Sure, many of us dream of taking a mid-winter voyage all the way to the Christmas markets of Vienna, the snowy slopes of the Pyrenees, or Santa Claus Village in Finland's Arctic Circle. But aside from being less than ideal for mid-pandemic travel (we're talking multiple flights and layovers, plus various ever-changing travel regulations—Finland, for example, is not allowing unvaccinated Americans) these beautiful, traditional wintry destinations all have something in common: They're extremely expensive.
That doesn't mean, however, that winter travel is off-limits this season entirely. On the contrary, there are plenty of exciting and budget-friendly domestic destinations with plenty of COVID-safe winter activities—at least one of which is very likely just a hop, a skip, and a road trip away from your hometown.
Remember those European Christmas markets we were so excited about a couple of paragraphs ago? Atlanta's Christkindl Market is just like that, no passport—or transatlantic airfare—needed. Spend a wintry weekend sipping glühwein and taste-testing German dishes while you shop for holiday gifts—all within an easy driving distance from Chattanooga, Nashville, Charleston, Savannah, Asheville, and more. Admission is free.
Stay at Atlanta's Kimpton Sylvan in the Buckhead neighborhood so you can rest your weary feet and happy wallet beside the gorgeous lobby fireplace for the hotel's complimentary wine hour, every day from 5-6.
This summertime favorite empties out in winter and the prices fall to match. But temperatures can still hit the mid-60s, so this is one winter wonderland with a pleasantly mild climate. Plus, it's a perfect time of year for bundled beach strolls, cocktails by the fire, and of course, those famous in-season Atlantic oysters. In fact, the city's annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival—which often takes place in January and will kick off Feb. 6 in 2022—is arguably Charleston's winter highlight.
At downtown Charleston's glamorous Hotel Bennett, where rates hit nearly $1,000 per night during the spring high season, those same luxurious rooms plummet to $320 per night in January—so you can decompress in style (i.e., in the hotel's iconic deep-soaking pedestal bathtubs) once you've filled up on mollusks.
Knights Key, Fla.
Once the "end of the line" before the Overseas Railroad extended itself all the way to Key West, this island is now considered smack dab in the middle of the Florida Keys. And while, yes, the Keys can get plenty busy (and pricey) in the winter months thanks to the droves fleeing colder climes, if you play your cards right you can absolutely snap up deals during this still sunny season.
For one thing, skip the ever-expensive Key West, as well as the second-most popular key, Islamorada, or "Purple Island"—the latter is just a 1.5-hour drive from Miami and consistently crowded. Instead, head to the middle keys such as Knights, where local luxury resort Isla Bella drops as low as $311 for weeknights in early December (before skyrocketing back up to per-night pricing close to $3,000 around New Year's).
"The Middle Keys is one of the best-kept secrets in the Florida Keys, yet so easy to reach by plane or car and more affordable than a trip to the Caribbean," says Justin Nels, area managing director of Isla Bella Beach Resort, noting that Isla Bella's "daily programming and complimentary amenities like kayaks and bikes" make the stay extra worthwhile (and within budget).
While you're there, head to nearby Blue Spring State Park, which is a popular winter destination for some unusual fellow travelers: manatees. There's even one named Isla Bella; see if you can spot her in the warm winter waters.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Why head to the City of Angels in December? Well, it's L.A.'s rainiest month of the year, and the often-balmy city will see temps as low as 49 degrees Fahrenheit. And yes, all of this is a plus for you, oh budget-savvy winter traveler.
While the Los Angeles area is a popular tourist destination year-round, "they do still have their own version of winter, when the weather may not be ideal for pool or beach time," notes travel advisor Kristin Luz. Which is precisely why "this is the perfect time for budget travelers—especially those from colder climates—to enjoy exploring the area with mild winter weather and a fraction of the crowds of high-season summer travel." At a fraction of the prices, too.
Book a super-chic room at Hotel Figueroa for just $169 in early December—before prices hop up towards $700 later in January. While you're there, try the hotel's restaurant La Casita for Latin-inspired dishes that will make you feel like you're somewhere even warmer than Los Angeles.
If you prefer your California jaunts more northerly, head up to this lesser-known Napa. Located in Sonoma County, Healdsburg is a wine town with more grapes than glitz—and that's a good thing.
