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TRAVEL

Why Thanksgiving is the best time to travel internationally

For a small fraction of in-the-know travelers, heading farther afield for this particular holiday is a best-kept secret.

The illuminated Eiffel tower, viewed from the rooftop of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris on Dec. 21, 2020.
The illuminated Eiffel tower, viewed from the rooftop of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris on Dec. 21, 2020.Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

Travel adviser Jack Ezon is seemingly on the go most days of the year, be it in Aspen, São Paulo, or Cannes, but you can count on him to be in the same place every Thanksgiving: his mother’s house in New Jersey, surrounded by some 60 or 70 relatives and close friends.

Not this year. Still concerned over gathering such a large group, the matriarch has hit pause on her tradition. Ezon will instead celebrate Thanksgiving with his immediate family — and a small handful of friends — abroad, in Paris. It’s something he’s never done before.

The travel expert will be among the minority of Americans heading across the pond this Thanksgiving. Out of 2 million US-based itineraries reviewed by the travel insurance company Allianz Partners, only 10 percent of Turkey Day travelers were heading to an international destination, with an overwhelming number opting for warmer-weather spots in Mexico or the Caribbean. Easily-accessed beaches accounted for almost the entire list of top 10 international Thanksgiving destinations; only London and Paris were exceptions. Data from Expedia show similar trends.

For a small fraction of in-the-know travelers, heading farther afield on Thanksgiving is a best-kept secret.

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“We used to do it every year before the pandemic,” says Misty Belles, managing director of Virtuoso, a global network of 20,000 travel advisers. “For years and years we did Paris as a tradition; we always found it was a great time to go abroad,” she continues, citing empty international airport terminals, good hotel prices during off-season periods, and generally crowd-free destinations.

This holiday cycle, additional factors are encouraging Americans to shake up their tryptophan-laden traditions. The downslope of COVID-19 infections and a quieting of the delta wave in North America and many parts of Europe, the approval of vaccines for kids ages 5-12, and the relative stability of border restrictions after a summer of uncertainty have all made families feel safer planning trips. Add pent-up demand for Europe, plus good last-minute availability outside the heavily in demand Caribbean, and it’s the perfect year to go big rather than go home.

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"People have had enough of their own houses, of their own cooking, of cleaning their own spaces," says Gavin Miller, executive vice president of luxury-focused agency Travel Edge. "They want to escape, to be together elsewhere and be present with each other."

“I’ve never seen so much demand for Europe over Thanksgiving,” Ezon echoes, adding that his company, Embark Beyond, has seen a 43 percent increase in international trips over the holiday this year, compared to 2019. A surprisingly small number of people care about replicating their culinary traditions on the road, he adds — maybe 50 percent, at most — which is a good thing, because whole turkeys aren’t easy to find anywhere other than US grocery stores in late November. “These trips are largely last-minute,” he explains. “But you do have to think ahead if you want that turkey dinner.”

“Europe is at the top of everyone’s list right now,” says Bridget Cohn, an Embark Beyond affiliate who runs the membership-based travel consultancy Bee Hospitality. Among the big-ticket Thanksgiving trips she’s planning are a truffle-hunting fete in Italy’s Piedmont, along with a mid-six figures splurge trip to Paris for a New York-based financial strategist and a half-dozen of his closest friends.

"They wanted to make a really special week out of it," says Cohn of the France-going group, which booked a block of suites at Le Meurice and is still settling on which white-tablecloth, fine-dining spot to book for their celebratory (non-turkey) Thursday night meal.

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Ezon says clients seeking warmer weather are swapping Mexico for Madrid or Morocco this year — though daily highs may not crack 70 degrees in either locale.

In Madrid, you could book the top suite at the new Rosewood Villa Magna and have a group dinner on a terrace overlooking the arterial Castellana Boulevard; in Marrakesh, superb places for a festive meal are the newly renovated El Fenn (owned by Richard Branson's sister Vanessa) and a private riad at Le Royal Mansour, where dinner can follow private cooking workshops focusing on tagines and Moroccan spices. For high-end adventure outfitter Black Tomato, this year's requests this year have been farther flung, with Americans venturing to French Polynesia, the Maldives, and Antarctica.

A different approach is to use a Thanksgiving trip to kick off the holiday season — not with Black Friday splurges but trips to Europe’s iconic and highly atmospheric Christmas markets, some of which open in mid-November.

“You’re right on the cusp” timing-wise, says Travel Edge’s Miller, with markets in France, Germany, and Slovenia tending to open on the earlier side. “Most old towns in Europe will have already started getting up decorations and getting in the full swing of the holiday spirit by Thanksgiving,” he continues, although it’s best to check each specific town for annual variations.

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Seeing how other cultures interpret the holidays is part of the fun, adds Virtuoso’s Belles. “In 2019 we went to South Africa on safari, and I’ll be eternally grateful for that trip,” she says.

A starlit Thanksgiving braai cookout at a Singita safari lodge — a local twist on the American tradition, complete with communal African singing and dancing — was the last big travel experience she and her family enjoyed together before lockdowns hit a few months later. “The memory got us through the pandemic, truly.”

With so many ways to celebrate abroad that don’t apply at home, many travel agents find that it’s easy to dispel the notion of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. But for people who cling to the holiday as they know it, there are reliable workarounds — more often facilitated by hotels than by restaurants.

The first is to choose a hotel or brand frequented by Americans and likely to honor US traditions. Caribbean all-inclusive hotels, for instance, almost always do a Thanksgiving-themed night — one of the reasons that region resonates with American travelers.

Across the pond, Rocco Forte hotels — whose 14 properties include Brown’s in London and the Hotel de Russie in Rome, tend to have formalized Thanksgiving offerings, either with fixed restaurant menus or via private dining. Dorchester Collection is similar. Hotels with restaurants by US-based chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck’s outpost at London’s 45 Park Lane, are among the first places travel advisers look when fulfilling requests for turkey and pumpkin pie. Since 2021 remains a touch-and-go year for restaurants around the world, a little legwork may be required to confirm availability.

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Booking a private chef is a further option, but it requires a space (and kitchen) large enough for your party. It’s especially popular with grandparents planning multigenerational trips; their larger party sizes are a natural fit for villa rentals. This is a dominant demographic for Miller, who often sends these groups to the Alps, even if it’s a bit early for ski season. “The chalets are great and atmospheric, and so are the towns around them,” he says. Plus, the price tags are friendlier before the crowds (and snow) start to descend.

No matter what you eat, everyone agrees that the point is really the intimacy of the people at the table — so keep it limited to your nearest and dearest. Laughs Belles, “If you’re not convinced by everything else, just think about all the awkward conversations you get to avoid.”