Best Winter Holiday Destinations
When the mercury drops, some Americans welcome the chill while others follow the sun. But fewer travel options may be available to cold-weather fans this winter season — at least domestically — considering forecasts of above-normal temperatures across the country, along with higher than normal rain levels but less snow than usual.
To help Americans plan their travels over the colder months, WalletHub developed a ranking of the cheapest U.S. destinations that are also the easiest to reach. In total we analyzed nearly 70 of the largest metro areas — grouped as “warm” or “cold” — based on 36 key metrics, including two weeks of flight data, safety indicators and weather predictions.
Compared with other rankings that focus on each destination’s scenic quality, this report focuses primarily on the cost and convenience of traveling to each location as well as its affordability. It also ensures that the number of attractions and variety of activities in each destination will keep everyone busy and entertained throughout the trip.
Read on to find out where to book your next winter escape and to learn how we ranked the destinations. Planning an excursion with the kids? Operating on a tight budget? Make sure to take in the advice from WalletHub’s travel experts in our Q&A below.
Top Cold-Weather Destinations
Best Winter Vacation Destinations for Cold-Weather Lovers
‘Travel Costs & Hassles’ Rank
‘Local Costs’ Rank
‘Cold-Weather Activities’ Rank
|3||Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA||72.87||2||9||8||2||2||22|
|5||New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA||68.76||22||32||1||10||3||3|
|11||St. Louis, MO-IL||65.80||9||13||10||7||13||21|
|12||Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI||65.11||11||23||13||27||11||12|
|17||Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN||62.18||19||4||14||26||16||23|
|19||Salt Lake City, UT||59.81||23||10||19||18||8||28|
|20||Kansas City, MO-KS||59.19||1||16||21||3||26||30|
|23||Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA||56.91||16||14||27||20||23||26|
|25||Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI||56.21||17||21||17||25||25||25|
|26||Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI||54.37||25||11||28||30||27||10|
|27||Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY||53.78||27||29||22||32||21||13|
|30||Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT||48.09||30||19||30||4||30||11|
Top Warm-Weather Destinations
Best Winter Vacation Destinations for Warm-Weather Lovers
‘Travel Costs & Hassles’ Rank
‘Local Costs’ Rank
‘Warm-Weather Activities’ Rank
|1||Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV||69.78||5||21||4||11||6||26|
|3||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA||69.63||15||26||1||33||5||12|
|4||San Diego-Carlsbad, CA||68.59||17||28||3||3||4||2|
|5||Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||68.47||2||3||13||2||11||14|
|6||Austin-Round Rock, TX||68.01||3||22||8||6||8||7|
|7||Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX||66.47||1||13||10||23||10||30|
|8||San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA||65.90||12||34||2||26||3||19|
|9||Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||62.63||8||17||16||8||9||15|
|10||San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX||62.62||7||2||12||12||14||32|
|12||New Orleans-Metairie, LA||58.46||11||31||6||36||12||27|
|13||Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL||56.91||19||33||7||30||7||21|
|14||Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL||56.86||9||10||24||10||24||8|
|17||Charleston-North Charleston, SC||54.93||4||32||14||12||19||29|
|18||Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent, FL||51.95||20||16||19||25||20||20|
|19||Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL||51.70||16||24||30||17||21||3|
|20||San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA||51.06||14||35||18||4||18||4|
|21||Urban Honolulu, HI||49.30||37||36||9||5||1||5|
|24||Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA||44.17||22||20||25||15||23||16|
|25||Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA||43.49||26||27||29||27||29||1|
|27||Baton Rouge, LA||43.14||23||19||22||7||16||36|
|28||Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, FL||42.27||21||14||37||20||37||17|
|29||Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC||41.53||32||11||26||9||32||25|
|32||North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL||40.55||28||29||34||18||28||11|
|33||Corpus Christi, TX||39.88||30||12||20||29||22||34|
|34||Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL||38.91||29||30||35||16||31||18|
|35||Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX||38.13||33||25||27||28||30||28|
|36||Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA||37.53||36||23||33||35||35||13|
Ask the Experts
Many Americans travel far during winter either to escape or enjoy the cold, which can be a costly ordeal depending on multiple factors. With budget-conscious and group travelers in mind, we asked a panel of experts to provide guidance on planning cost-effective trips without sacrificing pleasure. Click on the experts’ profiles below to read their bios and thoughts on the following key questions:
- What is the outlook for the upcoming winter travel season?
- What are the best travel options for families?
- What are the best ways for travelers to save money?
- What are some logistical do’s and don’ts for winter travel?
- In evaluating the best cities for winter holiday travel, what are the top five indicators?
In order to determine the best winter holiday destinations, WalletHub compared 130 of the most populated U.S. metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, across six key dimensions: 1) Travel Costs & Hassles, 2) Costs in Destination, 3) Attractions, 4) Weather, 5) Activities and 6) Safety.
