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Travelers on a field of lupine during a birdwatching excursion in Chilean Patagonia.

January Trip Ideas: Traveler Reviews to Inspire You

The wide array of places that are great in January may surprise you.  If that’s your time frame for a trip, take inspiration from your fellow travelers’ reviews of their favorite January trips—to locales as varied as Italy (even including Sicily), Scandinavia for the northern lights, Belize for a more affordable Caribbean vacation, Colombia for a sunny getaway for food lovers, Australia (where January is the height of summer), and the list goes on.

These travelers all booked their trips the WOW way: Their trips were optimized for the month of January by the local fixers on our WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts (and those whom we are testing for The WOW List).  You’ll find even more ideas in the January installment of our Where to Go When series, and you’ll find more traveler reviews here.

Unsure where to go in January? Click the black button below for our help.


Italy for art and history in the cultural capitals

Florence, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

To avoid crowds (and take advantage of post-holiday sales) in Florence, go in January. Photo: Shutterstock

“My husband and I had an amazing trip to Italy in January! Jennifer had everything so well planned out it was one of the most stress-free and special trips we have taken. We spent two weeks in Italy, splitting our time in Florence, Milan, and Rome. We specifically chose January because the crowds would be less, and they were. It was the perfect time to go for us. Not hot or crowded.

She gave us ideas of things to see we were not aware of, such as touring the outside of the cathedral in Milan from the top. Touring the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Lunch at the special winery on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius near Pompeii. And touring a private museum in Florence where we saw original drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci and the cartoon by Raphael he did for the School of Athens painting.” —Kim and Kevin Cronin

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Portugal for beautiful landscapes and seascapes (yes, in January!)

Wanchee Lowe

Sunset at the Pousada de Sagres on Portugal’s Algarve coast in January. Photo: Traveler Benjamin Lowe

“My husband and I went to Portugal for a week in mid-January, spending two nights in Cascais (near Lisbon), then four nights in Sagres in the Algarve, and the last night in Lisbon. Gonçalo gave us good suggestions of where to go. We told him we were interested in photographing land and seascapes, especially during sunrise and sunsets.

Patricia on Goncalo’s team booked pousadas for us because we like the historic nature of the accommodations and our rooms overlooked the ocean and we could see sunsets from our rooms in Cascais and Sagres. Free breakfasts were included in all our lodgings. She arranged a rental car and accommodated our request for a hybrid car. She also booked a full day of palace and castle tours in Sintra with a private driver and guide. In Lisbon we also did a private half-day walking/food tour, which she arranged.” —Wanchee Lowe

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Costa Rica for a combo of relaxation and outdoor adventure (and cooking lessons!)

Travelers at the cacao workshop at Two Little Monkeys, Costa Rica.

Geralyn, Elise, and Rob Westervelt loved their cacao workshop at Two Little Monkeys.

“My husband and I, both in our 60s, wanted a vacation that combined relaxation with outdoor activities, culture, nature, adventure, and eco-friendly accommodations. We began planning with Irene who asked many questions to customize our trip. Mid-way through planning, we added our 26-year-old daughter to the trip and Irene seamlessly made the adjustments.

We visited three locations during our 8 night stay. This pace allowed just enough time in each location. Our guide, Pablo, and driver, Jenkins, met us at the airport and brought us to our first location, the Arenal Volcano area. Our activities here included a sloth visit, hike up the volcano, and our two favorite experiences, a cooking class with Dona Mara and a cacao workshop at Two Little Monkeys. These are not to be missed!

Irene arranged for transport to our next location, the Senda Monteverde Hotel. We had a night walk and hanging bridges tour. With each activity, we were impressed by the vast knowledge of the guides. My daughter is in her last year of veterinarian school and she had in depth conversations about animals and ecology with many of them. We were also very pleased that every transport was punctual and safe! Our final destination was the beautiful Manuel Antonio area. The plan was to relax here, but we found ourselves hiking, zip lining, and taking a sunset tour of the property!” —Geralyn Westervelt

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Colombia for “a beautiful climate” and a peaceful vibe that’s “far from the world’s chaos”

You’ll find serenity at Hacienda Bambusa in Colombia’s coffee country. Photo: Ryan Damm

“We traveled to Colombia as two couples who were well-traveled and anxious to learn, visit, and immerse ourselves into a new destination. It was snowing here in New York, and Colombia has a beautiful climate. Boris and his team planned us a wonderful trip. We started in Medellin for three nights, where we saw great street art and learned about cacao and the complicated past of this country. We also visited a magnificent orchid and hydrangea farm. From there we moved on to the coffee area, which is lush and peaceful. Bambusa is a small, quaint hacienda where we felt far from the world’s chaos.

On to coastal Cartagena, and the pace quickened with lively streets and great restaurants. We ended in Bogota, where we could have used another two days. Bogota is cosmopolitan and rich in history, art, and great restaurants. We really saw a huge cross-section of Colombia, and the hotels were all different and well-chosen. We felt very safe and educated during our stay, and I would highly recommend Boris to any traveler with a thirst to explore and learn.” —Bobbi Malzman

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Paris for having museums (and chefs and fashion designers) to yourself

Louvre Museum at night, Paris, France

The Louvre Museum, Paris. Photo: EdiNugraha/Pixabay

“Our trip to Paris was for our daughter’s college graduation. She was interested in fashion, food, and the Louvre. Jennifer, our trip planner, did a great job planning our tours and making our dining reservations! We were very impressed with each tour guide: Our private half-day tour of the Louvre could not have been better! We loved our croissant-making class and our chef was fabulous. We were pleasantly surprised with our tour of the Dior museum—so unexpected and maybe one of our most favorite things. We had the museum to ourselves and our guide was fantastic!

