You still get warm ocean breezes and 70-degree temperatures, plus the Hawaiian islands go all out for the holidays. Locals host potlatch-style parties where the Christmas goose is replaced by a luau pig, and the resorts deck themselves out like tropical North Poles, including a massive tree-lighting ceremony at the Outrigger on Oahu and tree-decorating contests at Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Residents there climb to the top of the 13,000-foot-tall volcano, shovel snow into their trucks and speed back down to build snowmen in their yards before it melts.
The biggest single highlight in the region is the Angkor Wat temples near Siem Reap in Cambodia. It’s one of the most impressive tourist sights in the entire world, and Siem Reap is a fun and mellow town that you can linger in for a while. Vietnam is really lovely and cheap as well. The food there is excellent, as it’s a fusion of French and traditional Asian. You can go from Ho Chi Minh City in the south on the train to Hoi An near Da Nang, and then up to Hanoi to see Halong Bay. I wouldn’t start in Vietnam because it can be a bit trickier than the others. In the rest of the region it’s easy to book tours and buses and such, but in Vietnam the travel agencies are a bit harder to trust, so you have to be more careful. Things there are very cheap though, so even if you pay more for a reputable agency, it’ll still be cheap.
I am wanting to plan a college graduation trip for 10 days/2 weeks during the last days of December and early January. We live in Az. The graduate would like to do the Galapagos or Austraila or New Zealand. I am thinking it is too late to plan the Galapagos as those trips seem to get booked so far in advance. We want to have a memorable trip. Are these destinations you would suggest? Any other suggestions? We want to be somewhat active, not just driving and looking at sights.
Also, as far as I hear, the worst that ever happens is they take your stuff. So if you leave your passport and most of your money in your hotel room, and keep your phone or camera hidden most of the time, there isn’t much to lose. I’m making it sound worse than it is really. I wouldn’t hesitate to go to Rio again, but of course I’d be aware of those few situations to avoid.
Actually, all of my best suggestions for those things are in the article above. One challenge you’ll have is that all popular tropical destinations have their peak weeks at the end of December because so many people in cold areas have that time off. So flights to Central or South America are going to be fairly expensive, although buying soon can help. For hiking and views I think Costa Rica could be a good choice, or Nicaragua. You could also go to Bariloche in Argentina, though it’s probably not worth going all that way unless you were also going to spend some time in Buenos Aires and such.
Actually, most of the popular European cities have fairly mild winters, in that they don’t spend much time below freezing and snowstorms are rare as well. It’s hard to make suggestions without knowing about your tastes, but I will tell you that the most popular European cities are London, Paris, and Rome, and none of them get snowed in often. If you are going to Italy, you should also go to Florence and maybe Venice as well.
Hawaii, as you probably know, would be great for what you have in mind, except that there are no cheaper options there at all. After that I agree with you that there are places in Mexico that could work. One in particular that I like a lot is the area around Playa del Carmen, which is just south of Cancun. It’s a lively and tourist-friendly town, instead of a strip of big hotels like Cancun, and there is a wide range of activities and accommodations in different price ranges.

Thank you so much for the kind words and I’m always happy to hear that people find this information useful. As far as Turkey in December is concerned, I wouldn’t recommend it. I actually lived in a small town near Antalya on the Mediterranean for a bit over a year and I was surprised by the fact that almost everything closed down around 1-November and didn’t start opening again until March or April. Actually, I think Istanbul would still be enjoyable in December and so would Bodrum or any of the other larger cities including Antalya. But anywhere on the coast will be a ghost town and I’m pretty sure that Cappadocia would also be mostly shut for the winter. Ephesus probably stays open, but similar to Cappadocia, the attractions are all outdoors and they can get pretty fierce rainstorms in winter.
As with other Caribbean resort destinations, the weather in Montego Bay is perfect in December, and the first half of the month is still cheap for flights and resort prices. The weekend before Christmas is when peak season here starts, and if you book early enough you can still get a good deal then, but don't expect many last-minute bargains during that period.
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.

If you’re a bit more on the timid side, you can always use Yelp and TripAdvisor to get good insights on places people have visited. As a disclaimer, some of the ratings may not be accurate on these sites, so make sure you go through and read some of the more recent reviews that people have written. We did this for a few of the places we visited and had no issues.
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