In Praise of Ditching Thanksgiving Dinner and Traveling Instead
Never waste another four-day weekend again.
When I was 25, I spent Thanksgiving in Lake Tahoe. A month earlier I had started dating the man who would later become my husband, and we were part of the same group of friends, all of us East Coasters living in San Francisco. No one wanted to fly across the country for such a short visit, but it seemed a shame not to go somewhere—anywhere, really—so we pooled our recent-college-graduate money and booked a vacation rental.
The merits of spending Thanksgiving with friends as opposed to family are obvious. No arguing about politics with belligerent uncles, no depressing conversations with senile grandparents, no having to eat the fat-free desserts your perpetually dieting cousin always brings despite the fact that everyone now knows that it’s carbs that make you gain weight, etc., etc., etc. But just being away from family doesn’t guarantee a fun Thanksgiving. I had spent the holiday with friends before, and there had always been a melancholy element to it. The food was never like home, and I missed my family. Taking a Muni ride across town to eat hand-fed, triple-brined turkey and vegan-friendly roasted vegetables never felt quite right.
This trip to Tahoe was different. It wasn’t just the company of our friends, beloved as they were and still are. In fact, the weekend started on slightly rocky terms when we found ourselves in a rousing debate with a long-standing couple about whether relationship longevity should be the most important factor in deciding who gets to sleep in the master bedroom with en suite bath. (Or whether, as seems utterly logical and rational, the new couple who organized the trip should have dibs on the best room regardless of the relative infancy of their coupledom.) A coin toss settled the discussion. We won.
Nor was it the fact that my now-husband and I cooked what remains the best turkey I have eaten to this day (and really, shouldn’t the couple doing all the cooking get the better bedroom?). The most memorable part of that Thanksgiving, besides BedroomGate, was the illicit thrill of traveling strictly for fun on a weekend that’s usually all about obligations.
Plus there was the wintry charm of the destination itself. We had only driven a couple of hours out of season-starved San Francisco when we started passing through the Sierra Nevadas, the road framed by ice-lined trees, and had to stop to put chains on the tires. Snow blanketed the backyard of the Tahoe rental house, stinging our bare feet as all six of us ran through it, naked, to get to the hot tub, an experience for which I distinctly remember not being drunk enough.
For our last Thanksgiving on the West Coast we headed to Las Vegas. I had never been before, and on the plane ride there, my now-husband convinced me that, for a fee, the MGM Grand would bring the hotel’s resident tigers up to your room for a cuddle. We had expected Vegas to be empty over the holiday, but when we arrived the Strip was packed, quite literally; it was almost impossible to move at times. (As it turns out, Sin City is one of the most popular destinations for family travel over Thanksgiving.)
As we wound our way through the hotel’s smoky casino, we passed mothers holding babies in one hand as they worked the slot machine with the other, an image that only added to the bewitching surrealism of the trip. On Thanksgiving Day, we ate steak frites at a restaurant inside the Paris hotel, giggling as the American waiters, clad in berets and fake Boulanger moustaches, paused every few minutes to sing “Figaro.” None of it made sense, and it was all amazing.
There are, of course, hazards to watch out for when you travel over Thanksgiving: crowded flights, traffic, your mother’s hurt feelings. But each of these has a workaround: Take an extra day off work and fly early Wednesday morning, or the morning of Thanksgiving. Try traveling by train instead of driving—or head to another country, one in which the roads on the fourth Thursday in November are no more congested than usual.
As for extended family, you just might want to take them with you. It’s a little known fact (read: just-posited opinion) that a person is infinitely less likely to experience their family as annoying when on vacation with them, rather than when trapped in one’s childhood home together for eight hours straight with nothing to do except gossip about your former second grade teacher and nibble on stale salted peanuts.
When everyone is away from home, no one is worrying about whether the dishes were done or if your four-year-old nephew wiped his nose on the new bathroom towels. Instead of spending the day basting turkey and frantically borrowing extra chairs from a neighbor, you can spend it actually hanging out together, whether that means taking a hike at Yosemite or wandering through the Louvre. Travel, even with family, changes the entire holiday experience. It lends an exciting cast of rebellion and hedonism to the weekend, transforming it from a duty to an escape, and turning accompanying family members into devilish co-conspirators.
This Thanksgiving, my husband I are packing our two little girls into the car and driving a few hours north to Providence, Rhode Island, where we’ll meet up with my Vermont-based in-laws. We’ve rented a house together for the weekend and plan to spend our days exploring the city, or doing jigsaw puzzles with the kids. For Thanksgiving dinner we’ll be making lobsters and eating oysters on the half shell, a menu that feels almost brazenly indulgent. There will undoubtedly be a few martinis mixed up. The weekend may not be bump-free, but it’s a good bet that it won’t be boring.
One thing, however, is certain: my in-laws will definitely be getting the better bedroom.
Anya Hoffman is a contributing digital editor at Travel + Leisure. You can follow her on Twitter at @anya_hoffman.