Jennifer secured a fashion expert who took us to neighborhood boutiques featuring up-and-coming Parisian designers, and this was a real treat! We loved meeting the shop owners, and we felt like locals shopping for the afternoon.” —Kim Brown

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Antarctica for otherworldly adventure but with all the creature comforts

Travelers celebrated their arrival in Antarctica with champagne.

Barbara and Larry Schoenfeld celebrated their arrival in Antarctica with champagne.

“We told Ashton that we wanted a small ship with top-notch scientific experts on board. I was hyper-focused on the potential for unpleasantness crossing the Drake Passage. Comfortable cabins and good food wouldn’t hurt. And, we were not very flexible with travel dates.

Ashton quickly produced a short list of recommendations, despite the availability constraints due to the surge in demand for travel to Antarctica. We sailed on the Seabourn Pursuit. It is a luxurious new ship and is outfitted with stabilizers, which softened the rocky ride across the Drake. While in Antarctica, there were two excursions via Zodiacs daily—usually involving a hike on land or an island. They included walking among penguins and seals, floating among jaw-droppingly beautiful sculptural icebergs, traversing the rim of a caldera, and seeing ruins of former explorers and whalers.” —Barbara Schoenfeld

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Belize for a Caribbean vacation that combines jungle, beach, and culture

Our travelers Salena and Allen Kern with WOW Lister Patricia Johnson in Belize.

Travelers Salena and Allen Kern during lunch with their WOW List trip-planning expert Patricia Johnson

“My criteria was a direct flight from Newark, warmth, a place we’d never been to with lots to do if we wished, and a Wendy Perrin advisor. It took about a minute to find Belize and Patricia. And we were off…. Patricia recommended a few places to stay, and two of the resorts (one in the jungle and the other on the beach) were owned by Francis Ford Coppola. Who knew? Not I, for sure. Well, my husband was an extra in Apocalypse Now many years ago and that was that. He was thrilled to be seeing what Coppola had created in Belize. Both resorts were beautiful but Blancaneaux Lodge was one of the nicest places I have stayed in my life.

We climbed ruins, rafted through a cave that should have been a cathedral, and visited an entrepreneurial coffee ‘factory’ amongst other things. Most important to me, however, was that we got to know something about the current economy of this young country and much about its varied cultures.

On our first full day, we were surprised by our WOW Moment. At this most beautiful site, overlooking a series of waterfalls, we were served lunch by a local family (now, Patricia did know that I am a bit of a foodie) who served us a traditional Mayan lunch, nouvelle-style. The family has a catering company called U Janal Masewal, Ancient Recipes for a Modern World. That sort of sums up my worldview too. And Patricia met us there for lunch.

This lunch opened our eyes to what was happening in the local communities. The Mayan culture isn’t stuck in the past or lost, as it is in Chiapas, Mexico, where I visited last year. The Belizeans are creating a wonderful and mixed culture ripe for all sorts of tourism.” —Salena Kern

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Tahiti and Bora Bora for a boat charter and the ultimate beach resort

Hammock in a beach in Tikehau, Tahiti

French Polynesia is great for snorkeling, diving, birding, or just relaxing in a hammock. Photo: Shutterstock

“Our family of six adult children and a four-year-old grandchild recently returned from a trip to Tahiti (December 29 to January 12) organized by Kleon. Kleon did such a good job getting quotes for various options from chartering a boat to picking out the best resort for our family for the week stay. The Conrad Bora Bora Nui was perfect for this holiday adventure with the entire family. My husband and I added a five-night stay at The Brando, which was an incredible resort, especially for the privacy, the beautiful units, and numerous activities offered there. The most unique travel experience was observing 80 or more baby turtles being released twice during our stay at The Brando.” —Carol Powell

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Peru for adventures at Machu Picchu and in the Amazon

The view of the Sacred Valley in Peru.

The Sacred Valley in Peru. Photo: Shutterstock

“My granddaughter and I just returned from our third New Year’s adventure organized by Allie. This trip’s primary objective was the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

Our base in the Sacred Valley was the Sol y Luna Hotel. Could not have asked for better accommodations. We visited many Inca sites. We also had a day of whitewater rafting. The Urubamba market is open twice a week, so we took the opportunity to shop with the locals. Being the new year, the flowers were aplenty, yellow, a color of note to the Peruvians at New Year. The highlight of the trip was Machu Picchu citadel. Pictures do not do it justice. The vastness of the site in the clouds and the river far below. It was beautiful!

On New Year’s Eve we had good intentions on staying up to ring in the new year, but Allie had other plans, gratefully and thankfully. The next morning we returned very early to the citadel. Allie was able to obtain tickets for Huayna Picchu. Tickets are in a limited number. We were very fortunate, as many people are disappointed when they find out tickets are not available. Allie had procured ours well in advance. My granddaughter climbed Huayna Picchu, also known as ‘the stairs of death,’ an experience she will never forget.

We returned to Cusco for a day, then it was off to the Amazon. Our flight was followed by a 45-minute powered canoe ride to the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica, an eco lodge and our home for the next three days. We had a riverside cabana on the Madre del Dias River. In the mornings, we could hear howler monkeys and other unknown critters. It was the rainy season, so we had rain and thunderstorms daily. The weather did not hamper our activities, actually the weather was part of the experience. Although we had a twilight boat excursion and jungle canopy walks, our highlight was fishing on Lake Valencia. We went piranha fishing, followed by a shore lunch.” —Jim Stock

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Dubai for perfect weather for desert safaris

Bernirene Ramos

Bernirene Ramos and friends in Dubai’s Heritage Desert.

