Looking for a new way to make holiday memories? Taking a family trip to somewhere other than Grandma's house promises exciting keepsake photos for next year's Christmas card, while also delivering on the trend of gifting experiences instead of things.
Since Christmastime is an extremely popular (and expensive) time to travel, now is the perfect time to start thinking about and even nailing down your plans for next year.
"Typically the busiest week for any travel is between Christmas and New Year's," says Katina Williams, owner of local travel agency Chasing Down Daydreams. She recommends booking six months to a year in advance and traveling the week before Christmas if possible.
To help kick off your holiday planning, we asked Williams to create sample itineraries for four popular holiday destinations: New York City, a Caribbean cruise, London and, her all-time destination of choice, Walt Disney World. Packages were chosen when possible, as they help travelers — especially families — save money and stick to a budget, she says.
Even if you decide against straying from Grandma's, the following should give you some sugarplum daydreams to carry you through any holiday drama.
When to book: Williams recommends booking a cruise as far as a year in advance — as soon as possible after cruise lines announce voyages during the dates you'd like to travel. She advises booking a Disney trip six months ahead of time for the best reservations. For all other destinations, booking two to three months in advance should be fine, though six months is ideal, Williams says.
Get info: For more information or to get help planning your holiday trip, call Williams at 423-316-5403, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Chasing Down Daydreams website at cddtravel.com.
WALT DISNEY WORLD
"Disney really knows how to do Christmas," Williams says, adding that the resort only offers certain experiences, such as Epcot's candlelight procession, from November through New Year's. She recommends spending five days in Orlando, allowing for at least one day per park. "A lot of people also like a day to rest or time to take advantage of all the resort activities," she adds.
Total cost: $6,499.62
Price is for two adults and two children ages 6 and 10 and includes round-trip airfare from Chattanooga to Orlando on Delta Airlines, travel insurance, accommodations, park tickets, dining plan and five nights at a Disney resort. Children ages 3-9 receive reduced-price entry into the parks.
Accommodations at Disney's Port Orleans Resort – Riverside: This moderately priced resort is located on the Disney property and offers shuttles anywhere you'll want to go, so you won't need to rent a car. Plus, many Disney resorts offer complimentary airport transportation. And adding to the magic of "the happiest place on Earth," at this time of year, all Disney resorts feature holiday decorations and gingerbread houses throughout the season.
Theme park tickets (6-day ticket with Park Hopper option, offering access to all four parks): In addition to all the routine shows and attractions, holiday guests are treated to special Christmastime activities, such as the Epcot International Festival of the Holidays, offering different seasonal snacks from around the world; the Candlelight Processional, featuring a retelling of the Christmas story by a celebrity narrator; and a mass choir and a 50-piece live orchestra performing seasonal melodies three times nightly from Thanksgiving until New Year's. Also included are holiday events in the Magic Kingdom, such as "A Frozen Holiday Wish" show, which lights up Cinderella's castle with dazzling lights every night at dusk beginning in mid-November; "Mickey's Once Upon A Christmastime Parade"; and the "Holiday Wishes!" fireworks show. For an additional cost, get tickets for "Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party," an after-hours event in the Magic Kingdom featuring all things Christmas, held on select nights throughout the holiday season.
Dining plan: The midgrade "Disney Dining Plan" option offers one counter-service meal (typically lunch), one table-service meal and two snacks per day per person at more than 100 Disney World restaurants. "You can use it pretty much anywhere on the property," Williams says.
Christmastime is also one of the best times to visit New York City, with its abundance of attractions, shopping opportunities and cold-weather activities.
Total cost: $4,924.73
Price is for two adults and two children and includes direct flight from Chattanooga on United Airlines, travel insurance and five nights at Sheraton New York Times Square.
Dec. 19: SuperShuttle transfer from airport to hotel
Dec. 20: Holiday Lights and Movie Sites Tour. Capture the holiday spirit at settings from your favorite flicks on this bus tour guided by a local New York City actor. You'll pass by iconic sites illuminated at night, stop for a photo in front of the towering Lincoln Center tree, and relive your favorite cinematic scenes with on-screen clips as you pass by real film sites from iconic holiday movies including "Elf," "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York," "Scrooged" and "Serendipity." The tours are constantly updated with new locations, and special requests for sites not featured on the tour can sometimes be accommodated.
