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Unable to Travel Right Now? 12 Eye-Opening Activities to Help Quench Your Wanderlust

Women on the Road
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It should be easy – buy a ticket and hop on the plane.

Get off at your destination.

But life isn’t always like that and things get in the way.

Recently, a bout with pneumonia weakened me to the point I had to change my travel plans. What if your health won’t let you travel as far and wide as you’d like to?

There’s money too, of course (although here are some good tips about traveling even when you’re almost broke). You're not always as rich as you'd like, and you may have other priorities.

And there are other reasons… fear of travel is a common one, and so is unfamiliarity with a new place; it's often hard to try something - like solo travel - for the first time.

Yet travel doesn’t have to mean going to the ends of the earth.

You can still reap the benefits of travel – discovery, awareness, excitement – without changing hemispheres. In fact, in some cases you don’t have to go very far at all.

Here are 12 travel alternatives you can try instead of going far away! None will replace the real thing, but you’ll still get most of the benefits.

1. look at your own town through a new pair of glasses - become a tourist at home

How well do you know your town or city? I ask because sometimes we're more familiar with faraway places than with our own back yard.

I can navigate my way around Bangkok better than I can Lyon or Annecy down the road from me... something about familiarity breeding contempt, that odd feeling that things close to home will always be around but that faraway places should be cherished and deeply explored.

If you can't get away to travel right now, why not flip that paradigm on its head and become a tourist in your own town?

Let's give it a try. Think of your town or city and imagine you've never been here before.

  • Where do you start? Simple: your local tourist office website or a guidebook. 
  • Figure out which places you don't know. There are bound to be some. Even if you live in a rural area, surely there are nearby villages you haven't been to and if you live in town, there are probably neighborhoods you might like to get to know better.
  • Make a list of the top sights you'd like to explore (nothing replaces a good list). Are there museums you don't know? Neighborhoods you're curious about? Monuments whose history you don't know?
  • Prepare your itinerary: how do you navigate from one place to the next? Should you drive? Take public transport? Where to first?
  • Establish a reward for yourself somewhere along the line - perhaps a good market for lunch or a good restaurant you've been wanting to explore for dinner.

If you live in the countryside, like I do, pick the nearest fair-sized town and use that for your travel experiment. I live in rural France so when I feel the need to wear my Dora the Explorer hat, I head to Lyon (my latest discovery there involved a lot of food).

By the end of your "tourist at home" day you will have discovered some new sights or attractions or had new experiences. Isn't that what you do when you travel?

travel alternatives - a nearby townWhenever I feel the need to "get away", I have two go-to towns: Annecy, which is about 45 minutes away, and Lyon, pictured above, an hour from home by train. It's not quite Paris - but for many people, it's every bit as lovely ©WOTR

2. DO SOMETHING wild or UNEXPECTED

Part of acting out as a tourist in your own town involves doing the kinds of things you'd normally do on vacation or abroad.

You may already do some of these but if you don't...

  • go to the beach, if there's one nearby
  • take a bike ride through the city
  • get on the water if you have a waterway near you - go canoeing, kayaking or sailing
  • visit a local national park you haven't been to before
  • join a walking tour in your own town
  • hop on a bus - you're savvy enough about your city to know which parts are safe, so jump on a bus that takes you to one of the better parts of town - one you don't know yet

Bottom line, look at your city through a foreigner's eyes. What would you want to do if you weren't from here?

Often, these things will involve pushing out of your comfort zone.

My mother used to have an intriguing approach to this: she would make it a point to meet someone each time she went into town - meet a stranger. Whether at an internet café (oh yes, this was a thing then) or standing in line at the bank, she would pluck up her courage and initiate a conversation with a stranger, no easy feat for a woman brought up with European restraint. Walking downtown with my mother was an exercise in sociability - she seemed to greet every other person on the street!

alternative to travel - hike behind the houseA lot of people would pay for this experience - yet all I had to do was walk up the hill behind my house (with my dogs) ©WOTR/Anne Sterck
travel alternatives - riding a bikeNow this is me in a position you'd rarely see me... riding a bike! Even if it's electric, I decided to give it a go. It wasn't an unmitigated disaster (nor was it a resounding success). Pushing my boundaries...
travel alternative - sailingAnd while we're on the topic of pushing boundaries, this was a real push for me. I can't swim (not well enough, anyway) and I instantly get motion sick when something - anything - moves. So this was a real stretch and while I tried to enjoy it, I hung onto that mast for dear life. And all I had to do was travel 45 minutes to experience this... ©WOTR/Anne Sterck

3. eat abroad - without ever leaving home

Flavors are so linked to our travels... those pungent memories of chillies in Thailand and Mexico, tortilla in Spain or breakfast croissants in Paris.