“Our group chat was called, ‘Dubai, Here We Are!’ Nick planned my ‘ladies’ trip,’ from accommodation to our daily itinerary. January was the perfect time. It was sunny, low-mid 80s during the day and low 70s in the evening. It was Dubai’s winter season, therefore popular sites were not crowded. We were able to capture great photos without being blocked by others.

We were in Dubai for 7 days and we made every day count. The itinerary was well coordinated to cover all the amazing ‘must-sees’ and still allowed for daily free time. We had to switch our visit to Abu Dhabi to a different day because of a last-minute intel of a private event at the Qasr A Watan. And, we wanted to add a couple of ‘must-sees and photo-ops’ during our trip. Nick was able to rearrange our schedule and coordinate with our tour guides seamlessly. It worked out perfectly. He was accessible 24/7. We were taken care of from the time we disembarked the plane at arrival to the time we departed Dubai. Our drivers were great, tour guides were knowledgeable, friendly and fun to be around. We did the Heritage Safari Desert trip on our last day. It was the perfect ending to an amazing trip! Thank you Nick!” —Bernirene Ramos

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Norway for the northern lights (plus dogsledding, snowmobiling, and saunas)

View of the Northern Lights in Alta, Norway.

Alta, Norway, is one of the best places for spotting the northern lights in January. Photo: Shutterstock

“Truly a trip of a lifetime. My family of 4 (me, my husband and two adult boys) went to Alta where we went dogsledding, snowmobiling, and saw the northern lights. In Oslo we went on a very interesting architecture tour. The highlight was relaxing in the lodge sauna after a day spent snowmobiling and getting called by the lodge staff to come outside to watch the northern lights!

The staff at all of the places Torunn and Mari sent us to were exceptional and would go out of their way to provide assistance. We can’t wait to go back sometime in the summer now and see the same location again.” —Neha Vyas

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Panama for the legendary Canal and an “amazing” private-island resort

Bungalow of a private resport in Panama.

An eco-friendly private-island resort, Isla Palenque is located on Panama’s Pacific coast. Photo: Isla Palenque

Pierre organized a great trip to Panama for us—two 60-plus-year-olds who were looking for some cultural moments as well as some serious relaxation. We started in Panama City and with Pierre’s guidance organized our vacation dates around a fascinating partial transit tour of the Panama Canal, which is only available a few days each week. We also enjoyed our visit to the Embera indigenous village, especially the boat ride to the waterfalls. I was worried that this might be exploitative, but the tours are run by the Embera themselves. Lunch of fish and plantains in a palm leaf was delicious.

Our city tour the next day was hindered by the fact that it was a national holiday, but Pierre’s team came through and organized a hike to the top of Ancon Hill for great views over the city and a visit to the fish market, with lunch. Our hotel, La Compania, in the old city was amazing, and Pierre wisely booked us a courtyard room to avoid the street noise. We loved being in the old city with its restaurants, bars and ambiance.

We then enjoyed the relaxation part of the trip, six nights at the amazing Isla Palenque. This very small resort where everybody knows your name was everything we wanted: peaceful, beautiful, great food and drinks. When we felt the urge to move a bit we went hiking in the rainforest, kayaking and did an island-hopping trip with snorkeling and lunch on a deserted beach that was wonderful.” —Christine Zufelt

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Australia for Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef

The Bengtzen family on a private yacht at Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

The Bengtzen family spent a day snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef from a private yacht.

“New Year’s in Australia had been a dream of mine since I was 14. We began in Sydney, where we stayed at the Shangri-La hotel. It gave us an amazing view for the fireworks, which were absolutely incredible. It was perfect for us and our adult kids to watch and not have to fight the crowds.

From Sydney we went to Hayman Island in the Whitsundays islands. This was a one-of -a-kind experience. From here we were able to have a private snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef—both the inner and outer reefs. Restaurants on the island were fantastic, and the beach is heaven. From Hayman we went to Noosa, where we had an incredible experience kayaking on the ocean. The shopping and food were wonderful and gave us a great end to our trip.

None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t found Wendy Perrin and her referral of Stuart. Stuart and Jacki then took our dates, our family info, and planned a once-in-a-lifetime trip for us. I cannot recommend them enough.” —Keri Bengtzen

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Sicily for meeting “wonderful people” over archaeology hikes and culinary experiences

Mt. Etna, Sicily.

Mt. Etna stands out from a dusting of snow in winter. Photo: Pixabay

“While January might not be the ideal time to visit Sicily (with the weather less than cooperative!), we saw, learned, engaged, and met wonderful people all along the way—from Palermo and surrounding towns Monreale, Castelbuono, Cefalu to Villa Romana del Casale, Agrigento, Testa dell’Acqua, Noto, Siracusa/Ortigia to Mt Etna. More than anything, getting to know Sicilians—over good conversations, culinary experiences, archaeology hikes, tours, food and wine—was the highlight of the entire trip. Marcello’s selection of guides and hosts was superb.

Perhaps the highlight of many highlights was the final day at Mt. Etna guided by Salvo (a volcanologist) followed by our visit to the Santa Maria La Nave Winery for a tour, wine tasting, and lunch hosted by Vera and Carmello. They epitomized the warmth, welcome and pride of purpose we found every day during this first visit to Sicily. We look forward to returning soon to this stunning, fascinating, history-filled island.” —Barbara Gross

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Sri Lanka for an exotic (yet affordable) island with welcoming people and delicious cuisine

Travelers surrounded by village kids on their Tea Trail hike in Sri Lanka.

