Feel like you’re going nowhere fast? You’re not alone – thanks to the economy many people are taking shorter vacations closer to home this year – if they’re travelling at all. Even in the best of times, a yearly getaway simply isn’t in the budget for a lot of people.

But the desire to learn, explore and experience other places and cultures isn’t limited to people who have the means to travel. There are many other ways to explore and engage even if you can’t get out of town. If you’re staying close to home, here are some ways to broaden your horizon.

Host a travel-themed party

Maybe it’s an international foods potluck, a Hawaiian barbeque or a Mexican fiesta: Try hosting an event with an ethnic flare. Learn a few new recipes, or check out that bakery, deli or take-out restaurant you’ve always been meaning to try. Hit the international music section of your library to set the mood, and top the evening off with a few simple decorations and activities.

Alternatively, you can “borrow” a holiday or festival from another country or culture (if appropriate). Try a new tradition as a teaching and learning experience. (To see what’s going on, check out the BBC’s Multifaith Calendar for a start).

Rent a travel film

Another idea for a travel-themed event is a movie right. Focus on films from a particular country, stories that rely on the setting for part of their effect (like Under the Tuscan Sun or Memoirs of a Geisha ) or films that focus on the journey itself (even if the setting is fictional — like in Lord of the Rings ). Host a “Bollywood” night, or get out some of your favourite adventure movies.

Be sure to watch the special features if you rent the DVD, especially if there’s one on the location and filming. Seeing how filmmakers cope with the natural challenges of the landscape or recreating historic moments can be eye-opening.

Go see an Indie film

Many independent films offer a window into other places and cultures without the trumped-up Hollywood glamour — but chances are you won’t find them at the multiplex unless you live in a major city. Some of this year’s leading Oscar titles like Slumdog Millionaire and The Reader weren’t playing in mainstream theatres in most cities. To find the hidden gems, think outside the big-box theatre and check out what’s playing at the local independent theatre, library or university instead.

What’s on now? Some of this month’s titles include One Week, which chronicles a young man’s motorcycle journey across Canada, and Steven Soderbergh’s saga about the revolutionary Che Guevara.

If mainstream is your preference, watch for Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons or take the kids to see Night At The Museum 2: Battle Of The Smithsonian .

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Rent a documentary

If you’ve seen March of the Penguins , you’ve already had a taste for the awe-inspiring scenery our planet has to offer. The point of renting a documentary isn’t to replace the experience of travel, but instead to glimpse into a part of the world you might not other wise get to see, like the Antarctic or the Galapagos Islands. (Money-saving hint: Many of these documentaries are available at your local library, but you may have to reserve them ahead of time).

Not sure where to start? Try The Blue Planet and Planet Earthcollections. These award-winning BBC series feature a close-up look at some of the world’s natural marvels, and feature some stunning cinematography.

For the big screen experience, watch for Disney’s Earth to hit theatres on Earth Day (April 22).

Bring the museum home

If you can’t go, let the museum come to you with a DVD or video from a large museum like the Louvre or Smithsonian. (You’ll never see the whole museum in a day or two anyway). Learning about the artefacts in advance will help you make the most of your visit when you do go because you’ll know more about the history and context.

An added bonus: it can help you pin down the must-see items in the enormous collections so you can start to plan your trip. Think of it as an appetizer rather than the main course.

Read a travel book

Whether it’s a coffee table book, a travel log or a good story set in a far away place, you can easily get lost in a good book. You can even read about places you might never venture — like Iraq, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, which are featured in Tony Wheeler’s Badlands .

If you’re feeling discouraged about staying home, then hearing about other people’s travel misadventures might just cheer you up. Don’t Go There!: The Travel Detective’s Essential Guide to the Must-Miss Places of the World by Peter Greenberg lists place you’ll want to stay away from. (For more of our picks, see 12 tantalizing travel reads).

Surf the ‘net

Take a break from dreaming about your next trip (or being riddled with envy from other people’s vacation photos) and use the Internet as a learning tool.

- Take a look around sites like 1001wonders.org which has panophotographies (360 degree photos that you can “move” with your mouse) of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Explore ones you wouldn’t get to see in person, like the Remains of Jam in Afghanistan or Petra, Jordan. The UNESCO website also has photos, videos, information and news about other sites (click here for the full list).

- Take an online tour of some of the world’s most famous museums, galleries and historic buildings, like the Vatican Museum, the Louvre and the Smithsonian. (Simply visit the institution’s website and look for “online” or “virtual” tours and exhibits sections). In addition to games and interactive learning activities, many art galleries and museums have developed offerings especially for the internet, like the Virtual Museum of Canada. (For some sample favourites to try, see Online exhibits delight the mind).

- For views that are out of this world, try the NASA Earth Observatory or Google Earth.

- If you’re a trivia buff, check our websites like the CIA World Factbook and the Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning’s Country Insights.

In addition, look for online radio and TV stations for programming from around the world.

Perfect your photography skills

You see your hometown everyday — but have you taken the time to document it? Look for interesting landmarks and scenery close to home to practice your skills and experiment with some different shots. The pressure to be perfect is gone if you can return anytime you like, but you’ll benefit from the practice when you do decide to travel again.

Why bother? It’s a chance to record a piece of your history to share with others, whether it’s for future generations or people you meet on the road. Pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it, and take along a budding photographer for a great learning experience. (For tips on taking better photos, check out Make travel pictures great).

And most importantly:

Think outside your comfort zone

Part of the fun of travel is trying something new – whether it’s a new food, listening to new music or exploring a new area. We’re willing to take a chance on things that are new and different when we travel, yet we often overlook these opportunities at our home base.

The trick is to change your way of thinking: Don’t be afraid to try something you might not like, or do something out of the ordinary like take salsa dance lessons or experiment in the kitchen. Make a date with yourself or with your loved ones and try something different. Attend an event or festival you used to walk by, go to a concert or art show even if it isn’t “your taste” and try a new restaurant. Look up those parks and hiking trails near you. Pack a picnic lunch or dinner and eat somewhere other than your home. If your city has a strong ethnic community, find out what events are going on at local places of worship and community centres (like open houses and suppers).

Overall, it isn’t about playing tourist in your hometown or thinking a piece of technology can replace a trip abroad. It is about noting the things you like to do when you travel and finding a way to make them happen with the resources you have, or doing something different altogether. Say “yes” to new experiences, no matter where in the world you find them.

What do you do when you can’t travel? Share your tips in the comments.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Alexey Kuznetsov

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by:
Elizabeth Rogers