There's no reason you can't reconstruct those memories closer to home. If you're in a fair-sized town or city, you'll probably find a restaurant from every country under the sun.

Not sure where to find one or which is best? Then head online to Tripadvisor or Yelp or your favorite food app.

If you're in a rural area (although I can lay claim to a pizza truck in the supermarket parking lot two nights a week) you may have to go a bit further afield but you'll still find something. And if you don't, it's time to brush off those cooking skills.

In a Mexican mood? Find some mariachi music online or on iTunes and let it linger in the background while you simmer those refried beans and spice up that salsa. Rinse and repeat for pretty much every cuisine on earth. (I have a collection of cookbooks from different countries - I usually pick one up each time I travel.)

Relax and enjoy. If only for a moment, you just might be transported somewhere else.

travel alternative - cooking classYou can always learn to cook a French dish in preparation for your next trip to France ©WOTR
travel alternatives - eating in a foreign restaurantAnd if not in a cooking mood, let someone else do the cooking. There are few corners of the world without a good French restaurant nearby, like this one, about an hour from my house

If food is the travel pathway to your heart, why not a picnic?

Recently in southwest France, I visited the central market in Biarritz and bought up an armful of Middle Eastern food - hummus, tabouleh, spinach and feta pastries - and walked down to the sea promenade to eat it all up.

If you really can't decide which finger food to gather for your picnic, just Google it - "picnic foods from [xx country]" and you'll get some great ideas.

City markets often have foreign food sections but if they don't, you're bound to find Chinese or Arab or Mexican grocery stores somewhere not too far.

And while you're on foreign foods, why not try something new - you would if you were traveling, right? Ask the staff about specialties, tell them you'd like to try something different and ask them to make a suggestion.

4. test your city's social dining scene

Have you ever heard of social dining? Of paying to go to someone's house for dinner?

It's a popular activity for travelers - look up one of the networks and reserve a meal. It's a great way of meeting locals if you're passing through, so if you're going to play at being a tourist, why not try this for yourself?

The alternative is joining one of the networks and hosting dinners yourself to meet people from out of town (but that does sound like a lot of work - I'd just as soon go to someone who's doing the cooking for me). Since this is a popular travel activity, you'll probably meet travelers - but if you don't, you'll at least meet people who love to travel and meet new people, and that will instantly give you something in common.

There are other groups through which you can meet travelers or join travel-related events. The younger crowd often gathers around Couchsurfing meets, or you can check out meetup.com - depending on where you're going, you might find plenty of groups worth getting in touch with.

Speaking of social, there are plenty of other ways to meet people from other lands. You could checkout expat forums and blogs in your city, or join groups on social media. Facebook has a plethora of place-based groups where you might find out about dozens of nearby places just waiting to be discovered by you.

Or you could do something completely different: get to know new cultures by volunteering with refugees or immigrants. It might be brief but you'd be opening a window on another culture - and helping someone.

5. take part in international festivals

If you happen to live in a large city, this won't be a problem for you. Most large cities have immigrant populations and since people are emotionally tied to their homelands, there's every chance they celebrate their familiar festivals. Look at Chinese New Year - any city with a Chinese population puts on quite a show each time the zodiac changes.

Most cities have websites that detail these special events - for example, have a look at this Milwaukee site: a festival or fair? No problem. In this case, the Search Engine is your friend.

Whether it's a national festival, dance event, book reading or food fair, people's pride in their heritage will often strive to put it on show.

festivals near me - Lyon festival of lightsPeople will travel long hours to visit the Lyon Festival of Lights, which takes place in early December each year. All I have to do is hop on the train for less than an hour

6. photograph your city like a pro

When I travel and take photographs (with my iPhone, mind you - that's the limit of my skill!), I look at places differently. Things don't slide by as they do at home; I look at shapes, reflections, expressions, anything that provides me with a visual contrast or that evokes a feeling.

Have you ever done that in your own back yard?

Whether in the city or the countryside, heading out with your camera will unveil the unexpected. Look at things differently, and you'll see them differently.

7. escape for a weekend getaway

Let's say you've explored your city, spent a day or more as a tourist, photographed your area from every perspective... what next?

An entire weekend, that's what.

A weekend will allow you to fully submerge yourself in a different environment. As you would for the day, how would you go about planning a weekend away?