Jan Heininger and husband Jamie Reuter meeting village kids on a Tea Trail hike.

“We had a three-week trip to Sri Lanka planned by Miguel. This very interesting trip covered almost the entire country from the Cultural Triangle with its archaeological ruins, cave temples and Buddhist sacred sites, its historic capitals of Anuradhapura and Kandy, its largest national park (Yala) famed for its leopards, its gorgeous Indian Ocean beaches, its colonial past displayed in the Galle Fort, and its myriad of agricultural products, especially tea and cinnamon.

Miguel ensured that we had a flexible schedule. Our driver, Thissa, could say, ‘Let’s stop and see that bird,’ or we could stop and taste a Golden coconut or visit a local market where we were introduced to many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits that are essential elements of Sri Lankan cuisine.

Miguel had us stay in wonderful places, including two Aman resorts on the south coast. At Amanwella, we took one of the best cooking classes we’ve ever had with the Executive Chef. At Amangalla in Galle Fort, we went for a bike ride in the countryside (beware of heat exhaustion), toured the Fort with a terrific local guide, and had a workshop making and painting traditional Sri Lankan masks. Miguel also booked us into Castlereagh, a five-room, former tea plantation manager’s bungalow. We were told to treat it like our home—just tell them what we wanted to eat and when.

Miguel set up wonderful experiences including the cooking class, a mask carving and painting workshop and visits to a cinnamon plantation and to a tea factory. He had us hike a segment of the Tea Trail where we interacted with women tea pickers and with kids and villagers we encountered along the way. The mask my husband carved from a block of balsa wood and the two we painted are off being framed right now and will always be physical reminders of our time in Sri Lanka.” —Jan Heininger

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Chile for Patagonia’s unique nature and wildlife

Travelers on a field of lupine during a birdwatching excursion in Chilean Patagonia.

Bill Livingood, Lynn Woodhouse, Sandra Quinn, and Stephen Thomas walk through a field of lupine during a birdwatching excursion in Chilean Patagonia.

“My husband, two friends and I have just returned from our trip to Chilean Patagonia, and once again, we were in the expert hands of Maita and her team. We began with a 3-night stay at the Singular Patagonia, outside of Puerto Natales. What a stunning and unique small hotel in a gorgeous setting overlooking a fjord. One wall of our room was a window onto the fjord and the activity of so many birds. We loved our bird-watching excursion there. With our great guide, we spent literally the entire day hiking through forest, pampa and the wetlands, spotting 41 species of birds. When we got to the end, and were pretty spent, our guide and driver served wine, water, tea, lentil soup and cheese, sausages and crackers. That certainly refreshed us. We enjoyed an afternoon empanada class and an interesting trek to three different caves. The Singular is definitely worth the stay.

From there, we drove to Tierra Patagonia, just outside Torres del Paine National Park. Magnificent view from our huge window in our room!!! We seized the opportunity for multiple excursions, as well as enjoying massages in the spa, taking a swim, and braving the wind for the outdoor hot tub. We saw lots of wildlife, wildflowers, stunning sunsets, and on our last morning, the entire dining room was abuzz when we saw a puma saunter across the property in front of us.

We spent our last night in the Singular Santiago, our second stay there, and it is a lovely hotel in a great location. Before our departure for the US, we had an extraordinary WOW Moment: Maita and team had arranged a cooking class and dinner with Tatan, a chef who hosted us at his home overlooking the city and mountains. He was gracious, interesting, and charming. We began with luscious appetizers on the balcony, and moved to the kitchen where he had organized work stations and assignments for each of us as we made ceviche and pisco sours. In addition to having fun, we learned new cooking skills. Gary, our escort to the airport, had to drag us away as we enjoyed our meal and delicious cheesecake on the balcony. With Tatan and Gary, we learned more about life in Santiago and Chile. By the end of the evening, we had begun questioning whether this trip, our third to Chile, would be our last, as we learned more about other places and things to do.” —Sandra Quinn

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Finland for the northern lights and other Arctic adventures (ice fishing, dogsledding…)

The cozy and warm Glass House Suite at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel in Finland.

Between outdoor adventures, Michael Ruma warmed up in his Glass House Suite. Photo: Traveler Michael Ruma

“My wife said she’d like to see the aurora borealis and, with Wendy’s help, we were quickly introduced to Leigh, who created a delightful week of fun in Finland.

We hopped an easy flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, which lies directly on the latitude of the Arctic Circle. An efficient, private transfer brought us to the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel. Met with warm blueberry juice, we checked into our Glass House suite. Our room had a centrally located living room with an enclosed wood-burning stove along with two bathrooms, one of which had our very own dry sauna.

Advised to download the Aurora app, we learned about the KP index which predicts the probability of witnessing the northern lights. Fortunately, after dinner at the hotel, a notification from the app informed us at 9pm the chance was high! Intent on seeing the natural phenomenon, we bundled up and hiked up a trail to a 50-foot observation tower specifically designed for viewing the lights. Finnish myths say the lights are caused when a fox runs across the Arctic landscape whipping up snow from its tail, sparking the lights in the night sky.

Regardless of the cause, we were blessed by an hour display of a gray hazy line emerging in the distance and evolving into a bright green glow right in front of our eyes. As we watched and photographed the sky, the lights blew around us along our walk back to our room.

Our next two days were filled with other Arctic adventures which included an exciting jaunt by snowmobile to learn how to ice fish on a frozen lake and then dog sledding on a snowy day in the beautiful and vast northern Finnish countryside. We concluded our trip with a train ride from Rovaniemi back to Helsinki. On our last day in Helsinki, we splurged and dined at Restaurant Savoy.

