5 last-minute Christmas travel ideas — thinking beyond “palm trees and sand”


For some, November is late for booking travel around the Christmas holidays. But any travel agent or airline/hotel reservation agent knows the refrain this time of year — “I just want to go somewhere warm where I can get a good deal.”

This year, the answer is unfortunately, “That combined option doesn’t really exist.” (Okay, so we joke about a Motel Six in Fresno with the heat turned up.) But realistically for travel between about December 18-January 2. A creative agent can still find space, but bargains are rare. It’s the highest season, and airlines, hotels and cruise ships all know it.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t some space out there, it’s just not cheap, even the less expensive options. Suppliers know that time of year someone will pay the prices.

I just had an old friend ask for a great deal to Mexico, figuring that since he was willing to travel Christmas Day and since Mexico has had some negativity publicity with crime, he should be able to get something very inexpensive with a really nice hotel in Puerto Vallarta.

Indeed, leaving Christmas Day meant I could find a fare from San Francisco for under $700 roundtrip, as opposed to about $1220 for a connection leaving the 26th, but even three-star hotels are charging close to $300. The Marriott, for example, one of the better-priced top resorts, starts at $349 a night plus tax, as opposed to half that in January.

Suffice it to say this was not the “great deal” he was hoping for. He decided not to go.

So what to do? One quick answer is change dates. However, often, either due to school or work schedules, that week between Christmas and New Year’s, or the week before Christmas, are the only times people can take a winter vacation. Here are five suggestion for a memorable trip that still avoids the worst sticker shock.

1. Travelers living within a day’s drive, or a short flight, of a port can consider a cruise. Yes, the cruise lines raise their rates as much as other suppliers, but driving eliminates the airfare issue. (Last year my family and I took a cruise for a week to Mexico, and the entire week cost about what it would have for three air tickets to Hawaii or Mexico.)

2. Consider a “luke-warm” city or resort area. Translation, consider a part of the U.S. that may not have guaranteed bathing suit weather. At least you’ll guaranteed to no have to deal with snow and the outside temperatures are usually very comfortable.

San Diego, Phoenix-Scottsdale, and San Antonio, for example, all have average December temperatures in the 60s. Temperatures can be warmer, or colder for that matter, but you can generally leave your mittens and winter coats in the hotel room.

Plus, cities like San Francisco and New Orleans, while more likely to be rainy and a little colder, are not usually miserable around the end of year.

3. Consider a cold-weather city with lots of indoor attractions. While ski resorts are packed over the holidays, cities like Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York are not (with exceptions right around New Year’s Eve.)

For families who enjoy shopping, museums and good restaurants, there is plenty to do without freezing. Another advantage, which can be true across the country, is that hotels that normally cater to business travelers may drastically cut their rates around the holidays, meaning there’s a possibility of a five-star hotel at a two or three-star price.

Here are a few examples, the Fairmont in Washington, D.C has rates starting about $169, a suite at the deluxe London hotel in New York (near the Museum of Modern Art) is under $300, and the Sofitel in Chicago has rates starting at $179.

(Note: This isn’t even considering the “opague” sites like Priceline, where travelers get a deal when they are willing not to know the hotel name or make special room requests. Although for that matter many travel agents can add free breakfasts and upgrades to rates through consortia or connections.)

4. Travelers with passports can consider Europe. Now, international airline taxes and fees that now exceed $400 a ticket and the weak dollar now make this option more expensive. But for travel starting December 24 and later, flights to Europe from the U.S. are generally cheaper than flights to Hawaii and the Caribbean, so long as returning on January 1 or 2 isn’t a necessity.

While cities like London and Paris, for examples, are going to be cold, they are usually warmer than most east coast U.S. cities. Plus, they have the same advantage of indoor attractions and lower hotel rates than usual.

5. The fancy staycation. Travelers who live near a city can do either day trip vacations, or splurge on a hotel within a few hours of their home. The money saved on airfare and rental cars can either pay for a lot of little treats, or be saved towards that tropical beach vacation, next year.