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Why Thanksgiving Is the Best Time to Travel

By Michelle Baran

Nov 17, 2021

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Make beautiful places—like Bend, Oregon—a part of new Thanksgiving traditions.

Photo by Aleksander Todorovic/Shutterstock

Make beautiful places—like Bend, Oregon—a part of new Thanksgiving traditions.

Hitting the road in lieu of heading to the dinner table can result in some unforgettable Thanksgiving memories.

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Growing up, I can’t recall a single Thanksgiving at my parents’ house. There was the frigid but beautiful, snow-dusted Thanksgiving at the Grand Canyon. One year, we had a lobster-themed Thanksgiving in Boston. Thanksgiving in Barcelona was filled with Gaudí and tapas. There was that time my brother, parents, and I all met up in Rio de Janeiro for endless art treks. And one of my all-time favorites was driving down to Cabo San Lucas from Southern California for an epic Mexican road trip adventure through small, tumbleweed towns along the entirety of the Baja Peninsula. But actually sitting at the table at home? If it happened, it was maybe a small handful of times and clearly my memory of it was surpassed by these incredible journeys.

My mother is Polish and my father is Romanian and somehow Thanksgiving never meant much to them. What did mean a lot to them was the fact that no matter what, we all had four days off. My mom always said it was the best deal: You take three days off, and you get nine. My folks love traveling, so pulling us out of school for three days so that we could have a week-long adventure was far more of a priority to them than any amount of food that just didn’t resonate with our Eastern European palates.

Thanksgiving is a time that people often set aside for family and friends, to be together, talk, and create memories. In 2020, many were forced to put that tradition on hold. As friends and families contemplate how and whether to safely gather again this year, they may be thinking of ways to create new traditions. What better way to do that than by hitting the road on Thanksgiving? If not this year, there’s always next. Here are some tips to help you make the most of the voyage, whenever you decide to give it a go.

Avoid the masses heading home

Sure, my family and I aren’t the only ones who have had the idea of getting away during the Thanksgiving holiday. But the vast majority of Americans, if they’re traveling on Thanksgiving, are likely heading to spend time with friends and family. Since it is a U.S. holiday, it can often be easier to book international travel during Thanksgiving than during more globally recognized holiday periods, such as Christmas and New Year’s. 

Our Guide to Last-Minute Holiday 2021 Travel

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As for domestic travel, while you are competing with the masses for flights nationwide, if you can get past that hurdle (road-tripping is one great way to do so), hotels are often a bit less in demand during this time of year than compared to the high summer season or the end of December (try to offset your dates if possible for better prices and availability). Be sure to look for last-minute travel deals that can inspire an impromptu adventure.

Popular domestic destinations feel quieter over Thanksgiving than at other times of year, which gives traveling during the end of November a peaceful charm. Most places are already decked out for the holidays too, so they’ll feel beautifully festive but placid—the calm before the holiday storm.

You may still catch some late fall foliage during Thanksgiving travels.

It can be a gorgeous time to travel

Weather is never a guarantee. And in many places, Thanksgiving time can definitely be frigid. But it can also be downright spectacular. Late autumn’s moody sunsets and the gorgeous fall foliage that might still be lingering can often add to the experience. One year, my parents and I headed to Napa for Thanksgiving and were blown away by the deep red and bright yellow vines that greeted us during our winetastings—that wasn’t why we had chosen Napa, but it was an absolutely surreal surprise.

And the cold can even enhance the scenery. When we visited the Grand Canyon over Thanksgiving, sure, it was chilly, but we were practically alone out on the ridge, and the light snowfall along the picturesque gorge made it a stunning backdrop for photos.

There’s also always the Southern Hemisphere—if not now, then something to consider for the future when international travel opens up more. Thanksgiving is late spring in Rio, so when we all traveled to the Brazilian city several years ago for Thanksgiving, we were greeted with ample sunshine and warm temps that gave us one last welcome dose of summer before winter. 

You can still have an incredible meal

Obviously, a big part of Thanksgiving is the food. And that doesn’t have to change if you decide to hit the road for the holiday. Wherever we have been in the world for Thanksgiving, we have always made sure to have a particularly nice sit-down meal on Thanksgiving proper. In Rio, we kicked it up a notch with a live bossa nova show after dinner. In Barcelona, we asked around for recommendations and made a reservation at a killer tapas restaurant with even better Spanish wines. While you may not find a traditional Thanksgiving feast available, you will certainly find plenty of meals that can match, if not top, any Thanksgiving dinner.

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If you’re determined to find a taste of home, international hotels that host a large number of American clients will often have a special Thanksgiving menu. Domestically, the bigger issue will be making sure which restaurants are open on Thanksgiving. Those that are will typically have a Thanksgiving menu, sometimes a little extra fancy (and yes, probably a little extra costly), that will often include traditional offerings (turkey, stuffing, and all the fixings) alongside several other selections.

You could, if you feel so inclined, also find plenty of ways to cook or order your own Thanksgiving feast. That might mean booking a vacation rental with its own kitchen for your use or even having a Thanksgiving barbecue on the beach or a picnic. Stateside, grocery chains like Whole Foods and online grocer Fresh Direct have Thanksgiving meals available for preorder that you can either pick up or have delivered. You can certainly get creative (although know that outside the United States it will likely not be so easy to find turkey). The thrill of the hunt could be part of the adventure as well, or you could swap in another festive main course alternative.

Enjoy shared experiences

Another great thing about Thanksgiving on the road are the people you meet who become part of your “nomadsgiving” family. A few years ago, my husband and I road-tripped up to Portland and ended up in a sweet and quirky bed-and-breakfast in Bend, Oregon, on Thanksgiving proper. The owners asked us if we had any plans and invited us to a little potluck they were having in the property’s common area. It ended up being the most delightfully odd coming together of friends and strangers on a holiday that is typically reserved for those you have known for years. But we all had a blast, shared stories, broke bread, and drank subpar wine—the evening was as memorable as it gets. The unpredictability of who you will come across on your Thanksgiving travels only adds to its specialness.

Don’t be afraid to go it alone

If you don’t have a friend or family member who can or wants to travel with you over Thanksgiving, don’t let that be a deterrent. Remember, the holiday isn’t celebrated in the rest of the world, so if you travel internationally, you won’t even notice you are “missing” it. One year, when my family was scattered all over the globe and I was faced with being on my own for Thanksgiving, I simply opted for a group trip to Thailand. Temple treks and gorging on mango sticky rice were the perfect antidote to a potentially lonely holiday at home.

Ultimately, Thanksgiving means different things to different to people. Some are devoted to sitting around the table and eating a traditional meal. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But for those who are interested in creating an exciting new custom, I would argue that traveling during Thanksgiving is one of the most rewarding ways to do so.

This story was originally published on November 1, 2019, and has been updated to include current information.

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