We would happily come back to Finland for a future visit either in the winter to take in the unique night sky, but this time much further north, or during the summer to take in the lively and sunny long days in Helsinki filled with so much to see, taste, and do. Delighted by its vast country, small polite population, and compact capital, its seasonally focused food, and its matter-of-fact and kind people. We had such fun in Finland.” —Michael Ruma

To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.


Vietnam and Cambodia for blow-your-mind history, street food, and Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat

It requires careful planning to have Angkor Wat to yourself like this. Photo: Traveler David Wertheimer

“Our trip to Cambodia and Vietnam from January 21st to February 6th was spectacular. We started in Phnom Penh, and traveled from there to Siem Reap, the Angkor Wat temple complex, Saigon, Cu Chi, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. Sopisith prepared our itinerary and arranged for personal guides at each of our stops. The guides were knowledgeable, friendly, and provided both historical information and personal stories that placed the horrors of the eras of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the U.S. military activities in Vietnam within the context of our visit and our understanding of current life in both nations. Our guides also provided us with street food tours that allowed us to sample some of the most unusual dishes we’ve ever eaten. (The sand worm pancakes were delicious!) There were multiple ‘wow,’ bucket-list moments, including Angkor Wat at sunrise (get there early!) and Ha Long Bay, to name just two of them.” —David Wertheimer

This trip was arranged by a WOW List candidate. Here’s what that means.

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Enjoying a guided boat tour in Mekong River

How to Get the Best Private Guide For a Trip With Kids

When you’re planning a vacation with young kids, you might think that hiring a private guide is an unnecessary luxury, an expense that couldn’t add much to the experience or that might get in the way of all that family bonding. You’d be wrong.

A good kid-friendly guide—as I found out on a recent trip with my husband and four-year-old to Southeast Asia—can make a huge difference in your child’s experience of a place, and in yours, too. The best ones know how to make museums come alive, where to find engaging activities, and equally important, how to steer your day so that no one has a meltdown (adults included).

The same value that outstanding guides add to grown-up trips—fascinating history and context, behind-the-scenes access, instant entry into local culture—they can bring for kids too. We travel with our children because we want to create memorable experiences as a family; how memorable is it if you’re chasing after them all day and trying to figure out the next “fun” thing to do? A private guide will not only come up with exciting activities, but will also take care of the small, annoying details—leaving you free to accomplish your main objective: spending meaningful time together.

In the end, our Southeast Asia guides ensured that our trip ran as smoothly and efficiently as possible, given that we had a four-year-old in tow. Here’s what I learned families should look for when choosing and using a private guide:

Request a guide who’s also a parent. With perhaps a few exceptions, only a fellow parent can truly understand how a young kid will impact your trip. Ask your trip planner how he/she knows that a particular guide is great with kids; have they seen the guide interact with children?

Make clearly spoken English a priority. My son, Zeke, had a hard time understanding when some of our guides spoke; in these situations, either my husband or I would have to “translate” for him. In the future, I’ll make unaccented pronunciation the second-highest priority for any guide I hire for my family.

Kid-focused activities on Halong Bay

Kid-focused activities keep kids engaged throughout long tours. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Ask in advance for a treasure hunt or other kid-focused activities. Don’t expect your kid to simply tag along while you tromp through museums and monuments. Including your children in the day’s events is key to keeping them engaged. Treasure hunts are a great way to keep them interested throughout a day-long tour.

Invite your guide to bring his/her own kids along. Our guide in Saigon had two kids close in age to our own; when he brought them along, Zeke—who had up until then been shy around our guides—immediately warmed to the whole family. It was as if he saw our guide as a dad now, a figure he could trust. And he adored playing with the girls so much that my husband and I were able to leave him under the care of the girls’ mother or uncle while we did some sightseeing. (If you’d rather not pay for another adult who can act as babysitter, you can tag-team the sightseeing while your spouse watches the kids.)

Make the most of your time with a guide, wherever you are. When Zeke hijacked the city tour that had been planned for our only day in Hanoi (thanks to a tantrum so bad it left me in tears), our guide took us to an indoor play area instead. While we didn’t get to see much of Hanoi, I still learned a lot about contemporary Vietnamese culture by chatting with our guide while my son played in a ball pit.

Be vigilant about the schedule. Adding a four-year-old to the equation makes everything take twice as long, whether it’s a trip to the grocery store or a stroll through Hoi An’s Ancient Town. When any of our guides assumed that we could keep to a typical touring timetable, the schedule would invariably slide, and my son would end up missing his afternoon nap—which made all of us cranky. If I’d estimated for our guide how long my son would last in Angkor Wat at the outset, he could have properly paced our visit so that we saw all of the ruins’ highlights. As it was, my son melted down halfway through and we had to skip half of the temple. Next time, I’ll be explicit with guides about what time we have to eat lunch or be back at the hotel for an afternoon rest, so that they can plan accordingly.

Allot your time with guides thoughtfully. I found a private guide most helpful in large cities, where logistics are particularly tricky. I recommend hiring one for your first day in a new city, then using any additional time there to explore on your own. Elsewhere, use guides only where they can provide access to things you wouldn’t see otherwise: a local village, say, or an after-hours visit to a museum that’s normally crowded.

What’s the best thing that a private guide has done for your family on a trip?

