For many of us, winter means traveling – and not always the fun kind. When family is far away, we may feel we owe it to them to tote their grandchildren, nieces, and nephews through endless security lines so that we can spend the holidays together. Or perhaps they come to us. Sure, it's fun to host, but it's exhausting; we may require an actual vacation once the guests are back home.
Maybe this is the year to do things a bit differently. Give your kids a new sense of what the holidays can feel like and take the road less traveled. Hey, if your family wants to come along, have them meet you there – ideally a day or two after you arrive. Here are a few ideas for winter plans that won't break the bank (or your spirit).
"America's best idea" really is that. Millions of acres of pristine mountain ranges, rivers, shoreline, open fields – you name it, there's a national park for that. Sure, Yosemite and Yellowstone are jammed during school vacations, but have you been to Acadia on the ruggedly gorgeous coast of Maine? How about the majestic Colorado National Monument?
For history buffs, there are National Historic Places, also run by the National Parks Service. And many National Recreation Areas are more popular in summer, so winter can be a great time to go (just be sure you know which roads are open, as there are often seasonal closures).
The areas around parks can be equally fun to explore and local facilities cater to tourists. My family had the trails to ourselves when we cross-country skied just outside of Bryce Canyon National Park. Best of all, the parks are reasonably-priced. If you think you'll go to several this year, an annual pass is $80. If you happen to have a fourth grader, know that the whole family can get into the parks for free all year, as part of their Know Your Parks campaign. (It's also free for members of the armed services, and $20 for seniors – another great reason to invite the grandparents.) Check out nps.gov to get inspired.
If 11 hours on a train with a three-year-old sounds like a nightmare, know this: it's not. Not even close. My daughter had so much fun on our train trip from New York to Montreal and back, she talked about it for months.
On long car trips, children need to be strapped into their seats for hours at a time. Traveling by air means security lines, cramped seats, and that dang seatbelt again. But if you haven't taken a long train ride in a while you may be surprised to learn that, compared to other methods of transit, it can feel downright luxurious. For one thing, train stations are generally situated downtown, whether in a big city like Chicago or a small town like Ticonderoga, New York. This means it's both easy to get to the train from where you live and a great way to see the pocket of America you happen to be traveling through.
The amenities are also pretty great: all your bags are right in the car with you, either overhead or at the back, so you have easy access to all your things (in case a pack of crayons were to end up, tragically, in the wrong bag). The dining car may not have gourmet food, but it does offer tables for snacking and drawing (with those newfound crayons), as well as a nice change of pace when you've been aboard for awhile. The cabin seats recline, have footrests and ample legroom, and even offer outlets and wifi (though depending on the route it may be spotty coverage). Amtrak (and Via in Canada) offer far better rates than most airlines with less stress as children travel for half-price. More details at amtrak.com and viarail.ca.
If you've never taken a walk on the beach in the middle of winter, do yourself a favor and try it. Some of those places we associate with summer – that cabin on the lake, the beachfront property – are just as beautiful in wintertime. They're often less expensive, too. Though some regions will be bitterly cold in winter, that may be just the ticket: I've never met a kid who was mad at a fireplace and a cup of cocoa at the end of a long day playing in the snow.
If you like winter sports, you'll pay a premium to be near the mountains, but ice skating on frozen lakes and snowshoeing across farmland are free. If the kids get cold after 20 minutes, you won't have any regrets about those expensive lift tickets going to waste. (I grew up spending vacations in northern Maine, so I'm very partial to it. Take a look at discovernorthernmaine.com to see why.)
Go someplace where it's summer. This one may require braving security at the airport, but sometimes it's worth it. For those living in cold climates, particularly places where winter starts in October and ends in April, all you really want for Christmas is a day at the beach. Luckily, it's a big world and it's always summer somewhere.
From the Maldives to Melbourne to Malaysia, it's not too late to plan something sunny. But if you don't have the time or money for an epic adventure, there are plenty of US destinations that will feel downright tropical compared to Thanksgiving in Wisconsin, and won't come close to the cost of a Hawaii trip. Houston and Dallas, for example, ranked first and second in the category of Lowest Travel Costs and Fewest Hassles in WalletHub's Best Winter Holiday Destinations this year (they ranked sixth and eleventh overall). Dallas boasts warmish weather (often in the 50s and 60s), kid-friendly attractions, and pedestrian-friendly vibe. (They also have Eatzi's, a fantastic market that feels as if a Parisian boulangerie married Dean & Deluca. If you're in town, it would be a crime to miss it.)
Santa Fe, Savannah, and San Diego will all be warmer than Massachusetts, Michigan, or Minnesota – pick a place you've been wanting to explore and check out what's happening there this winter. Tripadvisor.com is always helpful in uncovering the "best of."
We found ourselves headed southwest from Vermont on the Saturday of Fourth of July weekend and, though the cars loaded with bikes and kayaks looked like they were headed for fun, we were very glad not to be sitting in that traffic. The same holds true for winter fun. Think about (or Google) the most popular destinations this holiday season, and then think outside the box.
Families descend on New York to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and the windows at Bergdorf Goodman, but did you know that Philadelphia has hosted the Macy's Christmas Light Show in the National Historic Landmark Wanamaker building since 1956? Or that Columbia, SC boasts the Riverbanks Zoo Lights Before Christmas from November 18 to December 30? Or that Los Angeles' Griffith Park offers a Holiday Light Festival Train Ride for just four dollars a pop? The point is, you can find wintry fun wherever you go, and if your kids are young enough, they won’t know the difference between Rockefeller Center and the Holiday Lights Festival in downtown Omaha.
Wherever you travel this winter, I wish you short lines, minimal chaos, and easy-to-please children. That's what I call a happy holiday.