As for Europe, it’s the low season there at the end of the year and you might be able to find a reasonable flight. Have a look at my list of best Europe destinations in December for weather and comments about each of the better places. If money is tight then Europe can be challenging because getting from place to place can add quite a bit to the daily total. I think two weeks in Spain and Portugal could be very nice, with reasonable weather and relatively low prices. Let me know what you think and I can try to help you more. -Roger
December is a popular month to go cruising around Hawaii and Mexico. It’s an ideal family trip, especially with most kids in the US out of school for the holidays. Experience the Hawaii’s tropical paradise. Pick a popular cruise liner and visit ports of call like Nawiliwili on Kauai, Honolulu on Oahu and Kona on the Big Island. If the Caribbean floats your boat, we recommend taking a cruise to explore Mexico’s Costa Maya, Cozumel, Ensenada, Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and more.
If I were you I’d fly into Bali and spend a couple days in the Kuta area to get your bearings and then head to Ubud, which is in the foothills and easily reached by shuttle bus. It’s also fairly crowded, but it’s still quite nice and there are scores of little spas and yoga places and that sort of thing. Then after a few days there, head up to the northern coastal town of Lovina, which is sort of like how Kuta was 25 years ago. It’s still only partly developed and there are still many open spaces, which is no longer true in the Kuta area. It’s cheaper than Kuta, and somewhat like Boracay in how mellow it is. You could also take a ferry from Bali to the island of Lombok, which is the next large one over. Things there are also more like Boracay and less chaotic than the Kuta area. Again, I really love Bali and still recommend it, but unless you are an Australian surfer, it’s best to stay somewhere other than the general Kuta area.
When you mention, “not too touristy”, the first thing that comes to mind is San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’m not sure if you’ve been there already or not, but one great thing about it is that the “tourist” areas close to Old San Juan are filled more with apartments than with hotels, unlike Cancun, where it’s nothing but hotels and timeshares. I can highly recommend the Condado neighborhood, which does have some large hotels but is mostly apartments for expats and seasonal visitors. There is even a free bus that goes from there to the heart of Old San Juan, which is a gorgeous colonial town filled with great restaurants, bars, and interesting attractions.
As for Malaysia, you could book online and it might cost a bit more, but more things go by a fixed price in Malaysia so it might not be much different. Personally I’d probably book tours through my hotel once I got there, just as in Vietnam. But there is a BIG difference between the countries in that Malaysia is a much richer country and there are very few scams to worry about. Vietnam is still fairly poor and they were communist for so long that people got used to trying to scam people a bit as the only way of getting ahead. So the good news is that Vietnam is a gorgeous country with excellent food and very low prices on almost everything. But the bad news is that you have to be more careful in Vietnam because people will try to overcharge you if they can, even though it still might seem cheap to you. That’s one reason I like to book with hotels, because they put the reputation of the hotel on the line when they book something for you, and they can’t afford to get a string of bad reviews by charging an extra US$5 on a cut-rate tour. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger
Phuket is incredibly popular among Europeans in December, especially the final week, of course, so it's critical to book early to get a good price at a beachfront hotel if that's your mission. It's also important to mention that Phuket is an island with more than a dozen different beach towns, each with its own personality and price range. Some are raucous and down-market while others are quiet and very expensive.
Trekking in Nepal during peak season might not sound like the most sensible choice for penny-pinching backpackers. But you can still enjoy the ideal weather without spending a fortune on in-demand hotels and expensive permits if you're happy to swap big-name trails, like Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit, for quieter treks to Kanchenjunga Base Camp and around the Langtang Valley. Idyllic conditions (dry but not witheringly hot) are also on offer in Rajasthan, one of India’s most vibrant and varied states. Chug between notable, attraction-rich cities like Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur on an atmospheric and wallet-friendly Indian train, snacking on spicy pakoras and sipping sugary chai en route.