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Disclosure: Journeys Within and their partners provided most elements of the writer’s trip (hotels, intra-Asia airfare, guides, ground transportation, and sightseeing entry fees) free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for coverage on Journeys Within’s part, nor was anything promised on ours. You can read our sponsored travel agreement with Journeys Within here

A Vietnamese family played their collection of traditional instruments for us in Saigon

Five Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do with Kids in Vietnam

When you think Vietnam, do you think kid-friendly? I sure didn’t. But while visiting with my four-year-old (you can read more about our trip here), I found five fun things that I never expected we’d be able to do there:

Eat Italian-grandmother-worthy pasta. An English menu and Western dishes are usually two things I steer clear of in Asia—except when I have a four-year-old in tow. Restaurants that serve both the local cuisine and tourist-friendly pizzas and pastas usually are mediocre at best. But at Good Morning Vietnam, in Hoi An’s old town, we were served pasta with delectably fresh pesto  sauce; unsalted bread just like you’d find in Tuscany; and a complimentary, housemade limoncello digestif. They have a second outpost in Nha Trang, likely just as good.

Play traditional Vietnamese musical instruments. Andrea Ross, our Trusted Travel Expert for Southeast Asia, arranged for us to visit the Truc Mai House, whose occupants have been granted special permission by the government to share their knowledge of traditional music with guests. Not only did they give us a private concert on the iconic monochord zither (whose   sound we all associate with Vietnam, unwittingly or not), as well as ancient instruments made of bamboo and stones, afterward they let my son pluck away at their prized instruments. This kind of interactive experience is exactly what keeps young kids engaged in a foreign land.

Ba Cay Choi Saigon with kids

Our fabulous Saigon guide, took us to one of his daughters’ favorite haunts: Ba Cay Choi (Three Broomsticks Town), a fantastical, spooky place full of fairy houses. Photo: Ryan Damm

Bake cupcakes that Harry Potter would love. Khoa Nguyen, our fabulous Saigon guide, took us to one of his daughters’ favorite haunts: Ba Cay Choi (Three Broomsticks Town), a fantastical, spooky place full of fairy houses, gnarled wood accents, a ceramic-painting studio, and a kitchen fit for a witch, where kids can mix ingredients such as “fatty bug oil” and “fly milk” to make their own sweets. It seemed completely out of place in the middle of an Asian metropolis, and yet we were the only foreigners in the joint, surrounded by frolicking kids and emo teens.

Have a tea party. On the fourth floor of a shabby apartment building in the middle of Saigon—you have to walk through an entryway crammed with motorbikes to reach the dingy elevator—sits Partea, a darling tearoom of the English rather than Asian persuasion. Pick your cup and your tea (choosing among over 60 flavors, from earl gray to passion fruit to caramel popcorn), and the frilly-aproned staff will heat your leaves in a glass pot, kept warm at your table with a candle. It’s a welcome respite of white walls and flowery tablecloths amid the soot and chaos of this busy city. And just like Ba Cay Choi, it’s filled with locals, not foreigners.

Dingo Deli in Hoi An trampoline

Dingo Deli in Hoi An had a backyard with a bamboo-and-rope climbing structure, swings, and a trampoline. Photo: Ryan Damm

Find playgrounds in restaurants. Eating politely in public three times a day is tough for even the most well-mannered kids.  That’s why we were delighted to find the Dingo Deli in Hoi An and Snap Café in Saigon, both of which have sandy play areas for tykes to run around in while the adults linger over a meal. Dingo has a long menu of Australian and American favorites, from meat pies to safe-to-eat salads, and a backyard with a bamboo-and-rope climbing structure, swings, and a trampoline. Snap Café, which is located in an expat-heavy neighborhood, has a spiffier, more elaborate play area, and serves crowd-pleasers from a variety of cuisines—including surprisingly tasty Vietnamese choices.


Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Disclosure: Journeys Within and their partners provided most elements of the writer’s trip (hotels, intra-Asia airfare, guides, ground transportation, and sightseeing entry fees) free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for coverage on Journeys Within’s part, nor was anything promised on ours. You can read our sponsored travel agreement with Journeys Within here

The Great Wall of China

Rookie Travel Mistakes to Avoid in Asia

Rookie travel mistakes happen more often than you think. In the excitement of preparing for a long-dreamed about escape or a last-minute getaway, even the savviest of globetrotters can forget the basics. A common one is not thinking about the best time of year (or time of week) to experience a destination; another is failing to allot enough time to visit each point on your itinerary. To be sure you don’t fall into any traps (tourist or otherwise) during your own adventures, we asked our Trusted Travel Experts to weigh in on the most important things to know—and the most common rookie mistakes to avoid—when traveling to China, Japan, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia.

What would you add? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.


Expecting idyllic white-sand beaches. Bali’s beaches are mostly too rough for swimming (but good for surfing), and the quieter ones have little or no sand. I listen carefully to what every client is looking for in a beach—and tell them if they’re better off in the Caribbean. —Diane Embree, Trusted Travel Expert for Bali

Read Diane’s Insider’s Guide to Bali


Paro, Bhutan

Paro, Bhutan. Photo courtesy Antonia Neubauer.

Not knowing that there is only one east-west road in the entire country, meaning that every tourist (and there are many, despite what anyone else says) who is not trekking is driving back and forth along that same road. —Antonia Neubauer, Trusted Travel Expert for Bhutan and Nepal

Read Antonia’s Insider’s Guide to Bhutan


Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo courtesy Molly Fergu

One big rookie mistake that travelers make is assuming you’ll ride through the jungle on an elephant and “discover” Angkor Wat! It’s best to be realistic that this is a major international destination and plan accordingly. You can avoid the crowds and have a more special experience if you get an early start and begin at the back entrance to Angkor Wat, or visit lesser-known temples. If you head in unprepared, you’ll be in the middle of packs of tourists and you won’t really get to see anything. —Andrea Ross, Trusted Travel Expert for Southeast Asia

Read Andrea’s Insider’s Guides to Angkor Wat and Cambodia


Dragonback Rice Terraces, Guangxi, China

Dragonback rice terraces, Guangxi Province. Photo courtesy Lian Lodge.

