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November 17, 2015

Maybe you’ve already (smartly!) booked your winter holiday travel, but if you haven’t, and you’re fretting about where to go and what to do, you’ve got a ton of options. 

Yes, many of us visit family, and this can be a wonderful time to do so, but if you don’t want to—or can’t—trundle home, consider travel. One family I know, with one son on the American East Coast and the other in Singapore, picks a different region of the world to visit annually. They’ve been to Egypt, Thailand, and Italy, among other places, and have a fabulous time.

But why not travel alone? No matter which holiday you celebrate, solo travel over a winter break can be extraordinarily satisfying. Over the last few years I’ve saved pennies and vacation days for Paris, New Orleans, and Oaxaca, and although it’s been challenging at times, it’s also been hugely satisfying. You get to choose your own adventures—not compromising can be so great sometimes!—and have the added pleasure of holiday good wishes from complete strangers.

So if you want to be wished a joyeux Noël in Paris or feliz navidad in Madrid, read on for a few tips on how to take a break away from it all, all alone:

Make dining reservations for the big holidays.

Late December to early January isn’t an ideal time for winging it on the lodging and food fronts. In Oaxaca, I lucked out and ended up with friends of friends, but in Paris, I spent Christmas night at a pretty bad diner. (They do exist there!) Many restaurants are shuttered during late December, so even if Christmas doesn’t matter to you, call ahead and make dinner and lunch reservations—no matter where in the world you’re going—so you don’t end up hungry.

Be prepared to cook.

Stock up that Airbnb! Grocery stores might be closed on December 24th and 25th and even the following days, depending on the country you’re in and its dominant religions. So buy groceries—eggs, cheese, milk, cured meat or fish, pasta, and vegetables are good staples—and be ready to cook if need be. Staying at a hotel? Protein bars, fresh fruit, and add-hot-water items are smart to have kicking around.

Pick a destination where you have friends.

The holidays and the unstructured time they entail can make you lonely even if you don’t celebrate any holidays at all. So post on Facebook, Twitter, and the like to let people know where you’re going and to ask who you should look up while you’re there.

Do make some plans.

I went to Oaxaca to study the regions’ seven moles at Seasons of My Heart, a great cooking school on a ranch outside the city, and to Paris to eat as many pastries and steak frites as possible. Those were loose game plans, but they were plans, and a comfort for a hyper-planner. Filling up your schedule a little bit gives you a sense of a structure, but leaves room for flexibility.

Say “yes,” and be flexible.

Speaking of which, be prepared to say “yes” to unexpected adventure. When I was in Oaxaca, chef Rick Bayless—a friend of a friend, who I had never met—invited me to join his family’s annual Christmas Day barbacoa feast just outside the city. Was it slightly intimidating? Yes. Was it also amazing, and was I grateful? Yes.

Remember: People tend to be nicer at the holidays.

More often than not, people tend to be kinder to strangers at the holidays. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, if folks find out you’re spending the holiday alone, you might end up with an invitation to join them. (And if that celebration doesn’t exist, join the masses! In Sydney, Australia, you’ll find a festive time down at the beach, plastic trees and all, on December 25th.)

Ask about local holiday traditions.

Ask at the hotel. Ask at the restaurants. Find out about local holiday traditions so you don’t miss la noche de los rábanos (the night of the radishes) in Oaxaca on December 23, or Scotland’s wild Hogmanay music festival in the streets of Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve. The guidebooks won’t always have the most extraordinary items of interest.

Tell people why you’re there.

If you communicate the reason for your trip—at the wine bar, the café, the tour of the historic monument—to locals, you’ll get tips for don’t-miss outings. In Oaxaca, by yammering about wanting to learn the local cuisine, I chanced upon a local brother-and-sister duo who took me to the markets and taught me how to make the best chiles rellenos I’d ever eaten. So be chatty!

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