December in the United States: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

New York City in December

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December means winter and the busy holiday travel season across much of the United States. However, because America is such a massive country, the weather can be drastically different depending on the region. For instance, by the time December comes around, it may have already been snowing for a month or two in high elevations across the West Coast and in the northernmost states (and especially in Alaska). However, many southern states don't get snow at all and tend to have a more mild climate. Some cities, like Miami and San Diego, may even reach temps as high as the mid-70s.

No matter where you are, there is sure to be a festive atmosphere thanks to the holidays. The only downside with that is unpredictable weather can make it a tricky time for travel, so expect flight delays and slick road conditions. You'll also want to book hotels and airfare far in advance as this is one of the most expensive months to travel.

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) dancing above the Chugach Mountains and reflecting in the waters of Turnagain Arm, Kenai Peninsula; Alaska
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U.S. Weather in December

The prepared traveler shouldn’t let the snow stop them; December sees some cites at their best. The adventure-seeking traveler should head to Anchorage, Alaska, for a glimpse of the Northern Lights, which are at their most spectacular throughout December. Ski destinations in the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Tetons also come into their prime season, and powder lovers should take advantage and head to places like Big Sky in Montana or Breckenridge in Colorado. Major cities including New York City and Chicago are brisk with temperatures in the low thirties to forties but make the trip worth it with stunning holiday lights and displays that typically appear the week after Thanksgiving and stay up throughout the month of December. 

If you're looking to get away from the brisker temperatures, consider heading to the Southeast and Southwest states, which hover around 70 degrees all month long. Florida is a popular destination for those fleeing the cold at home and is exciting as cities across the state celebrate the season with events like the Winterfest Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale and Art Basel in Miami Beach.

December is also a great time to check out western hot spots like Los Angeles, and although it won’t be beach weather with temperatures typically under 70 degrees, hotels offer cheaper rates, and destinations like Disneyland tend to be much less crowded. Off the west coast, Hawaii remains a tropical 80 degrees throughout December and the rest of the winter season and can be a great place for those who want nothing to do with a white Christmas. The last two weeks of the month can be packed with families taking advantage of school breaks, so travelers looking to find peace and quiet (as well as more affordable resort rates) should try to visit during the beginning of the month.

What to Pack

Your suitcase will look different depending on the region you plan on visiting. For example, because Florida can reach temperatures in the 70s, you should pack more summery clothes such as dresses and light cardigans. However, in colder climates like New England or the Pacific Northwest, you'll want to bring waterproof jackets, jeans, scarves, and warm clothing. The best bet (no matter where you go in America) is to grab layers like long pants, light jackets, and T-shirts in case there are last-minute changes in the forecast.

2018 Art Basel Miami Beach
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December Events in the U.S.

The three biggest holidays during this month are Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year's Eve.

  • Art Basel Miami Beach is an annual art and design festival held the first weekend of December (December 6-9, 2018). As one of Miami's biggest and buzziest events, Basel showcases contemporary exhibits from world-renown artists as well as glam, celeb-studded parties across the city.
  • National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is held every year on December 7 to commemorate the 1941 Hawaii naval base attack during WWII. It is given tribute with veteran parades, live music, and film screenings.
  • Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday beginning on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. In 2018 Hanukkah will be December 2-10. It is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah, songs, games (dreidel), and traditional meals with family and friends.
  • Christmas is a massive holiday in the United States, and cities around the country celebrate the season throughout December with light displays, Christmas trees, ice skating, caroling, Santa visits, and other festivities. While Christmas Day (December 25) is the main day, with present-giving and church-going, Christmas Eve is also busy as families and friends usually have a big dinner together.
  • Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday (December 26 through January 1), which honors African and African-American culture and heritage. It has seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Similar to other holidays, Kwanzaa culminates in a large feast and gift-giving.
  • New Year's Eve is a global holiday held on December 31. People around the world ring in the New Year with firework displays, champagne toasts, and countdown parties. New York City has one of the biggest events in the U.S. thanks to its iconic ball drop in Times Square.

December Travel Tips

  • Make sure to have patience when you travel in December as airports tend to be packed, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year's Eve. The first two weeks of December, however, are less busy and there are more vacation deals to be found.
  • The snow that falls across much of the country during December is infamous for causing delayed and cancelled flights, so add extra time when scheduling trips. Arriving early, using travel apps on your smartphone, and keeping checked baggage to a minimum are good ways to ensure a hassle-free trip.
  • The holiday season is also the most expensive time to travel in America, so make plans way in advance for the most affordable fares. Travel on Christmas day itself for the cheapest prices and no crowds.
  • The days are shortest in December, so expect less sunlight.
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