Seeing only the famous sites, such as the Great Wall and the Terra-cotta Warriors. China has so much to offer, and major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an are only a slice of the entire country—and an overdeveloped, crowded, and sprawling one at that. I urge you to spend from five days to a week focusing on a lesser-known province, such as Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, or Guangxi. Visit some smaller villages, enjoy the beauty of terraced rice fields, and get away from the most popular places and the wonderful diversity of the culture will come to life. —Mei Zhang, Trusted Travel Expert for China

Read Mei’s Insider’s Guides to China’s Big Cities and Small Villages, Yunnan Province, and Beijing

Cruising in Asia

Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar.

Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar. Photo courtesy the Cruise Professionals.

A rookie mistake is planning to board the ship the same day you fly into port. You’ve probably booked an Asia cruise because you want to pack a lot of destinations into a single trip—so why waste your time and money spending the first few days of your itinerary jet-lagged? Even if the ship spends the first night in its departure port, arrive a few days early so that you can properly acclimate (and not risk missing the ship due to airline or weather delays; Hong Kong in particular can get fogged in). —Mary Jean Tully, Trusted Travel Expert for Cruises

Read Mary Jean’s Insider’s Guide to Asia Cruises

India: Agra

Taj Mahal Reflection, Agra, India

Taj Mahal Reflection, Agra, India. Courtesy Sanjay Saxena

A rookie mistake is forgetting to buy tickets to the Taj Mahal in advance. Tickets are not sold at the entrance: The ticket office is actually located in the East Gate parking lot about a mile from the monument entrance. Tickets to the Taj may also be purchased at any of the other monuments in Agra—but be sure that the date stamp is for the day that you will be visiting or is an open-ended ticket. —Sanjay Saxena, Trusted Travel Expert for India

Read Sanjay’s Insider’s Guides to Delhi and Agra and the Taj Mahal

India: Rajasthan

Amanbagh, India

Amanbagh, India. Photo courtesy Amanbagh

Travelers to India—and especially to Rajasthan—love to shop for fine jewelry because the prices are so good, but you need to go somewhere reputable, otherwise you may be sold glass instead of diamonds. (One of our favorite shops is the Gem Palace in Jaipur.) —Bertie and Victoria Dyer, Trusted Travel Experts for India

Read Bertie and Victoria’s Insider’s Guide to Rajasthan


Monk and flowers, Nepal.

Monk and Flowers, Nepal. Photo Courtesy Toni Neubauer

Not paying attention to altitude gain when trekking! People like to believe they are immortal and want to rush up mountains, but they need to study the rules for altitude acclimatization and follow them carefully. Altitude sickness is no joke. —Antonia Neubauer, Trusted Travel Expert for Nepal and Bhutan

Read Antonia’s Insider’s Guide to Nepal

Sri Lanka

Sunset in Tangalle

Sunset on a beach in Tangalle.

Sri Lanka looks small on a map, but it can take hours to get from place to place, and there are definite no-nos. For instance, don’t try to travel from Kandy to Yala National Park in one day, or from the Cultural Triangle to the beaches of Tangalle, or from Jaffna to Colombo. On the map (and on Google Maps), distances and approximate travel times are misleading. Sri Lanka offers great diversity and looks like you can tick all the boxes in one week—you can’t. If you want to speed things up a little, try flying on certain segments. Two local operators offer scheduled flights around the country: Cinnamon Air and Helitours. —Miguel Cunat, Trusted Travel Expert for Sri Lanka

Read Miguel’s Insider’s Guide to Sri Lanka


Grand Palace, Bangkok. Photo by C Kennerly.

Grand Palace, Bangkok. Photo by C Kennerly.

Visiting Bangkok first. This sprawling metropolis of some 18 million people can be overwhelming, so I don’t recommend it for your first encounter with Thailand. It’s much more enjoyable to recover from jet lag someplace relaxing and traditionally Thai, such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, or Sukhothai. By traveling upcountry (or to the beach) first, you’ll experience traditional Thai culture, have time to acclimate to the time zone, and appreciate Bangkok much more when you visit it at the end of your trip. —Sandy Ferguson, Trusted Travel Expert for Southeast Asia

Read Sandy’s Insider’s Guides to Bangkok, Southeast Asia, and Thailand

Uzbekistan and The Silk Road

Tilla Kori Medreseh, Samarkand

Tilla Kori Medreseh in Samarkand. Photo courtesy Zulya Rajabova.

Some travelers opt to fly from one Silk Road city to another, and there is a high-speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand, but travel by car is most rewarding. There are many cultural, architectural, and archaeological treasures to find outside the main cities, as well as rural villages to visit, the ancient towns of Jizzakh Province, local bazaars, and amazing photo opportunities. —Zulya Rajabova, Trusted Travel Expert for Uzbekistan and the Silk Road

Read Zulya’s Insider’s Guide to Uzbekistan


Do you have tips on avoiding rookie mistakes? Share your advice in the comments.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

How to Choose the Right Boat for Halong Bay, Vietnam


Your post about Billie Cohen joining WendyPerrin.com includes a picture of Ms. Cohen cruising Halong Bay. I’m wondering if she’d be willing to share her thoughts on that excursion and destination?  My wife and I (with my brother and sister-in-law) are planning our first visit to Vietnam—specifically, Hanoi and Halong Bay—this fall, and we’d be grateful for any recommendations on which ship to sail on and the best way to make reservations.  Thanks!