"During the winter season, rates at many hotels typically drop about 20 percent, with some local favorites, such as h2hotel and The Duchamp Healdsburg, offering rates about $100-$200 lower than previous months," explains Circe Sher, member of the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District (HTID) and Co-Founder of Piazza Hospitality.
Of course, not all winter destinations have to be so wintry. But if you're looking for a break from the snow, don't bust your budget glamming it up in Miami or flying to the Carribbean. Trusty Tuscon is here to get you your mid-winter dose of sunshine at a seriously affordable price.
"With 350-plus days of sunshine and winter temperatures in the mid 60s, the 'City of Sunshine' is a perfect escape from the snow and cold winter weather," says Dan Gibson, senior director of communications for Visit Tucson. Plus, Tuscon is the astronomy capital of the world (who knew?!) which means your nighttimes there will be even more spectacular than your sunny days.
You can road-trip it for around six hours from San Diego or Albuquerque, or hop a short direct flight from Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, and more.
New York, N.Y.
Are you surprised to see one of the most expensive cities in the States make this list? We were, too, until travel-pro mom of two Kathleen Porter Kristiansen, of TriplePassport, explained: Traveling to NYC in January is the way to see the city that never sleeps on an actually affordable budget.
"January is my favorite time to visit NYC," insists Porter Kristiansen. "It still has many of the iconic festive holiday elements going on, but at 50 percent of the hotel costs of December. While you're there, eat lunch in Korea Town. The perfect way to warm up after walking in the cold is grabbing a hot pot for lunch at the exceptional restaurant @hernameishan. Their $18 lunch hot pot can feed two people."
Luz concurs, and advocates for early-December Big Apple adventures as well. "Manhattan lit up for Christmas is a quintessential holiday image we have all grown up with from the movies," she admits, but "traveling in early December will get you all the holiday feels without spending your holiday budget. The lights are up, special events have started, and the holiday atmosphere is in full effect."
"Portland, Maine is my hometown and the best values can be had in January and February," explains Porter Kristiansen. "Locals are headed skiing, tourists are down south, and the Airbnb prices drop to the floor along with the restaurant wait times. You can walk in to Eventide Oysters for a five-minute wait rather than five hours (!) like in July and August."
Portland also has a stellar and ever-growing brewery scene that's perfect for a winter warm-up. "Check it out at cozy spots like Novare Res Bier Café, located down an alleyway off Exchange Street, with its 400-plus bottled beers and 33 taps," Porter Kristiansen adds. "Also, flights are cheap then, and there are plenty of points options for hotels."
If you prefer vacation rentals over hotels, Portland Airbnb prices plummet in winter as well; Porter Kristiansen's own is $150 per night then, compared to $600 in summer.
For a city that's absolutely overrun by tourists (we see you, bachelorette parties of the world) throughout the shockingly delightful Tennessee fall and spring weather, there is truly no better time to go than when the crowds drift away in January. The Southern winter weather is still relatively mild, the live music is still hoppin', and you're far less likely to have to dodge wayward Pedal Taverns on Broadway.
Early December room rates at Nashville's award-winning Thompson Hotel fall as low as $230 (compare that to, say, $799 per night for a suite in May) and the rooftop bar, L.A. Jackson, is not to be missed. Prices do a similar dive at Hutton Hotel near Music Row, where a June stay can hit $500 a night but which you can book for $163-187 in early December and January.
The hotel has its own music venue, Analog at Hutton Hotel, which boasts plenty of free-admission live shows—or catch some indie darlings at East Nashville's The Five Spot, varied artists from folk to soul at City Winery, and bluegrass/classic country greats at the iconic Station Inn—where tickets are usually a very reasonable $15-20. Most music venues will require you to show your vaccination card for entry.
If you're hankering for an epic winter adventure but still want to stay, technically, within the United States, you can't do better than a trip to the Aloha State.
"The Big Island and Maui are the driest islands during the rainier months of December and January ,and travelers visiting outside of the two-week holiday vacation time for schools will enjoy lower flight and lodging costs as well as lower crowds," explains Luz. "With its tropical location, even in its wetter months, Hawaii's warm weather invites visitors to break up their winter with the promise of relaxing on a beach in the sun."