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

New York City in December

Nisian Hughes/Getty Images 

The summer months tend to top the list as far as prime U.S. vacation times go, but December is great for traveling in the States as well. High-elevation places on the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountains turn into a winter wonderland this time of year whereas southern destinations like Miami and San Diego become much milder than the sweltering summer season. With temperatures in the mid-70s, you can walk around in a t-shirt.

Pesky weather can sometimes make it tricky to travel (and downright impossible to pack), so expect flight delays and slick roads if you're driving. Book your flights and hotels far in advance, too, because travel becomes more expensive as the holidays get nearer. No matter where you go in the States this December, though, you're sure to find a festive atmosphere.

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) dancing above the Chugach Mountains and reflecting in the waters of Turnagain Arm, Kenai Peninsula; Alaska
Lucas Payne/Getty Images

Where to Go

The environment is so vastly different from one end of the U.S. to the other that weather is entirely dependent on which region you visit. You may be treated to snow up north or 80-degree days in Florida.

Northern States

For adventure seekers and snow lovers, Alaska is a no-brainer. America's most northern state is known for its majestic display of northern lights, which are at their most spectacular throughout the month of December. Ski destinations in the Rocky Mountains (Colorado) and Grand Tetons (Wyoming) also come into their prime season this time of year. Powder heads should take full advantage of the resorts in Montana, Vermont, Idaho, and Washington, too.

Northern cities like New York City and Chicago are chilly—expect temperatures in the low 30s to 40s—but worth a visit to see them illuminated by their iconic holiday displays. 

Southern States

States in the Southeast and Southwest are entirely different, hovering around 70 degrees all December long. Florida beaches (Miami, Clearwater, Key West, and Daytona) are popular destinations for Americans fleeing the cold at home. Temperatures in Texas and southern states on the East Coast (the Carolinas and Georgia) linger in the 60s this time of year.

West Coast

On the opposite side of the country, Los Angeles maintains its mild climate throughout the winter. However, because tourists tend to flock to the area during summer, hotels offer cheaper rates in December than they would during prime time. Nearby destinations like Disneyland tend to be much less crowded and therefore cheaper, too. Off the West Coast, Hawaii remains a tropical 80 degrees throughout December and the rest of the winter season. The last two weeks of the month can be packed with families taking advantage of school breaks.

When to Visit

The three major December holidays are Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year's Eve, but there are things happening constantly throughout the month, including such major events as:

  • Art Basel in Miami Beach: This annual art and design festival is held the first weekend of December every year. It's one of Miami's biggest and buzziest events, designed to showcase contemporary exhibits from famous artists and to host celeb-studded parties across the city.
  • National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day: If you're traveling to Hawaii this season, be aware of events surrounding National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day on December 7, including parades, music, and film screenings.
  • Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting: The annual tree lighting in Manhattan is one giant outdoor party and concert featuring big-name pop stars and more in Rockefeller Center.
  • New Year's Eve at Times Square: This is one of the biggest events in the world. Folks flock to Times Square, New York City, by the thousands to watch the ball drop at midnight on New Year's Eve.
2018 Art Basel Miami Beach
Sean Drakes /Getty Images

What to Pack

Your suitcase will look different depending on which region you visit. A trip to Florida may warrant summery tank tops and potentially swimsuits while a trip to New England or the Pacific Northwest would require ample rain gear. Don't forget waterproof jackets, boots, and winter accessories if you're going up north, and no matter where you go, bring loads of layers. This is America, after all, and the weather can change from moment to moment.

December Travel Tips

  • 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.
  • December snow is infamous for causing delayed and cancelled flights, so add extra time when scheduling trips. Arrive early, use travel apps, and keep checked baggage to a minimum to ensure a hassle-free trip.
  • The holiday season is also the most expensive time to travel in America, so make plans far in advance for the most affordable fares. Traveling on Christmas Day is the best way to get good prices and smaller crowds.
  • The days are shortest in December, so expect less sunlight.