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The holidays means more time with the family, but who says that time has to be spent at home? Pack up the kids (or your significant other) and hit the road visiting spots that go overboard on Christmas décor — in a good way. From NYC’s classic ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center to Lapland’s Santa Claus Village, TPG Contributor Lane Nieset takes us to five locales near and far that embody the term “winter wonderland.”

Rockefeller Center
The tree at Rockefeller Center is just one of NYC’s many iconic Christmas attractions. Photo courtesy of NYC & Company/Will Steacy.

 1. New York City, New York

When it comes to putting on a show-stopping Christmas celebration, New York City is in a league of its own. Not only are some of the events free, like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting and the lighting of the world’s largest Hanukkah menorahs across from The Plaza Hotel and the top of Prospect Park, but there’s also plenty to see; you could easily stroll for days just taking in the scenery, from the beautifully decorated streets to the world-renowned window displays at Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks that continue to trump the year before. The city also takes a cue from Europe’s Christmas festivities, setting up holiday markets at Bryant Park, Union Square, Columbus Circle and indoors at Grand Central. Of course one of the highlights of celebrating the holidays in NYC is a trip to Radio City Music Hall to see The Rockettes perform at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which runs through January 3, 2016 and combines scenes from “New York at Christmas” and “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”

Getting there: Delta flies into both of New York City’s main airports, LaGuardia International Airport (LGA) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), the latter of which is also a hub for American Airlines and JetBlue. Meanwhile, United recently moved the last of its remaining JFK flights to its hub at Newark.

Where to stay: Spend the holidays in style staying at one of the city’s iconic hotels, the Waldorf Astoria New York, in midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center and the department stores lining Fifth Avenue. Rates at the Category 9 hotel start at $239 or 80,000 HHonors Points per night. If you’d rather post up in Times Square, check out the sleek W New York Times Square, which pays homage to Times Square’s history through its retro-inspired Living Room bar; rates at this SPG Category 6 property start at $364 or 20,000 Starpoints per night.

Old San Juan
Puerto Rico is home to the longest Christmas celebration in the world. Photo courtesy of scaturchio/Flickr.

2. San Juan, Puerto Rico

Even if you can’t make it here on Christmas Day, don’t fret — the island boasts one of the longest Christmas celebrations on the globe, starting right after Thanksgiving and running through the third week of January. Puerto Ricans incorporate the Spanish tradition of giving gifts on both Christmas Day and Three Kings’ Day (January 6), with another celebration following the Epiphany — the eight-day octavitas. The season officially comes to a close the third weekend of January with the Puerto Rican version of Mardi Gras in Old San Juan, a four-day festival on San Sebastián Street filled with parades, music and religious processions. 

Getting there: Over 12 airlines offer daily service into San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU), including American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United Airlines, Southwest and Virgin Atlantic.

Where to stay: Resort-heavy Isla Verde in San Juan is home to the 397-room InterContinental San Juan, sitting on a 2-mile stretch of sand and in the process of wrapping up a $22 million renovation; rates at the InterContinental start at $314 or 50,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night. If you’re looking for a beachfront property closer to Old San Juan, try the Caribe Hilton, set on a private 17-acre peninsula between the historic part of the city and the more upscale Condado neighborhood; rates at this Category 6 property start at $179 or 50,000 HHonors Points per night.

Paris Markets
Hit the Christmas markets in Paris along the Champs-Élysées for local crafts and homemade gingerbread cookies. Photo by the author.

3. Paris, France

As Audrey Hepburn said, “Paris is always a good idea,” and this quote rings even truer around the holidays. Paris is nicknamed The City of Light for a reason, with Christmas illuminations covering more than just monuments, as the light displays take over everywhere from Montmartre to the Champs-Élysées and Place Vendôme. Each of the 20 arrondissements (except the first two) boasts free merry-go-rounds while the Place de la Concorde is home to the Grande Roue, or Ferris Wheel, which stays up long past Christmas until September 23. Of course major department stores like Galeries Lafayette will be decked out in over-the-top holiday décor (imagine the French version of Bergdorf’s), and traditional Christmas markets pop up around town with their wooden chalets selling ornaments and vin chaud, or mulled wine. For more tips on sightseeing in Paris, see our post 10 Photos: What’s New in Paris.

Getting there: American Airlines, Air Canada, Air France, British Airways, Delta, Iberia, KLM, Lufthansa, United and more fly into Charles de Gaulle (CDG), while Orly (ORY) caters more to intra-Europe flights.

Where to stay: Book a room close to Paris’ luxury shopping street, the rue Saint-Honoré, at The Westin Paris – Vendôme (see our review here), with rooms showing off views of the Eiffel Tower and Tuileries gardens; rates at the SPG Category 6 hotel start at 279 euros or require 20,000-25,000 Starpoints per night. Stay in the heart of the Champs-Élysées in the only 5-star spot on the boulevard, the Paris Marriott Champs-Élysées Hotel, which will put you in the middle of the Christmas markets and holiday decorations, with rooms looking out at the Champs-Élysées or hotel courtyard. Rates at the Category 9 hotel start at 348 euros or 45,000 points per night. Make the most of your points and miles with help from our post 6 Tips for Using Points and Miles to Visit London and Paris.

Escape to the official hometown of Santa Claus in Lapland. Photo courtesy of courtesy of Only in Lapland’s Facebook page.

4. Lapland, Finland

Santa Claus and his elves may just be children’s stories, but in Lapland they come to life — reindeers and all. Home to the Arctic Circle Post Office and Santa’s headquarters in Korvatunturi, travelers can also meet the man himself at Santa Claus Village at the Artic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland’s capital and the “official hometown of Santa Claus.” After exploring this real-life Christmas wonderland, spend the night in traditional Finnish style, soaking up the heat in an old wooden sauna in the countryside drinking glögi, the Finnish version of mulled wine, or hit the slopes on skis or dogsled. For more on Finland, see why we chose it as one of the Best Value Destinations for 2015.

Getting there: Finnair and Flybe fly into Lapland’s five airports: Kemi-Tornio (KEM); Rovaniemi (RVN), Finland’s fifth-largest airport which also includes daily service from Helsinki (HEL) on Norwegian; Kittilä (KTT), one of the main hubs in northern Finland; Enontekiö (ENF); and Ivalo (IVL), the country’s northernmost airport.

Where to stay: While there aren’t any points hotels in the region, you can still rack up travel rewards with credit cards like the Citi Prestige or the Citi ThankYou Premier (both 3x per dollar spent) staying at more off-the-wall spots like the Arctic SnowHotel & Glass Igloos, with a series of 15 glass igloos with thermal roofs and heated floors, located on the Arctic Circle; rates start at 385 euros (or $408) per night. For something more conventional, the Arctic Light Hotel just opened last spring in a 1950s building, the former Rovaniemi City Hall, with 57 rooms and suites; rates start at about $232 per night.

Celebrate Christmas on Amsterdam’s famous canals with a procession led by the Dutch version of Santa. Photo by the author.

5. Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Amsterdam’s canals are already magical enough, but they really come to life each winter hosting the largest Saint Nicholas parade in the world, with over half a mile of floats and boats. The Dutch version of Santa, Sinterklaas, sails in with over 400,000 people waiting for his arrival on the canals, where he switches out his boat for a white horse to parade through the streets. The heart of the city also lights up for Christmas with a 65-foot tree wrapped in 2.5 miles of fairy lights sitting in the center of Dam Square. There are all sorts of Christmas markets to stumble upon, from Scandinavian to folk markets, but one of the largest (and most picturesque) takes place 45 minutes southwest of the city in Lisse at the Castle Keukenhof.

Getting there: Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) offers flights to 260 destinations, including 15 in the US, on carriers such as Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta and Iberia.

Where to stay: Once home to 17th-century canal palaces, the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam still features some of the property’s original 18th-century art, as well as a Guerlain Spa and the two-Michelin star restaurant, Librije’s Zusje Amsterdam. Rates at the Category 10 hotel start at 465 euros (or $493) or 95,000 HHonors Points per night. Set on the Prinsengracht canal near the Anne Frank House and Van Gogh Museum, the five-star Andaz Amsterdam (see our review here) was once a public library that was coverted into a 127-room boutique hotel three years ago with the help of Dutch designer and architect Marcel Wanders; rates start at 302 euros (or $320) or 25,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night.

Helpful Hint

Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Prestige, don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use abroad. To see more card options to take overseas, check out Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.

Be sure to see 12 Christmas Getaways For Every Type of Traveler and 10 Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve Escapes With Cheap Flights — and share some of your favorite spots to spend the holidays in the comments below!

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