By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 4/23/2008 1:27:04 PM ET 2008-04-23T17:27:04

By now you’ve surely heard that a long list of U.S. airlines shut down over the past month and that quite a few more are on life support here and abroad. On top of that, the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent safety fire drill paralyzed American Airlines for days, jammed up all the alternative flights and left some 360,000 passengers delayed or stuck at the airport.

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As a travel writer who reports on exotic locales and far-flung destinations, I usually urge readers to expand their boundaries and go see what’s on the other side of the world — or at least the other side of the country. This might be the year, however, when most people would be better off staying close to home. Besides the well-publicized airline woes, we’re also facing record-high gas prices for that family road trip, and hotel rates are hovering near record highs as well, especially in large cities.

‘We’ll visit there someday’
If there is a place within a few hours’ drive of your home that you’ve always wanted to get to “someday”, this is probably the year to do it. Even if you don’t have a running list in your head or clippings in a folder, there are probably some great attractions in your state or the one next door that you would really enjoy.

Unless you are in a really isolated part of the U.S. or Canada, your closest city probably has become a treasure trove of museums, good restaurants and kid-friendly attractions in the past decade or two. From Boise, Idaho, to Jacksonville, Fla., governments and private enterprises have invested huge sums of money in the pursuit of making their location attractive to tourists and meeting planners. In other words, you don’t have to go to New York City, Orlando or San Francisco to have an interesting vacation. Two of my favorite cities for a family break are within three hours of my home: Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lexington, Ky. You probably have a gem or two right down the road from where you live as well.

The same goes for parks. Instead of joining the throngs of RVs in Yellowstone National Park or Great Smoky Mountains National Park, zero in on less crowded national and state parks that are not so well known. Chances are a few of them are downright deserted on a summer weekday. Many states have well-funded, well-maintained state parks with good lodging facilities, either in a central lodge or in cabins. Too rustic? Private companies and homeowners rent out cabins and houses in the mountains or on a lake for very reasonable prices, especially in areas that don’t get a lot of press or aren’t the getaway of choice near a big city.

If you fly, choose spontaneity
If you really must get out of state and go somewhere different, this year you are probably better off leaving your options open until the week before you travel. Buying a plane ticket far in advance is making less sense every week. The airline might not even be around by the time your departure date arrives.

Instead, subscribe to a free newsletter from a site like SmarterTravel.com or AirfareWatchdog.com. Each week these Web sites will send you a list of last-minute fare deals from your own airport. See what looks interesting and go there. This past weekend, for instance, I could have flown to 27 different locations from my home airport of Nashville for under $200 round trip. Even that sky-high summer flight to Europe can be cheaper if you widen your options to the whole continent. This week I got alerts for round-trip flights to Dublin or Barcelona for under $680 from my own city — a bargain at today’s weakened dollar rates. You can always catch a budget flight or train within Europe to get somewhere else.

Otherwise, get to know the tourism Web sites of your own state and the neighboring ones. Chances are there are a whole lot of interesting places to check out right in your own backyard.

Tim Leffel is author of the book “Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune” and co-author of “Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.” He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.

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