By Maggie Wolff Peterson
For some people, this year's Christmas won't arrive in a box with a bow. Instead of a gift to wrap and place under the tree, they're choosing experiences: fantasy or luxury trips, or even volunteer vacations that take them around the world to work in underprivileged areas on short-term development projects.
"I personally am getting an experience this year," said Bambi Duvall, owner of All About Travel in Winchester.
With her daughter visiting other relatives, Duvall decided to satisfy one of her mother's lifetime wishes. Together, they are going to cruise through the Panama Canal.
Duvall said it will be a pleasure not to have to worry with Christmas cooking or house decorating, however she will bring "little Charlie Brown Christmas trees to sneak into our staterooms," she said.
And with the ship decorated for the holiday, it's not as if she's missing Christmas. "Even though you're escaping, you have the holiday around you," she said.
Most commonly, Christmas travelers are looking for warmth and sunshine, Duvall said. The Caribbean is a top destination.
But be aware.
"Anywhere, traveling between Christmas and New Year's is at peak pricing," Duvall said. Additionally, resorts may impose minimum stay requirements.
"Some islands have a two-week winter minimum stay, or it's a minimum stay of seven days," she said.
Another drawback comes with planning. When a family decides to travel together, plans may unravel if costs are to be split. The most successful trips are when "grandparents pay for the kids and the grandkids," Duvall said.
"If one person's paying for the whole thing, it's amazing how everyone can come," she said.
Europe is another popular holiday destination. Travelers like to "experience the holiday markets that are traditional in Europe," Duvall said. "They like to see the decorations and the traditions of the country."
But some people want to pair their holiday travel adventure with good works. Volunteer programs worldwide offer that opportunity.
Minnesota-based Global Volunteers offers programs this December in Peru, India and Romania, where volunteers may work with children, teach English and assist in facility development.
The program in Lima, Peru, is "a phenomenal program for families," said Michele Gran, vice president of Global Volunteers. Travelers can assist with at-risk children at two different residential schools, "kids who are found and brought from some of the very poorest areas," Gran said.
Simply playing with a child can be supportive, Gran said. And engaging in basic conversation is another way to help. Throughout the world, young people want to master American English, which Gran said is the "language of the Internet."
Additionally in Peru, volunteers may work at an agricultural school, where children learn methods to improve production and move forward economically. Both programs are open to volunteers as young as eight, traveling with their families.
Volunteer travel at Christmastime "gets your mind off of material consumption," Gran said. And some people prefer to travel to non-Christian countries, where Christmas is not the central event of December.
Hindu India is such a destination. There, volunteers work with street children at a daycare center and hospital, Gran said. Also, simple construction work allows volunteers to "get their handyman itch scratched," she said.
"Sometimes we build entire wings of buildings," she said. "We might mix cement. We might build a wall. Painting, scraping," she added. "You always need to paint something."
Gran called the work therapeutic. "You can see your results," she said. "It's life transformative."
Some volunteers choose to apply their skills to the needy at home. "We've got developing communities in our country as well," Gran said.
Global Volunteers operates programs on Native American reservations in Montana and in Appalachian West Virginia. "We work in extinct coal company towns, where communities of 80 to 200 people live," Gran said. "We help rehab the homes, the dilapidated homes back there. We also work at the school."
And although volunteers must pay their own way, including airfare and a program service fee for group organizers, the entire amount is tax deductible. Lodging at program sites, as well as all materials, are generally covered by the program, Gran said.
Sometimes, the person being helped is the one taking the holiday trip, Duvall said. The prospect of being surrounded by one's family, including one's grouchy in-laws, sulky teens, snippy sister and helicopter parents, may be too much. An island trip may be just the ticket.
"The family drama is too intense," Duvall said. "They want to escape."