Image: Recreational play
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Within miles of your front porch, it's likely you'll find attractions, interesting lodging options, eating establishments and activities you've never tried, visited or even known about. Just check the Yellow Pages, the local newspaper, tourist office and the Web for ideas.
updated 7/9/2008 3:04:11 PM ET 2008-07-09T19:04:11

The national average for gasoline prices recently edged over $4 a gallon, airlines are cutting flights, temperatures are climbing, storms are disrupting travel and the airport is as brutal a place as it's ever been. It makes you think about just staying home this year — and why not? These days, folks "think local," "buy local," even "bike local." It's not set in stone that you must venture far afield to have a great vacation; done correctly, a local vacation can rival any far-flung international trip you've ever taken.

Don't buy the local angle? Ask yourself what most people do on vacation. A high-grade summer vacation might include a few good restaurants, a nice hotel room with clean sheets every day, sleeping in, a long hike, maybe some horseback riding, lounging by a pool, a boat ride, maybe a night in a tent and some visits to funky stores. Chances are, you can do many of these activities less than 25 miles from where you live; I've been to all but four or five states in America, and nowhere did I find a place where there was absolutely nothing entertaining to do very nearby.

Money saved globally is money well spent locally
Perhaps the most compelling reason to give local travel a shot is to get the most from your vacation budget. One critical upside of staying near home is that you save on the actual traveling part of travel — airfare, rental cars and, of course, gasoline. These are almost always going to be among your biggest expenses. Say you save a modest $800 on airfare for two people, or $1,600 for a family of four. Then there's another hundred or two for a rental car, and up to another $200 for gasoline.

So let's agree for argument's sake that by not leaving town you can save $1,200 for a couple or $2,000 for a family; that's a lot of money to divert to making a local vacation a great vacation. If you're willing to spend some of that money upgrading everything else you do considerably from your normal standards, you can afford a much more luxurious experience than you could otherwise.

The corner suite at the hotel around the corner
For example, say you typically budget $100-$150 per night for lodging. If you upgrade to the corner penthouse suite at the best hotel in town for $300 a night, it will take you a week or more to burn off all the money you saved on airfares alone.

Thus, I have essential one recommendation on lodging near home: Get the best room in town. The best room with the best view right in the center of things, or attached to a spa or golf course, or right on the water, or whatever makes you happiest, is the best money you will spend in the entire project, and it will still end up being less than what you would have shelled out to an airline.

There's plenty to do within range of a gallon of gas
I live in anything but a national hot spot, but I did some research this week, and within eight miles of my front porch is a horse ranch that is open to the public, a network of trails that a bloodhound could get lost on, a historic hotel surrounded by a great little village, five or six canoe/kayak rental outfits, a famous fictional movie location, at least four Zagat-rated restaurants (and probably more, I didn't look that hard), a vineyard with free tasting hours, a family-friendly orchard, an outdoor amateur theater, an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, a parachuting company, a waterskiing school, countless running and other participatory athletic events, two small oddball museums, a local arts center featuring regular concerts, a golf course, a skate park, a year-round ice rink, and three killer ice cream joints, one of them one of those all-natural buy-local places that people drive dozens of miles to visit. Within 15 miles, there is also a minor league baseball stadium, a revered concert hall, a rock quarry open to swimming with slides and rope swings, a bunch of decent nightclub bars, and a full-on spa.

If truly local turned out not to be good or varied enough for you, it's about 35-40 miles to the nearest beach town, where two gallons of gas from here I could pull into the valet parking drive of a famous oceanfront hotel. If we expand out to 50 or 60 miles, we arrive at major international destinations, which isn't the point of this column, but you probably get the point. I can take a $13 train to what is arguably the greatest city on the planet. Not everyone can do this, I understand, but I'd bet that within 50 miles of the front door of almost anyone in America is something people would pay good money to see, do or visit.

A big part of the allure of travel is novelty; new sights, sounds and smells stimulate the senses in ways that your "own backyard" does not. This is the only possible reason a street festival in some other town is somehow better than one in your own town. The trick is to make the familiar seem novel, and this can be as simple as merely stopping at places you've seen so many times you barely notice them anymore. There's a small farm near here that we drive past all the time; a recent unplanned stop with our boy ended up with him feeding carrots to horses, watching them get new horseshoes, helping to milk cows, jumping on top of hay bales and "driving" an old tractor. Who needs to trek all the way to Amish country or some "authentic towne" or recreated village when the locals do the same stuff every day?

How did I find all this great stuff to do? It was almost too easy — the Yellow Pages, the local weekly newspaper, the local tourist office and, of course, the Web. It took me about a total of two hours to find maybe a month's worth of attractions, interesting lodging options, eating establishments, and activities I had never seen, tried, visited or even known about. Compare that to the time it takes to research and book some flights, find a hotel, reserve a rental car and pick a few restaurants, and it's pretty much a wash. And I can do all of them for less money than I would spend just getting somewhere else to do all the same stuff at some distant destination.

Slow travel, volunteer vacations and other recent trends
Slow travel, educational travel, and volunteer vacations are among the trendiest approaches to theme travel in this century, but none of them require going far away. For instance, scrambling through airports and jetting at extraordinarily high speeds across an ocean and six countries only to slow down for six nights in a villa in southern Italy seems more like a slow travel sandwich on hyper-speed white bread to me. What could be more slow than never venturing more than five or six miles from your home? This is a big part of what slow travel is all about, after all — going somewhere to live like the locals. You have a pretty good head start in your own home town.

I'm not trying to denigrate the "international" version of slow travel that has gained considerable currency lately, of course; I think it is a really neat idea, and I'd done my fair share before it had a name and a Web site. Similarly, while I find volunteer vacations to be an admirable use of your time and money, there's no reason why you can't take a volunteer vacation in your own community. Sure, it's more exotic to travel farther for your volunteering opportunity, but it's not necessarily more needed than delivering meals to homebound or disadvantaged folks nearby. Spending Thanksgiving Day serving meals to poverty-stricken people near your own home is no less transformative than doing the same in Ecuador. And the same goes for educational travel — why not take a cooking class or learn to play a musical instrument in your own community?

Go the distance (without going the distance)
Do everything you would do on a regular trip before you leave home — stop the paper delivery, hold the mail, change your voice mail, turn on your vacation e-mail auto-responder. When you are 10 miles from home, behave just like you would if you were 1,000 miles away.

The gravitational pull of your daily routine can be every bit as strong as the centrifugal force that makes you want to escape it; both are balancing evils to avoid. What you are going for is stability. As the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are — take care to make sure of it.


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