Dec. 23: New York Christmas Holiday Tour. New York during the holidays is a magical place, and this guided tour is the best way to see all the city's holiday hot spots. The tour begins in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of New York's most beautiful churches, where you will get the chance to go inside and see the church fully decorated for Christmas. You'll learn about the history of Rockefeller Center and its famous tree (decorated and lit starting Dec. 1) as well as the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, featuring the world-renowned Rockettes. The tour also visits the Bryant Park Holiday Market and includes a stroll down Fifth Avenue, renowned for its beautiful holiday window displays.
Dec. 24: Board your direct flight to Chattanooga and be back in time for Christmas.
For those who prefer to escape the cold, a Caribbean cruise is an affordable option that doesn't require you to commit to a single destination. Williams suggests a four-night Very Merrytime Bahamian Cruise on Disney Cruise Lines' Disney Dream.
Total cost: $8,585.68
Price is for a family of four, with accommodations in an Oceanview Stateroom. Includes air travel from Chattanooga to Orlando on Delta Airlines, ground transportation, vacation protection and all food and drink, aside from alcoholic beverages and some adult dining options.
Dec. 19: Arrive at Nassau, Bahamas. Guests may disembark, but excursions cost extra.
Dec. 20: Visit Disney Castaway Cay. Disney's private island paradise is transformed for the holidays with "snow" flurries, a Christmas tree and more. The island's tram is even decorated to resemble a reindeer, complete with antlers and a tail.
Dec. 21: At sea. Onboard festivities include holiday-themed entertainment and activities, such as the chance to help decorate a life-size gingerbread house and participate in "Mickey's Tree Lighting Magic Ceremony," where kids can help light the ship's 24-foot Christmas tree. Disney characters in holiday attire will greet guests, and even Mrs. Claus will stop by for story time.
Dec. 22: Return to Port Canaveral.
London was named the top European destination for 2017 by TripAdvisor, and Williams says it is a great destination for families, with plenty of kid-appropriate activities. For any European trip, she recommends spending 10-14 days. "It's going to be the trip of a lifetime for most people, who will want to get the most out of it," she says, adding, "You also need time to adjust to the time difference."
Total cost: $13,632.87
Price is for two adults and two children, and includes round-trip airfare from Chattanooga to London Heathrow on Delta Airlines, 13 nights at Crowne Plaza London-Kensington, private car transfer from airport, vacation protection and tours listed below. Additional cost for transportation to activities, meals and chosen activities during free time.
Pro tip: Transportation to daily activities is not included, and cab rides in London can get pricey. One alternative is to purchase a London Travelcard that allows you unlimited rides on the city's extensive network of buses and underground trains.
Dec. 18 and 19: Explore on your own
Dec. 20: London Vintage Bus Tour and Thames River cruise. On this action-packed half-day tour, you'll explore the city by vintage double-decker bus and see famous sights such as Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. Then, cruise down the Thames River on a sightseeing cruise to Westminster and watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Dec. 22: Self-guided London landmarks tour. Take some time to independently explore a few of the famous London landmarks you glimpsed during the double-decker bus tour. Kids will especially love a ride on the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel with stunning views of the city; a tour of the Tower of London led by one of the ceremonial guardians of the tower, commonly known as "beefeaters"; or a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral's Whispering Gallery, where, if you whisper into the wall at a certain spot, your words can magically be heard 150 feet away.
Dec. 23: Harry Potter bus tour. Tour the muggle capital of London to see film locations used in the Harry Potter films on an exciting three-hour tour around the city by luxury coach. You'll visit must-see fictional sites, such as Platform 9 and Number 12 Grimmauld Place, and hear insider gossip about the films from your guide as you discover the London landmarks that inspired the Harry Potter books and movies to be made.
Dec. 25: Canterbury excursion. Celebrate Christmas Day by taking a tour of the beautiful English countryside to visit Canterbury, the center of Christian worship for almost 1,700 years. Attend a service in the town's cathedral before enjoying a delicious traditional Christmas lunch; then take a walking tour of Rochester and head over to see the White Cliffs of Dover. Includes transportation to and from London and between destinations.
Dec. 27: Explore on your own
Dec. 28: Windsor Castle tour. This half-day tour will give you an inside look at the many areas of Windsor Castle, home to Queen Elizabeth II. A luxury coach will shuttle you from London to the castle. The tour concludes in London with a classic English lunch at St. George's Tavern, one of the city's first cabaret saloons, located in the small district of Victoria in the city of Westminster in central London.
Dec. 30: Explore on your own
Dec. 31: Board your return flight to Chattanooga to ring in the new year.