First, you'd choose a destination you really want to explore, a place that excites you or that has always attracted but which for some reason you never visited.

And then, as you would do for a single day, begin to plan: how to get there, what to see, where to eat, where to stay... just as you would if you were planning a trip abroad.

It may not qualify as full-fledged overseas travel, but discovery is discovery, and something new is something new.

You could even do this in your own hometown - stay in a hotel in a new neighborhood, as though you were seeing it for the first time. It might feel strange but that will wear off. Just let your near and dear in on your secret so you won't have to come up with a quick explanation if someone you know spots you coming out of a hotel across town.

8. delve into other cultures through literature

I love finding out about a country's culture through it's literature. Guidebooks are great but they... guide you, that's all. A proper story actually plunges you into a time and a place and is often almost as good as actually being there.

For example, before going to Sri Lanka, I took the time to read quite a few books, including Nayomi Munaweera's Island of A Thousand Mirrors and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family. Both these books provided me with texture, history, mood, and because they were so well written, with smells and tastes.

There are few towns or cities about which novels haven't been written, so do a bit of digging. For example, searches like "novels set in Denver" or "books about Cleveland" will yield more books than you can read in a month.

9. immerse yourself completely

Immersion is a great way to experience another culture without traveling very far.

Many cable networks carry foreign-language news - you can watch news from Thailand (in the original Thai) or news from Russia in English. Either way, you'll be opening that window to another culture.

Soap operas are a great way to catch a glimpse of faraway lives - imagine how much you'll learn about Brazil by watching a few episodes, even if you don't understand a word.

Of course you could watch foreign films. These are fantastic because you can usually find versions with subtitles, which means you'll actually understand the story as opposed to just hearing foreign words. Here in France, our Netflix has films from many countries. Perhaps yours does too. If not, YouTube is a great source of foreign cinema.

Another great way of immersing yourself is through museums. Even the most local museums put on international exhibitions. Sometimes, it's because one of the board members has a connection overseas and can bring something over but whatever the reason, finding a temporary show that is from somewhere else shouldn't difficult.

How about throwing a party? That's right, a party with a theme. Say you have a Spanish party: you'd make tapas, play flamenco music, read from Spanish stories... anything to throw yourself into the mood!

And there's more... you could take a dance class - tango anyone? A cooking class... even a language class or university foreign history class. Anything to immerse yourself for a few hours.

travel alternatives - visit a museumOf course the Louvre will have foreign exhibitions - but so will small, local museums

10. do you like games? here's a global one

I've been wanting to get into geocaching...

Geo-what, you say?

It's basically a grown-up treasure hunt: people hide things around the world, and you find them (granted, that's a bit simplistic, but you'll find more information on the official geocaching site here or from my fellow blogger Dyanne over at TravelnLass).

It's not quite travel, but you'll find geocaches - hiding places - absolutely everywhere, including near your home. You can network with geocachers from other countries, and all you need is a smartphone, the Geocaching app and a bit of time to hunt for "buried treasure".

11. write up your own travel bucket list

If you can't physically get away, for a weekend or even for a day, the one place you can escape to is your own mind.

That's right - nothing prevents you from dreaming, although unstructured wanderings won't necessarily help quench that wanderlust.

No, for that you'll need a bit of a plan.

I suggest a bucket list. I've had my tussles with bucket lists - I've liked and disliked them, depending on the circumstances - but when it comes to wanderlust, they are an effective tool.

Dreaming is half of travel - most journeys start with a dream. So ask yourself... where would you like to go? Be as wild as you want - do it by region, activity, popularity... if you're really stuck, these questions will help you narrow down your destination choices.

A list is still too... vague? Get something more concrete: buy a scratch map and scratch out the places you'd like to visit. (Here's the one I have.)

12. prepare your next trip - for real

If we push the bucket list plan to the extreme - we could actually plan a trip, a real one.

If you can't travel right now, why not start planning your next trip? But really planning it, in detail. Don't just go through the motions: build the trip.

Don't be too ambitious. Keep it realistic and choose a trip you're actually likely to take someday in the future. If you can't get away for more than a week, choose a European city or the Caribbean rather than a long Asia trek.

When the time comes to eventually take that trip, you'll be ready and most of the work will be done. All you'll have to do is board the plane.

So no, none of these efforts will actually replace your taking a trip but if you have itchy feet, if you can't stop thinking of travel but can't get away just now, each one of these strategies will help you while you wait it out.

Actively doing something about travel is a lot better than just wishing you were somewhere else...

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