This year’s holidays are bringing some unexpected gifts: the potential for extraordinary last-minute trips you may not have realized were even possible.
We’ve tapped the experts on Wendy’s WOW List—the well informed, on-the-ground trip planners who’ve been wowing our readers throughout the pandemic—to find destinations that are still able to be booked for last-minute Christmas or New Year’s vacations. These aren’t merely places that have random spots of availability; these are places where they can still find you the most charming hotel rooms and the savviest private guides and can put together a Covid-safe and high-caliber trip.
The list includes some spots that are newly reopened (like Thailand and Cambodia) and others (like Italy) that have been open but are enjoying a break from the usual crowds. In every case, the WOW Lister knows how to handle all Covid requirements for arrival and return and can remove that stress from your plate. All you have to do is show up and bring the holiday cheer.
*Covid situations continue to change all the time. Please talk to your WOW List specialist for on-the-ground intel in the places you are considering and consult available current data (vaccination info by country and Covid cases by country) to determine your comfort level.
U.S. National Parks
While marquee parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton are fully booked for the holidays, you can still find availability in and near some parks out west (think California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona). Whether you’re hiking, mountain biking, canyoneering, horseback riding, or driving four-wheelers, you’ll be spending your days in the fresh air, accompanied by vaccinated private guides.
Families with kids young and old, multigenerational clans, and groups of friends can still nab a dream home in Cabo in December. Our WOW List expert for Cabo has plenty of availability Christmas week (but not the week after) in seaside villas that range from four to ten bedrooms, and that offer plenty of indoor and outdoor space for hanging out together—in gourmet kitchens, al fresco dining areas, large living rooms, or by a pool, fire pit, or Jacuzzi. Some properties are near beach clubs, tennis courts, or golf clubs, but if your crew is more interested in lounging around, private chefs and in-villa spa treatments can be arranged too.
Warm-weather destinations near the U.S. were the first to book up for this holiday season. If you’re still hoping to plan a beach trip that won’t require a second mortgage, under-the-radar Panama may be your best bet: While availability is limited, there are still some rooms and private villas to be had on the island’s Caribbean and Pacific coastlines.
At Christmastime these cities’ holiday lights, outdoor Christmas markets, and gastronomic treats—tortellini in brodo, panettone, pandoro—will have you feeling like a local in a way you never can in summertime. Spend your holiday in Rome, Florence, or Venice, where our WOW Listers can arrange for an array of outdoor experiences, from learning how to ride a Vespa in Rome (where temps are in the 50s in December) to learning how to row a gondola in Venice. Florence is more about indoor venues —museums, palazzi, legendary boutiques—but these feel safe because visitors must show proof of vaccination. And this year museums are limiting group sizes indoors, so you can take in Italian masterpieces without a sea of heads in front of you.
Monaco brings to mind glitz and glamour—and the holiday season is no exception. The streets are aglow in Christmas lights (some of which visitors can control with an app!), Christmas markets offer handmade souvenirs and sweet treats, and huge trees take center stage at the Place d’Armes and Place du Casino. You can still nab a room at one of the city’s famed hotels (even one with a water view), and it’s easy to take day trips from the principality into Provence.
Europe’s Christmas Markets
Certain of Europe’s charming Christmas markets stay open past Christmas, keeping the festive spirit going past the holiday. Budapest’s market will be open for shopping until December 31, Krakow’s until January 2. While Munich and Bavaria canceled their Christmas markets in response to rising Covid numbers, the markets are still open in Dresden and Berlin—the latter until January 2. We can recommend well-informed, well-connected WOW Listers who can provide local intel and help evaluate the on-the-ground realities—for instance, whether local restaurants and indoor venues are requiring proof of vaccination for all who enter, where free testing is available, how mask-compliant the locals are, and even which hotels are offering special deals.
Thailand and Cambodia
Thailand and Cambodia have only recently reopened to international travelers, so even the best hotels—which would normally be booked up months in advance over the holidays—still have lots of availability. There are some hoops for travelers to jump through (e.g., pre-trip and post-arrival tests), but our WOW List experts are well versed in the process. They can spare you the logistics so that you can focus on enjoying what these countries have to offer before next year’s tourist hordes return: gorgeous beaches and island-hopping in the Phuket and Koh Rong areas, the historic temples of Siem Reap, and the rich history in Chiang Rai and Phnom Penh.
Peru and Ecuador
Imagine spending the holidays at Machu Picchu or in the Andean cloud forest. Both Peru and Ecuador are open to fully vaccinated travelers and have a fraction of the Covid cases found in many other countries. (Peru, in fact, currently has only a Level 2 advisory from the State Department and C.D.C.) Late December brings the start of the rainy season in the Peruvian Andes, but with showers mostly in the afternoons, that leaves lots of time to hike, explore local markets, and have remarkable Incan ruins largely to yourself. In neighboring Ecuador, you can combine the biodiversity of the cloud forest with a stay at a hacienda in the Lake District or a soak in the thermal baths at Papallacta hot springs—all are within a few hours’ drive of Quito.
Brazil and Uruguay
Rio de Janeiro has long been a popular spot for New Year’s Eve; locals dress in white and throw flowers into the ocean as an offering to the sea goddess (and the celebrations will indeed go on this year, announced the mayor, reversing an earlier decision). If you prefer your festivities on a smaller scale, opt for a palm-tree-lined beach in Bahia. Covid cases in Brazil are at their lowest levels since May 2020. Neighboring Uruguay has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, and it’s still possible to nab a room over the holidays at some of the top hotels in trendy José Ignacio—places that would normally book up over a year in advance. Imagine yourself enjoying dinners cooked on open fires, horseback riding through the sand dunes, and touring cutting-edge wineries with the owners.
Even in December, Turkey’s weather is mild enough to enjoy outdoor sightseeing and many meals al fresco. Plus, you can get around privately everywhere with the right trip planner, not just via spacious, WiFi-equipped vehicles but via private boat and balloon too. This was Wendy’s experience of Istanbul during Covid; other outdoor experiences include cooking classes and backstreet food tours. Top it off with Cappadocia—the unique lunar landscape with otherworldly rock formations and ancient cities carved into rock—for sightseeing by hot-air balloon and unforgettable hiking, biking, and ATV rides.
Safari in Kenya or Rwanda
Coveted gorilla-viewing permits are still available in Rwanda, and in Kenya you can still find accommodations at top camps and in some national parks. Nonstop flights from New York/JFK to Nairobi eliminate the hassle and potential anxiety around transiting through southern Africa or Europe—and since both Rwanda and Kenya require a recent test to enter, you can be confident that most of the people on your flight will have just tested negative. Plus, vaccination rates in the region’s tourism sector are high, and the outdoor nature of all activities and meals make for a Covid-optimized environment.