Although big online sites such as Travelocity.com and Expedia.com offer lodging and activities in almost any good-size city, when you're traveling within 100 miles or so, it pays to consult a local site. Several travel sites devoted to individual cities and their environs can help (table). With their narrow focus and locally based staff, these boutique sites most likely have a vacation idea that would surprise even a native.
How do you find a local site? I used Yahoo! and Google, but other search engines work just as well. Just type in such keywords as weekend, getaway, and your city of choice. Also try searching the activities you'd like to do.
That's how Matt Sullivan of La Jolla, Calif., found Totalescape.com, a site dedicated to California vacations off the beaten path. His search on "mountain biking" turned up Total Escape, which specializes in active and outdoor trips. He ended up booking a four-day guided group camping trip at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 90 miles from Palm Springs. Total Escape arranged for the camp sites and the cooking and bonfire permits, provided driving directions, and matched up Sullivan, 31, with about 20 other like-minded vacationers.
Total Escape's Web master is its lead tour guide, and the weekend included optional excursions to nearby caves. Sullivan brought his own gear, so the trip cost him just $25. While Total Escape focuses on outdoor fun, it also features inns and resorts, such as the Gingerbread Mansion Inn ($130 to $385 per night) in Ferndale in Northern California and the Blue Iguana Inn ($95 to $219) in Ojai near Los Angeles. Hotel chains or amusement parks aren't listed.
I found my getaway by surfing Escapemaker.com, which specializes in trips within 500 miles of its Brooklyn (N.Y.) headquarters. When I searched for nearby environs such as the Catskills, Hudson Valley, and Woodstock, N.Y., on sites such as Orbitz, I came up blank. But Escapemaker directed me to the Hunter Inn, which is within walking distance from Catskills ski resort Hunter Mountain ($79 to $270 a night). It also came up with a list of every specialty shop in Woodstock and the annual Chocolate Fair in Mystic, Conn. I decided a weekend of candy sampling--and a visit to the Mystic Aquarium--should help my family of four get over the disappointment of not being somewhere warm.
If you're willing to squeeze a plane trip into your getaway, Site59.com has made a specialty of packaging cheap airfares and hotels. Two recent offerings: $277 from New York to West Palm Beach with two nights at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and $303 from Washington to New Orleans with two nights at the Sheraton. Site59 is so good at quickie vacations that Travelocity and Orbitz now use it to purchase much of their getaway inventory.
The biggest drawback to smaller sites is their uneven technology. While Site59 and the like are fully virtual from search to sale, Escapemaker provides only data and links. To book your trip, you'll have to pick up the phone.
The yen to travel locally may wane as the economy comes out of recession. Already, execs at Travelocity and Site59 say average trip length, which contracted after September 11, is increasing again as consumers regain confidence about traveling. Still, when you get the urge for a quick trip, the boutique sites offer great resources to help you indulge your whim. By Ellen Neuborne