Otherwise the big draws are the Great Barrier Reef, which is obviously focused on diving, snorkeling, and water activities, so it may not be too interesting, and Uluru, which is the big rock in the center of the country (and not near anything else of interest). There is also wine regions in the south near Sydney, and of course nature parks to see kangaroos and the other indigenous animals.
I’m happy to try to help. It’s hard to say whether one 30-day trip would be better than several shorter trips. On one hand, it’s much more efficient to go for a month because it obviously saves you all the going back and forth. Also, one week is a short time to go 7 or 8 time zones away, as it takes pretty much an entire day each way, and at least a few days to adjust to the time change. Hmmm…
You could go somewhere that’s cute in December, or you could go somewhere that’s iconic. If you choose the latter, here’s absolutely everything you need to know about traveling to Yellowstone. In brief: There are tons of winter activities (snowmobiling, skiing, etc.), and even though most of the roads will be closed, there’s oversnow transport to get you around the park. Look for wolves at dawn and dusk, watch frost-covered bison plowing through the deep snow, and see the steam rise off Mammoth Hot Springs. If you’re a backcountry camper who knows what they’re doing, permits in wintertime are free.
Fortunately, Bangkok remains very cheap by almost anyone's standards. If you want to splash down for a nice 3-star room then it'll be half the price of a similar room in Europe or the US, and if you are fine with something more basic then you can find a room for next to nothing, even in the fun Khaosan Road backpacker district. Street meals for around a dollar are always there too, so you'll be able to afford a bit more for a room anyway.
In November you can find excellent resort deals all over the Dominican Republic, but Punta Cana is typically the first choice, especially if you are looking for an all-inclusive resort with all the luxury extras at a great price. The resort is actually a collection of little beach areas on the eastern tip of the island, so it's very secluded and well away from some of the confusion closer to the capital city.
The fastest high-speed trains between those cities only take 2.5 hours, although most departures are closer to 3 hours. Definitely take the train and also buy the ticket as far in advance as possible for the lowest fare. Not only is it FAR quicker than flying (and of course the coach), but it’s far more comfortable and more enjoyable. This is a link to the official Spanish rail site. The scenery isn’t all that special, but it’s still interesting. Have a fantastic trip. -Roger
Increasingly popular, Lisbon is quite warm in summer, but November’s cooler temperatures and fewer crowds make it a pleasant time to visit. A city of hills and spectacular views, many terraces (miradouros) offer vistas for those who climb (or take a taxi) to the top. Alfama is the city’s historic district, defined by hilly, narrow cobblestone streets. The Fado Museum, in Alfama, honors Portugal’s soulful folk music and provides some background on the sounds heard nightly in the city’s fado houses and bars. Seafood is plentiful in Lisbon, and the traditional Portuguese dried salted cod (bacalhau) is on most menus along with octopus, shrimp, sardines, clams, and tuna.
Rio is probably the most beautiful city in the world as far as the setting is concerned, but it’s also famous for petty crime. As you mentioned, I think it’s quite easy to stay safe as long as you are aware of the situation. The biggest problem by far is tourists getting robbed by someone holding a knife or sometimes a gun, and they are often in groups. However, this almost always happens to people who are walking close to the water on the beaches after the crowds have gone for the day. The sidewalks along Copacabana and Ipanema are brightly lit and safe, but there is a mound of sand between the sidewalk and the water, so if you go to the water you can’t be seen by the security guards and police on the street. As long as you avoid that, and any other situation where you are alone in a dark place late at night, you’ll be fine.
I think the best place for what you want is Thailand. You can choose from Phuket or Ko Samui or one of many other islands, and they all have nice beaches and good nightlife at a very reasonable price. There are other places in Asia that have warm December weather, but Thailand’s tourist infrastructure is better than the others so it’s just much easier to get around and do what you want. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger
Back in 2008, we asked chef Stephanie Kimmel from Eugene's Marche restaurant to take a stab at updating Thanksgiving's well-worn green bean casserole -- you know the one we're talking about, with the canned beans and mushroom soup, topped with fried onions. Kimmel's from-scratch version features colorful fresh green beans that are baked in a homemade white sauce that tastes cleaner than the 1950s tinned three-can combo. If Thanksgiving dinner doesn't feel complete without a green bean casserole, this is the one to make!
If you're determined to travel during the holiday periods, though, book your vacation flights, hotels, and cruise far in advance. If it works with your schedule, fly on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas day; those are the least crowded days of the holiday season. And if at all possible, avoid traveling during weekends, on the days right before or after the holiday, and late in the day. It's not only crowded at airports but also northern storms can wreak havoc and create weather delays that cascade across the system.
As with most on this list, hotels get very full and more expensive just before the Christmas holidays, so it's better to come early in the month if possible. That way you'll have your pick of places at some surprisingly good room rates, even at some high-end places on the famous beaches. If you are coming during Christmas then book a hotel NOW because they'll be full and will keep getting more expensive the longer you wait.