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Closer and cheaper: Alternatives to far-away destinations

Are your dreams of strolling along the Seine while watching the Parisian city life unfold in conflict with your concerns about overseas travel? Do you want to hike in the Swiss Alps or hill-walk the Scottish Highlands, but have a limited travel budget this year?

If so, you needn’t compromise your desire for a far-away travel experience. Many destinations in North America mirror those abroad, offering the opportunity to explore different cultures and landscapes, without the long, expensive flights and uncertainties of world travel.

If you’ve decided to vacation closer to home this year, you’re not alone. A recent survey by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) indicates that the number of Americans going overseas may be at a historic low, with 71 percent deciding not to go. However, 81 percent of Americans still plan to travel this spring and summer, but are opting for closer, relatively safer, and cheaper destinations in the U.S. and Canada.

Domestic travel can save you money in many ways, particularly on more expensive, long-haul flights. However, this year, you are also likely to benefit from other factors. For example, fewer international visitors will be coming to the U.S. and Canada, causing less crowding at vacation spots and more money-saving opportunities from travel companies trying to attract domestic travelers. And with the U.S. dollar worth almost one-and-a-half Canadian dollars, your money will take you even further on a Canadian vacation.

We’ve researched various destinations in the U.S. and Canada that will give you a taste of being overseasÂ?bearing a resemblance to popular spots like Scotland, Paris, Spain, Bavaria, and the Swiss AlpsÂ?at an affordable price. However, each place has unique aspects that make it a great destination in its own right.

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada

Like its European counterpart, Scotland, Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia promises rolling highlands, rocky sea cliffs, and rich Gaelic culture. Scottish immigrants fleeing old-world troubles found solace on this beautiful island, and managed to preserve their traditions and language, even to this day.

Begin your exploration by driving the Cabot Trail, a 185-mile loop that weaves along the island’s spectacular coastline, passing through Highlands National Park and many quaint villages. Interesting historic sites and museums include the Fortress of Louisburg and the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site.

Take part in one of the many Gaelic festivals, like Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling in August or the Celtic Colours Festival. Or, attend the The Gaelic College for a multi-day course in activities like highland bag piping and tartan weaving.

Travel Information

Travelers can reach Cape Breton by flying Air Canada to the island’s airport, Sydney International. A round-trip economy fare from Boston during May costs about $340. In contrast, a search on Expedia for the lowest fare between Boston and Edinburgh during May resulted in prices over $500, and the lowest fare on British Airways’ website was over $600.

You could also travel to the island (which is connected to the mainland by a causeway) by ferry and car. Sail to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, from Portland, Maine, on the Scotia Prince starting at $384 round-trip for two adults and a car. Or, leave from Maine’s Bar Harbor on the high-speed Cat, starting at $260 round-trip for one adult and a car (cheaper family, youth, senior, and group rates are also available). For those traveling by car (always an economical option), Cape Breton Island is a 340-mile, six-hour drive from Yarmouth.

For information on accommodations, dining, and activities on Cape Breton, visit the Nova Scotia Tourism and Culture website or the Cape Breton Island Travel website.

Québec City, Québec, Canada

With narrow cobbled-stoned streets, stone fortifications, cathedrals, and dynamic French-Canadian heritage nearly 400 years in the making, Québec City feels like a slice of Paris dropped on the banks of the St. Lawrence. You won’t find a more European city anywhere in North America, and it’s only a day’s drive or a short flight from major Northeast cities.

The most charming part of the city is its historical heart, Old-Québec, a UNESCO world Heritage site. Just like in Paris, you can shop in quaint boutiques, dine at French cafés, and watch colorful street performers. You can also explore historic sites like the “Plains of Abraham” to see the fortified Citadel and to witness the changing of the guards, or visit the Notre-Dame-de-Québec cathedral.

Travel Information

Round-trip Air Canada flights to Québec from New York in May are priced at around $200; slightly cheaper fares may be found on sites like Expedia. In contrast, round-trip flights between New York and Paris in May, as listed on Expedia and Orbitz, tended to be at least $200 more than flights to Québec. The lowest economy fares to Paris on France’s national carrier, Air France, were about $450 higher.

Québec is within a day’s drive of the northeastern U.S. at about 390 miles from Boston and 545 miles from New York. Train travel is possible, but Canada-bound trains run infrequently from U.S. cities, and many connections are required.

Search for accommodations, restaurants, and other travel information by visiting Québec’s official travel website.

