5 Tips For Celebrating The Holidays Abroad

A statue looks out on Barcelona, Spain

A statue looks out on Barcelona, Spain

You might have considered it once or twice, not just traveling abroad but going (or staying) abroad during the holidays. It’s perhaps a daunting prospect – you want to have fun during your time away and enjoy local customs while preserving some of your usual celebrations. As someone who’s spent the holidays away from home, here are some tips on how to balance your international experience with your typical traditions.


Some items might either be unavailable or more difficult to find abroad. So know what’s necessary for you (and also allowed through customs) and be sure to save space in your suitcase for it. You can maybe leave behind your burger patties but pack your American flag paraphernalia or BBQ sauce if you’re planning for the Fourth of July. For myself, I had no especial traditions I needed to preserve so I didn’t pack any holiday-particular items when I spent the holidays in France and Belgium. Still, I was sure to arrange a stay with my first cousins during my weeks of holiday and to plan my travel ahead of time.


For those things you forget, can’t plan for, or aren’t permitted to have (maybe customs confiscated your cranberry sauce?), you have to be willing to adjust and adapt. For example, other countries don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and may even celebrate Christmas differently.

La soupe et sa nem for Thanksgiving dinner

La soupe et sa nem for Thanksgiving dinner

If we’re thinking about the 4th of July – that’s US-specific. I studied abroad in France, a place where Thanksgiving doesn’t exist (though the French people who learned about it were certainly interested in it). So, instead of a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, I ate chicken, squash soup with a nem (rolled Vietnamese sausage) and tiramisu. While it was certainly different from my usual Thanksgiving fare, it was no less tasty.

If this option isn’t for you, you could also try to make a home-cooked meal – but be prepared to substitute ingredients!


Don’t be a shut-in or a typical tourist who only goes to tourist traps – go where the people are! Many European cities are built around a central location, typically a square or open area. This is where everyone gathers during the holidays, especially at night.

Now, France, for example, is all about little boutiques and markets and the holidays are no exception! So check out the wares at the local markets – you never know what cool stuff you’ll find and you’ll get a better sense of the city or town you’re in. All in all, it’s just an energizing time that also affords some good people watching! You should also try to have dinner in town once or twice (safety permitting).

As I said, nighttime’s the right time.

Christmas market in Toulouse, France

Christmas market in Toulouse, France


Regardless of the holiday (4th of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas), there’s often a way for you to either share your custom or participate in what the locals do. When it comes to the 4th of July, the French have the 14th of July, otherwise known as Bastille Day or French National Day. It commemorates the storming of the Bastille and marks a period of celebration. For Christmas, the French participate in similar traditions as Americans. However, they add an extra celebration during a whole week after New Year’s when the parties are in swing and the galette des rois (a flaky cake).

So find ways to celebrate with or like a local. Join in their traditions or just watch some rugby. It’ll add something a little special to your trip and help you make the most of your time abroad.


While this goes for any trip, often during a holiday vacation we are so busy sight-seeing and trying to do it all, plan it all, and possibly corral others that we forget to actually enjoy the place we’re in. That’s not saying don’t sight-see or explore (by all means do!) but just save a little time to do things that are low-stress and allow you to catch your breath. You may find these moments are the things that create lasting memories and mark highlights of your time abroad!


zubin bio.png