Hi Doug, Billie here. That’s a great question, and of course I’m happy to answer it. To get up-to-the-minute intel, I spoke with April Cole, two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Southeast Asia.  We recommend working with an expert like April who can match you to the right boat for an extraordinary experience and put you way ahead of the crowd

Here’s their advice:

Think about the size of boat you want

There are all kinds of ships, from small and private to large and almost cruise-ship-style, and they range in price from backpacker to luxury. So you need to be aware of your budget. I prefer smaller boats; the service is better, and you get a more intimate experience.

Know which bay you’re going to

There are actually two bays; Halong is the bigger bay, and it’s where the majority of ships go. Bai Tu Long Bay is smaller, and for years no one had permission [from the government] to sail there. A few years ago, the government opened that bay to a specific company, Indochina Junk, and they run the Dragon’s Pearl boat and offer some private boats too. (They got permission by doing philanthropic work with the villages in that bay.)

The benefit of Bai Tu Long Bay is that you’re one of few boats in the bay, whereas Halong Bay can sometimes be like rush hour. The government regulates where the boats anchor, when they go out, etc.

However, the boats in Bai Tu Long Bay are not as luxurious as some of the ones in Halong Bay. I arrange private boats with your own guide and cook. Especially for families, it’s a great way for them to have their own space and activities and feel like they’re having a more intimate experience.

Consider whether you want to sail for one or two nights

With most companies, you go out on a big boat the first day, and on the next day, you get on a little boat that takes you around (while the big boat goes back and picks up new people), and then you come back to the big boat. So there’s no difference between your second night and the first group’s first night. It’s a little less personalized—you feel a bit shuttled around. The ships I recommend, through a company called Indochina Junk, do a dinner in a cave on the second night, which is pretty spectacular.

Ask questions

Once you board the boat, you’re stuck with it, so ask a lot of questions up front to make sure you’re purchasing the experience you want.

•What bay do you go to?

•How many cabins are on the ship (to determine size and intimacy of the experience)?

•Can you handle special meal requests?

•Do you provide a shared transfer or a private transfer? Usually, the company picks you up from your hotel for the three-hour drive from Hanoi and brings you back, and if you opt for a shared ride it’s a good way to bring the price down, but it can add time to your travels.

Talk to the crew

It’s easy to go sit on deck and watch the views go by—because it’s absolutely stunning—but if you want to have those intimate moments of experiencing the culture and the people, befriend the captain and crew.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Rush hour in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo courtesy Andrea Ross.


Since you mentioned you’re also going to be in Hanoi, we picked April’s brain for insider tips for that city as well. Here’s what she had to say:

Choose a hotel in the Old Quarter

Picking a good hotel with a good location is one of the best things you can do. In Hanoi you want to be downtown in the Old Quarter, because that’s where the culture and the people come together.

Know what day is it

On Monday, everything is closed—all the museums. So make sure you don’t plan to tour the city tour on a Monday, because you’ll be disappointed.

Be respectful of the country’s history

For Americans, it’s good to keep in mind that Hanoi was the seat of Communism during the war, so a lot of what you’re seeing is propaganda. You might hear things that aren’t true—your guides have to say what they have to say. Don’t get offended; this is propaganda and you have to see it as that.

Embrace the city’s bustle

The cool thing about Hanoi is its balance between ancient and modern. You’ll turn one corner in the Old Quarter and see a woman carrying a traditional basket and she’ll make you soup right there out of her basket. And then you can walk a few blocks and you’re in the financial district and it’s a very capitalist society.

The other thing to remember in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi, is that people are tough. They’ve been through some wars; they can take care of themselves; they are feisty. A lot of our guests come from somewhere quieter, like Laos, and they are surprised. Hanoi is such a bustling city, and there is so much going on there. It’s loud, and busy, and you could get ripped off—and it’s important to come in knowing that’s what you’re going to see. But when you get to talk to people one on one, they’re just so nice. This is one of my favorite places.

Don’t miss

I really like the Temple of Literature, even thought it’s very touristy.

I also suggest getting out of Hanoi for a day. I can arrange tours that go to old villages where you can meet the village chief and have lunch. If you’re on your own, you can go to “handicraft” villages, where lacquer, woodworking, and sewing thrive. Just say to your guide: We want to get out of Hanoi and visit a village or go to a market. When you get there, go one step further and ask questions of the villagers. Everyone waits for those magical travel experiences to happen, but sometimes they need a push. [The villagers] are used to seeing a lot of tourists, but they’re not used to telling their stories—and people love to talk.

Don’t bother

People want to see Uncle Ho. But if the line is long, I tell my guests it’s not worth it. Instead, try the Ho Chi Minh Museum—it’s nearby and it’s fascinating. It’s a tribute to Ho Chi Minh, so for some Americans it’s off-putting, but it’s smaller and not as visited, so you don’t see a lot of tour groups there.

Be careful crossing the street

The city itself is fascinating, but you have to remember that crossing the street is dangerous. I suggest finding a little old lady—one who has the traditional baskets. Then literally stand next to her and cross when she crosses.

Eat street food

I encourage my guests to be adventurous—Hanoi has great street food. I like Banh Cuonziet in the Old Quarter, started by a woman name Le Thi Thanh Thuy. They cook traditional Vietnamese steamed rice balls out front on the street, and you choose what you want in it.

Banh Cuonziet restaurant in Hanoi's Old Quarter, Vietname

Banh Cuonziet restaurant in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Photo courtesy Andrea Ross.