St. Augustine, Florida

Québec is not the only North American city that can boast a centuries-old European heritage. St. Augustine in Florida has Spanish roots going back nearly 500 years, making it the oldest permanent European settlement in North America. What’s more, it’s only a two-hour drive from Orlando, and small enough to see over a weekend.

This picturesque seaside town reveals Spanish character in its architecture, food, and art. Stroll through the 144 blocks of historic homes and buildings, and visit the nation’s oldest masonry fortress, the Castillo de San Marcos. Go to the Colonial Spanish Quarter, a living history museum, and experience the city as it was in 1740. Also, enjoy Mediterranean-influenced cuisine at a local restaurant, and view the decorative arts housed in the Spanish Renaissance style Lightner Museum.

Travel Information

If you’re going on an Orlando vacation, or live nearby, a short trip to St. Augustine can provide a refreshing break from the crowds. St. Augustine is only a 98-mile drive from Orlando, located on Florida’s upper Atlantic coast. Airlines often have sale-fares to Orlando, which you can find on SmarterTravel.com’s airfare page. An Orbitz price comparison between round-trip flights in May from Baltimore to Madrid showed prices at least $400 higher than flights to Orlando. Flights on Spain’s national airline, Iberia, cost even more, and required a connecting flight to one of Iberia’s North American hubs.

Search for hotels, restaurants, and other travel information on St. Augustine by visiting the city’s official travel website. Also, check out a special accommodation discount for seniors at St. Augustine’s Historic B&B Inns for stays this June.

Frankenmuth, Michigan

It’s hard to find another American town that’s as proud of its Old World roots as Frankenmuth is of its German Bavarian ancestry. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t find a community as eager to share its heritage with outsiders: The town’s 4,400 residents welcome over three million visitors a year.

Frankenmuth looks and feels like a Bavarian village with its beautiful Glockenspiel clock tower, Black Forest-style homes, and inns built like Alpine lodges. German culture is also celebrated with food and countless festivals. Dine at the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Restaurant or Zehnder’s for traditional foods like wiener schnitzel, bratwurst, and dumplings. Bavarian dance, music, arts, and foods are spotlighted in June during the Bavarian Festival, and a traditional Oktoberfest complete with imported beer from Munich takes place in September.

Travel Information

Frankenmuth is located between Flint and Saginaw, and is about an 80-mile drive from Detroit. Sample fares between Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and Detroit on Orbitz in May start at $220, while fares between DFW and Munich start at $583. Lufthansa fares are even higher at $615.

Search for hotels, restaurants, and other travel information on the Frankenmuth visitor website.

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

To experience alpine grandeur without paying for an expensive trip to the Swiss Alps, consider a trip to the equally spectacular mountains of Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park. The park offers a combination of outdoor beauty and a thriving arts community. And, with airfare to nearby Calgary costing hundreds less than a flight to Switzerland or Austria, it’s a more economical vacation option.

Banff offers vistas of serrated snow-covered peaks, over 1,000 miles of hiking trails, and outdoors activities like glacier touring and fishing. It’s also famed for its rejuvenating hot springs and spas.

Banff has a variety of museums, culture centers, and galleries, but the region’s real cultural mecca is the Banff Centre, which organizes festivals and hosts numerous performances, exhibitions, and workshops. Internationally renowned arts festivals include the Banff Arts Festival, July through August, and a festival of mountain films in November.

Travel Information

The easiest way to get to the park is to fly to Calgary and then drive the remaining 80 miles. The lowest round-trip airfare, as priced on Expedia for May, costs around $280 from Chicago. In comparison, the lowest round-trip fare between Chicago and Zurich, Switzerland, is $511 on Orbitz and $678 on SWISS.

It’s also possible to drive. Banff is a 656-mile drive from Seattle or a 229-mile drive from Glacier National Park in Montana.

Search for accommodations, restaurants, and other travel information by visiting the Banff and Lake Louise website.

There are many other close-but-cheaper destination alternatives in the U.S. and Canada. For a touch of British class, visit Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada. Go to one of the many towns in Minnesota with strong Scandinavian influences. Discover one of the most prosperous Asian communities this side of the Pacific in the Chinatown of Vancouver. And, to experience a real Mexican city north of the border, go to San Antonio.

But, the list doesn’t end there. The ethnic and geographic diversity of North America ensures that there are bits of world culture in cities and towns across the continent. So, start researching other U.S. regions by visiting official U.S. state travel websites, or check out Canadian regions on Canada’s Official tourism website.

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