Most of the destinations below are in Latin America and Southeast Asia, so depending on where you are starting from it might be a rather long flight to get there. Many of us can take two weeks or even more around this time of year, but that fact means that all of these places do get crowded and raise hotel prices for the weeks around Christmas and New Year's. Speaking of that, we have a separate list of cheap and warm places to go over Christmas and New Year's, only listing beach areas around the world with affordable hotels during that period.
As for key events in December, I typically avoid those sorts of things myself, so I’m not a good source on that. I actually visited Rio de Janeiro during Carnival, by accident, and it drives hotel prices so high and also crowds that it’s probably the worst time to visit unless you specifically want to spend all night watching the parades. And Oktoberfest, as another example, literally triples the prices of hotel rooms in Munich, so it’s only worth it if you REALLY want to get involved in the Oktoberfest thing yourself. But plenty of other travelers love to go witness the biggest events, and I assume they love it, so there is no right or wrong.
As for alternatives, the most obvious are the various islands of Thailand, with Phuket being the largest. It’s peak season in December in Thailand, but still pretty affordable by most standards. I spent a month in Phuket the following December, interestingly enough, and I prefer Bali even though it’s hotter and more humid. Hopefully this helps and let me know if you have other questions. Helping people figure out where to go is something I really enjoy. -Roger
In spite of its image of being blazing hot all the time, December in Cairo can actually be on the cool side, at least in the evenings. This is great though because almost all the important sights are outdoors and requite a lot of walking between them. For 9 months of the year it can get very hot doing that, so these few cooler months are ideal for visiting the famous sights.
Plus, Colorado is home to the world-renowned Breckinridge, a historic town at the base of the Rocky Mountains’ Tenmile Range that’s well-known for its ski resort, year-round alpine activities, and Gold Rush history. You’ll also find tons of shops, galleries, and restaurants housed inside colorfully-painted Victorian buildings, along with four whole mountain peaks that provide 2,358 acres of enough variety to suit even the most seasoned of skiers, boarders, or even snow-shoers. It’s also important to mention that last season, the Summit County municipality saw 447 inches of snow. Lifts open up in November, so what are you waiting for?!
Of the others, I’d say that Thailand would probably be your better choice. Goa is obviously famous for its beach parties, and drugs are easily available there just in case that is important, but there really isn’t much else to see or do there. Goa is a collection of beach towns, some of which are filled with raucous Westerners all winter. But once you go inland, it’s kind of falling apart, and it’s not even very “Indian” because it was run by the Portuguese until about 60 years ago.
This creamy-yet-virtuous gratin of greens from Ivy Manning is crowned with crunchy homemade bread crumbs tossed with nutty-tasting brown butter. Make ahead: The gratin can be assembled up to one day in advance. Allow the gratin to cool completely before covering it with plastic and storing it in the refrigerator. Add 10 additional minutes to the baking time.
As for Malaysia, I’m a big fan, and with your friend there it should be easy. Interestingly, I was just in China myself recently and a few days ago I published a long article on my advice for whether to go yourself to China or go on a group tour. I also discuss the most popular and best places to visit when you are there in the bottom part of the article. One tricky thing for many of us is that you have to get a China travel visa and some of us can only get that visa issued in our home country, at least according to their rules. I literally spent years traveling around Asia but I was never able to visit China because they required that I get a visa issued in the US and I had to show my flights booked from the US to China and then from China back to the US. If I could have gotten a visa issued at a Chinese embassy in Bangkok or Singapore, I would have done it years ago.
Eating out with confidence is a key part of success when traveling. Common sense should rule – say no to bread, ask for double veggies instead of the starch with your main course, and choose olive oil and vinegar for your salad. Ask for butter to melt on your cooked vegetables and protein. Skip dessert, or choose a cheese plate or berries with heavy cream.
To name at least a few, I love Bali and will spend a month there again early next year. Iceland is very high on my list, partly because it’s so different from everywhere else. I also love New Zealand, partly for the same reasons. I’ve really enjoyed much of what I’ve seen in India, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that Goa is the place I’d like to go back to most because it’s relatively uncrowded and low-key compared especially to the cities of India. By the way, Varanasi is the single weirdest place I’ve ever visited. I love a lot about Vietnam, although like many other people, I’m not crazy about how you always have to be on guard for people trying to scam you there. Laos is nice, although with no coast and far fewer scammers.
Escape the cold weather to sunbathe on the beaches in Rio de Janeiro and ring in the New Year with a fun celebration on Copacabana Beach. And while you're near Copa, visit the neighborhood and beach that inspired the song, “The Girl from Ipanema.” Don’t overlook the other beaches, including Baixo Baby for families, Praia do Arpoador for surfers and Sao Conrado Beach if you want to leap from nearby peaks and go hang gliding.
And as you mention, Bali could actually work for you. I’ve spent two Decembers in Bali, and December is quite a bit rainier on average. Still I had a great time and it was sunny most of the days. The rain in the tropics (and Bali is almost ON the equator) tends to come down in 30-minute bursts rather than drizzling all day, so it’s usually pretty easy to avoid. The best part of Bali is there are loads of things to see and do, and the nightlife is excellent. The Kuta Beach area is fun for at least a few days, but I wouldn’t spend too much time there. You should also spend a few days in Ubud, which is very touristy but also interesting. And you could spend some time in Lovina, which is along the northern coast and it has all of the charm of Bali from 20 years ago before most of it got overbuilt. With all the temples and other local attractions, there is always something interesting to do, which is not true of many other places with great beaches and nightlife. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger