It's no miracle that Wendy Owan won't be stuck in highway traffic Christmas Day, carrying covered dishes to a family celebration in Brooklyn, New York.
The Queens resident made sure of it months ago.
Owan and her adult daughter will be leaving winter behind as they embark on the Carnival Miracle on Christmas Eve, setting sail for a seven-day cruise to Port Canaveral, followed by Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas. They return New Year's Day.
"I've never cruised during the holidays before, but I am so looking forward to leaving all the stress behind for eight wonderfully relaxing days at sea," said Owan, the New York School of Urban Ministry's director of ministry services, who has been doing post-Sandy relief work for weeks. "The Miracle apparently has a dome of some sort that can enclose the pool. I'm hoping for snow so that I can sail away in the midst of it in the pool."
The prospect of traveling to a relative's home for the holidays or hosting all of those relatives leaves some people running for the hills -- or the sea, or the nearest resort. When everyone's a guest, no one relative or family has to bear the burden of taking care of everyone else. And no one relative gets to decide whose holiday traditions will be followed during the holiday season.
About 84 million Americans say they plan to travel over the holidays this year, according to a recent American Express Travel Spending and Saving Tracker Survey. Many of them aren't traveling to anyone's home, say American Express travel agents.
Resorts and cruise lines are popular choices
"I have so many clients that are actually looking to get away during the holidays, with large resorts and cruise lines being among the most popular," said American Express Travel agent Debbie Wynne-Parry. "Some may want to take advantage of those extra holiday days off so they don't burn as many vacation days during the year. Others may want to get away from the inclement weather, not want to deal with the hassle of cooking and cleaning. And many people are even turning to holiday vacations in lieu of presents, especially in cases where the family's children are a bit older."
Relaxation is usually the name of the game for people looking to get away for the holidays.
"For a multigenerational family, a cruise is a great way to meet up on one place but not meet up on anyone's home turf," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. "There's less chance for family conflicts. You have your own space and time on a trip, but you can get together for dinner. You're not smooshed together all the time."
Cruises are pricey, but ships do take care of meals and most decorations, leaving guests to decorate their room doors if they like.
But if you want to get rooms near each other, Brown advises booking for next year about nine months in advance. And buy travel insurance, she says, in case anyone gets sick or hurt in the meantime.
Land-based resorts also take care of the Christmas cheer and décor.
Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia, tries to attend to every Christmas detail for its guests, many of whom come 15 to a group year after year. Some holiday packages even include a small Christmas tree in the suite, so children can still find Santa's presents under a tree by the fireplace. Other holiday touches include carolers greeting guests at the entrance, Saturday lunches with Santa and sleigh rides that end up by the firepit with s'mores.
"You can still wake up Christmas morning with a tree by the fireplace and breakfast in our dining room with a buffet prepared by our chef," said Allison Patterson, Kingsmill's events director. "It makes you feel like you're home for the holidays, but you don't have to make the beds or wash the dishes."
Everyone's on "neutral ground"
San Franciscan Debbie Dare doesn't look for a "traditional" East Coast snowy holiday for her Christmas celebration. She's looking for fun, kitsch, good Chinese food and poker with her mom for her Christmas celebration in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is "neutral ground (not going to any one's hometown of Los Angeles or San Francisco), it's bright and shiny (there's always something new, a restaurant, another tacky celebrity niche store), the Chinese food in their Chinatown is excellent, and there's constant entertainment as nothing ever closes in Vegas, even on Christmas," Dare wrote in an e-mail.
Her family members have even established their own "Christmas in Vegas" rituals. "My favorite thing is to sit next to my mom and play pai gow poker. She taught me how. I always ask her for advice, each and every hand, and she does her 'mmmmmm, not like that' or when looking at her own hand, 'Jeezus, I got nothing!' I'm nervous and happy at the same time."
That works for her six-member family, which doesn't include any small children. But if you're still traveling with small ones, you may want a more traditional Christmas.
That can be hard to do via airplane, because anything that Santa brings on Christmas Day must be lugged back whenever you depart. (Driving vacations make it easier if you have trunk space.) After all, what child wants to wait until their best presents are shipped back? Consider trading the non-Santa presents before or after your travels and bringing stockings so there are some presents to open on Christmas Day.
If the family includes Santa believers, American Express Travel's Wynne-Perry suggests having them write Santa a letter to tell him where you'll be during Christmas.
Consider adjoining or interconnecting rooms for more family time (if you want it).
If you enjoy them, stick to the same rituals on vacation as you would at home. Make any restaurant reservations well in advance. And be aware of any baggage that comes with some presents, like battery requirements or travel rules. (Airline security frowns on Daisy Red Ryder BB guns.)
And talk to your children, says Eileen Gunn, founder of FamiliesGo!, a family travel website.
"When the kids are 2 or 3 years old, they'll go along with whatever you say," even that Santa came early or is coming later, Gunn said. "At 6 or 7, they start asking questions. It depends on your kids, their ages and their inquisitiveness."
Drama may follow you on vacation
And remember you can't completely escape the family drama if you're traveling with the family that causes the drama (including yourself).
"You're not leaving everything when you travel with family," said Pauline Wallin, a psychologist with a practice in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. "There's an initial settling-in period when everyone is nice to each other. The way you interact with family on neutral territory won't necessarily show up for the first 24 to 48 hours. After that, you become like your family is used to becoming. At least when it starts to grate on you (at a resort), you can retreat to the pool."
Just don't be surprised if Aunt Susie makes a comment about your weight or Uncle Harold teases you about not being married yet. "If you can predict this going to happen, why are you so surprised when it does?" asked Wallin. "Remember that Christmas Day is just 24 hours. You can get through 24 hours. People can hold it together when there's a time limit."