We evaluated those dimensions using 36 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the most ideal winter travel conditions. For metrics marked with an asterisk (*), we calculated the population size using the square root of the population in order to avoid overcompensating for minor differences across cities.
Of the 130 MSAs in our initial sample, we eliminated those for which data limitations existed. We then classified each of the remaining MSAs as either a “cold” or “warm” destination according to the following temperature guidelines:
- Cold: ≤ 46 degrees F (50-year average December temperature)
- Warm: ≥ 57 degrees F (50-year average December temperature)
Next, we eliminated the MSAs with average winter temperatures of 47 to 56 degrees F, a range we designated as a “dead zone,” with the exception of the top 10 MSAs, which were assigned to the climate group with the nearest average winter temperature if they fell within this dead zone. We chose to include the top 10 MSAs on account of their popularity as travel destinations regardless of the season. In total, 69 MSAs were included in our final sample.
For the flight analysis, we collected data on Oct. 3 and used Dec. 24 as the departure date and Jan. 2 as the return date based on the following assumptions inspired by the findings of an American Express travel survey:
- December is the most popular month for winter-holiday travel; and
- The average American considers 10 days the ideal length for a vacation.
Finally, we determined each MSA’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order our sample.
Travel Costs & Hassles - Total Points = 18
- Cost of Cheapest Flight: 30% (~5.40 Points)
- Duration of Cheapest Flight: 10% (~1.80 Points)
- Number of Connections on Cheapest Flight: 5% (~0.90 Points)
- Cost of Shortest Flight: 30% (~5.40 Points)
- Duration of Shortest Flight: 10% (~1.80 Points)
- Number of Connections on Shortest Flight: 5% (~0.90 Points)
- Share of Delayed Flights: 10% (~1.80 Points)
Note: For simplicity, we recorded only the longest leg of each flight. Given the often stark disparities in flight costs and travel times, we also chose the best deals for each metric within a $30 range or one-hour window.
For example, if the cheapest round-trip flight between Washington and Los Angeles would cost $700 but only $25 more for the second-cheapest fight and would reduce the total travel time by two hours, we chose the latter.
Similarly, if the shortest round-trip flight between Washington and Los Angeles would take six hours each way but only 25 minutes longer for the second-shortest and would save the traveler $200, we again chose the latter.
Local Costs - Total Points = 18
- Cost of Three-Star Hotel Room: 25% (~4.50 Points)
- Average Price for Two-Person Meal: 25% (~4.50 Points)
- Taxi-Fare Cost: 25% (~4.50 Points)
- Cost of Living: 25% (~4.50 Points)
Attractions - Total Points = 18
- Number of Attractions: 60% (~10.80 Points)
- Diversity of Attractions: 40% (~7.20 Points)
Note: This metric was calculated using the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, a commonly accepted measure of market concentration that also serves effectively as a general-purpose measure of diversity.
Weather - Total Points = 18
Note: The metrics below are based on WalletHub’s “Cities with the Best & Worst Weather” ranking.
- Winter Weather: Total Points 18
- Warm Weather: Total Points 18
Activities - Total Points = 18
- Cold-Weather Activities
- Proximity of Ski Slopes: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
- Ice-Skating Rinks per Capita*: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
- Coffee & Tea Shops per Capita*: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
- Music Venues per Capita*: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
- Food Festivals per Capita*: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
- Restaurants per Capita*: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
- Availability of Affordable, High-Quality Restaurants: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
Note: “High Quality” refers to a star rating of at least 4.5.
- Wellness Centers & Spas per Capita*: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
- Shopping Centers per Capita*: 11.11% (~2.00 Points)
- Warm-Weather Activities
- Restaurants per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Availability of Affordable, High-Quality Restaurants: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
Note: “High Quality” refers to a star rating of at least 4.5.
- Amusement Parks per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Number of Amusement Parks on TripAdvisor’s “Top 25 Amusement Parks” List: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Wellness Centers & Spas per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Shopping Centers per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Music Venues per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Coffee & Tea Shops per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt Shops per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Tennis Courts per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Public Golf Courses per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Baseball Diamonds per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Basketball Hoops per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Bike-Rental Facilities per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Food Festivals per Capita*: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
- Quality of Parks: 6.25% (~1.13 Points)
Note: This metric is based on WalletHub’s “Best & Worst Cities for Recreation” ranking.
Safety - Total Points: 10
- Violent-Crime Rate: 33.33% (~3.33 Points)
- Property-Crime Rate: 33.33% (~3.33 Points)
- DUI-Related Fatal Incidents per Capita: 16.67% (~1.67 Points)
- Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths: 16.67% (~1.67 Points)
Sources: Data used to create this ranking were collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Numbeo, White Book of Ski Areas, Golf.com, Council for Community and Economic Research, Kayak.com, TripAdvisor, The Trust for Public Land, Yelp, County Health Rankings, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and WalletHub research.
Image: Nattanan Zia / Shutterstock.com
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