring Sunshine Village and Nourquay—all three ski resorts can easily be accessed on the same SkiBig3 pass. Not into downhill? There’s snowshoeing, heli-tours of the region and plenty of pics to snap of the insane views atop the Banff Gondola or at the frozen (or almost frozen) Lake Louise.
You can also see Banff and Alberta by train, via Vacations By Rail, on a pretty epic itinerary that includes hiking a frozen canyon, exploring frozen waterfalls and icicles, a safari where you might catch views of elk, goats, coyotes, wolves, moose and more, and enjoying the charming Western mountain town of Jasper. The eight-night trip (hotel accommodations for seven nights and one overnight on the train in Sleeper Plus Class) and train travel comes in around $2,468 in December, and flights into Calgary, just two hours south of Banff, could be had for as low as $97 as of press time on Skyscanner.
Where to stay: Mount Royal Hotel is located smack dab in the middle of the town of Banff, giving you access to the best restaurants and shopping as well as all the wintertime outdoor activities the region boasts. The recently updated rooms have a cozy, contemporary lodge vibe and offer picturesque mountain views. That said, the reason you’ll want to stay here is even simpler: The year-round outdoor deck has two party-sized hot tubs.
4. VIENNA, AUSTRIA
The holiday season all along the Danube is magical, but Vienna is the undisputed king of Christmas markets that will get you in the holiday spirit, and fast. Dating back to 1298, the city has had quite some time to perfect its display. Think charming, historic architecture blanketed in garland, the grandest twinkling light displays you’ll ever witness, carolers from across the globe singing renditions of holiday tunes, and of course, market stalls brimming with one-of-a-kind gifts for family and friends. Did we mention the smell of mulled wine and other yuletide scents everywhere you go?
The holiday cheer in Vienna is simply unrivaled, so if you love this season, it’s a bucket-list trip that should be high on your list come December. In fact, based on demand, Intrepid Travel is even offering a Christmas Markets of Central Europe tour (eight days for $1,910) for those who really wanna go in deep and explore additional markets in Munich, Salzburg and Budapest in addition to Vienna. Making the trip even easier, Austrian Airlines flies direct from the U.S., and during the holiday season, ups the holiday spirit by offering guests clementines onboard as well as a traditional holiday punch on many of their flights.
Where to stay: The new-on-the-scene Andaz Vienna
5. PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA
The City of Brotherly Love boasts indelible holiday charm with a German-style Christmas Village at Love Park and a pretty fantastic Christmas Light Show at Macy’s Center City. Go ice skating or snuggle up by the outdoor fire pits at Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest. Franklin Square also hosts a holiday festival and massive light show. And depending on when you visit, you can even stick around for New Year’s Day and the annual Mummers Parade, said to be the oldest folk festival in the U.S. One look at the costumes and you won’t regret it.
Other things we love to do in Philly, regardless of the time of year: Sip something sweet as you stroll around Rittenhouse Square, a historic park and well-heeled neighborhood with charming Victorian-era architecture. Or visit the aptly named Thirsty Dice, where gamers—both old-school and new—will get psyched for Philadelphia’s first board-game café. It features more than 800 classic, strategy, party and other kinds of games to play as you sip, chat and chew with friends, fellow travelers or random locals. Call it a new holiday tradition. You can also take in a show at The Met Philadelphia, where Tituss Burgess is set to perform a holiday-themed show alongside Hamilton star Mandy Gonzalez. In December, the Moscow Ballet will also perform the Nutcracker here, Pentatonix will take the stage, and Madonna will roll through town on her Madame X tour.
Where to stay: Debuting earlier this year, the Four Seasons Hotel Philade