Save money on travel: Become a local tourist

I'm a travel junkie.

Given a choice of ways to spend money, my first impulse is generally to eat something bizarre and potentially toxic. My second impulse is to travel somewhere exotic. Of course, once I get to where I'm going, I make a point of eating something bizarre and potentially toxic, thereby combining two of my favorite things. It's like having raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

The only trouble, of course, is that travel is really expensive. Even if you know people who live in exciting, far-off lands, and even if they are nice enough to let you sleep on the floor, you still have to go through the trouble of traveling hundreds (or thousands) of miles. Then, once you're there, you have to pay for all your meals, cover transportation costs, and shell out for all the myriad incidentals. Better yet, after you're done sightseeing, you have to play Russian Roulette with the local restaurants, banking on the hope that the place you choose will be a memorable little bistro, not an overpriced swill hut with unrecognizable meat and surly, porcine waitresses. While my travels have brought me to some of the most amazing restaurants imaginable, they have also dragged me through some sleazy, sweaty joints that would give William S. Burroughs the heebie-jeebies.

So there you have the dilemma: while traveling has the benefit of exposing you wonderful new things, it tends to do so at a premium price. And, as much as you'll enjoy showing your pictures and souvenirs to friends, the fact that you might have to live on ramen for a few months can seriously undermine the thrill. Besides, try as you might, it could be hard to resolve the terrifying questions that your travel leaves you with, notably whether "Chez Butch" refers to the chef or the source of the meat. I still have nightmares about that one.

What is an intrepid explorer to do? The solution is simple: become a traveler in your own town.

I know, I know--finding something fun to check out in your neighborhood is easier said than done. And, admittedly, I'm speaking from an unfairly privileged position: now that I'm living in a city, I can find bizarre attractions and exotic food within mere yards of my door. For example, I recently discovered Caldo de Ves, which my waitress described as "cow face tacos." They cost two bucks each and tasted like chicken.

However, for a very, very long time, I lived in the country, an hour from the nearest medium-sized city and three hours from the nearest urban center of any note. Even so, I managed to find all sorts of bizarre and unique attractions. For example, did you know that the most-decorated American soldier of World War II died in a plane crash just outside Blacksburg, Virginia? How about the fact that Henry Lee Lucas, one of the most famous serial killers in the world, also grew up in the area? In fact, my sleepy region in a forgotten corner of Virginia offered the hotel where they filmed Dirty Dancing, the site of a brutal massacre from the French and Indian War, a perfect miniature copy of Graceland, the largest neon star in the United States, the second oldest river in the world, an ostrich farm, some of the best bluegrass venues in the country, a couple of WPA murals, and a dormant volcano.

It's not as if Southwest Virginia is a particularly unique place. Regardless of where you live, somebody, somewhere wants to come see a local attraction that you've never even heard about, much less visited. For them, your boring old town is exotic and wonderful. Too bad you can't see the world through their eyes!

But maybe you can. As with any trip, the key to making the most out of an area lies in researching it obsessively. Some good places to start include mainstream travel guides (my personal favorites are the Moon Guides and the Let's Go series, although my wife is partial to Lonely Planet). After you've checked them out, try taking a peek at some general travel literature. In terms of food, you might check out Jane and Michael Stern's Eat Your Way Across the USA and Road Food for tips on great restaurants. For movie sites, there are numerous books -- my personal favorite is Shot on This Site. If you just want to find some weird and creepy places, take a peek at The Cockroach Hall of Fame and 101 Other Off-the-Wall Museums by Sandra Gervis or Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman's Weird U.S.A.

These are only a few preliminary suggestions. Check out the regional historical society and start listening to the old guys who hang around the local barbershops. Ask your friends and neighbors if there's anything interesting in the area. Read the paper. Scan the internet. Most of all, don't worry about finding the coolest thing in the world. Unlike destination travel, homegrown tourism is dirt cheap, so even if the local attraction is less than totally awesome, it only cost you a couple of bucks in gas or shoe leather to get there.

Just because you're staying local doesn't mean that you can't go for full-on tourism. When wandering around your hometown in search of the weird and notable, you do not absolutely have to wear loud clothing and carry an outrageous camera. You don't have to gawk at your neighbors or make loud, unsolicited comments about how weird the people are or how strange the town is. There are no laws requiring that you wear black socks with Bermuda shorts and loafers. That having been said, however, there are also no laws against doing so, and it probably wouldn't hurt to shake up the neighborhood a little bit. So take advantage of your tourist status, snap pictures of your family, treat your outraged neighbors like the hired help, and look at your home through the eyes of a stranger. Best of all, when you're done sightseeing, you already know all the good places to eat.

Bruce Watson is a former English instructor, sometime writer, and all-around cheapskate. A co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf Warand A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea, his work has appeared in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, The Roanoker, The Brush Mountain Review, The Eccentric Monthly, The Best of Times, and College Daze. He currently blogs on Crankster.

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