Here's how to stay ahead of the hordes in 2013.
© Beth Gauper
The indoor water parks in the Wisconsin Dells are packed over spring break.
In the Upper Midwest, travel can be competitive.
Many events are so big and so fun that everyone wants to go. If you want to go, too, you'll have to act fast to stay ahead of the crowds.
Their first stop in the western Great Lakes will be Bay City, Mich., on Lake Huron for the Tall Ship Celebration July 11-14. Then they'll travel to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., for a July 19-21 Tall Ships Festival.
If you want to go, reserve now.
Sometimes, you need to know when not to try to stay in a certain area — say,
east-central Wisconsin July 29-Aug. 4. That's when the EAA AirVenture fills every hotel in a 60-mile radius of
The first week of January is the best time to go after hard-to-get reservations.
Most people rebook their lodgings as they're leaving after a big festival. But often deposits are due in January, and there’s always someone who doesn’t send one and forfeits the room, so you can snap it up.
The smaller the town, the harder it is to get a reservation.
Call now if you want to attend such huge events as Apple Festival in Bayfield, when 60,000 people cram themselves into the
tiny northern Wisconsin village of 611, and Nordic Fest in Decorah, Iowa, when 75,000 people pour into town and rooms are so
hard to get they're practically a family heirloom.
One of the hardest reservations to get is a room in Duluth for Grandma’s Marathon in June, when 14,700 runners and
30,000 to 40,000 spectators fill the town.
Hotels fill up the day after the previous year’s race, and, with hundreds of people calling every month, few hotels
bother to keep waiting lists.
But in February, many people who reserved last June will find out they didn’t get into the race, and they’ll start to cancel. That’s the time to call hotels, as well as during the third week of May, when 30-day cancellation policies go into effect.There are many ploys that increase the odds of getting a reservation. It’s best to call the day after a big event, but if you have to call later and the inn is full, ask to put your name on the waiting list.
And look for new properties that haven’t been advertised much. Peruse city Web sites or ask the staff at visitors bureaus if there are new places to stay.
© Beth Gauper
The best permits for entry into the Boundary Waters go fastest.
The prize rooms go to people who pay attention, ask questions — and make a lot of calls.
To reserve the choicest cabins and lodges in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan state parks, be at the phone a year in advance.
The best campsites in state parks also go fast. For Iowa campsites, call three months in advance; for Michigan campsites, six months in advance; for Wisconsin campsites, 11 months in advance; and Minnesota campsites, a year in advance.
For summer weekends, you’ll increase your odds if you also reserve for Thursday night; then, you can make your call a day earlier. You must use the site Thursday, however, or forfeit the entire stay.
Winter is a good time to look for summer weeks at lake resorts, where the best cabins on the best weeks rarely come up for grabs, and for rooms in Duluth, Chicago, Milwaukee, Door County and anywhere on the Fourth of July.
If you know you want to take Amtrak or the Megabus at a certain time — say, to take the kids to Chicago during spring break — book as soon as you see a rate you like; the cheapest seats sell first.
© Beth Gauper
Every October, Apple Fest fills the Lake Superior village of Bayfield with 60,000 visitors.
Before booking fares to Chicago, first check its convention calendar to see if a huge convention
is in town; if so, rooms will be very expensive.
Big conventions/events in 2013 include International Home + Housewares Show, 60,000 people over March 2-5; America's Beauty Show, 47,500 people over March 9-11; Comic & Entertainment Expo, 40,000 people over April 26-28; National Restaurant Association, 61,000 people over May 18-21.
During the summer, NeoCon World's Trade Fair brings in 40,000 people over June 10-12. In fall, the PRINT conference brings 50,000 people Sept. 8-12 and the Chicago Marathon 45,000 people over Oct. 11-13.
Christmas shoppers might think the weeks before and after Thanksgiving would be a good time to visit, but 37,000 people are coming for FABTECH Nov. 18-21 and 60,000 members of the Radiological Society of North America are in town Dec. 1-6.
This month-by-month guide will help you nail down the most-coveted and hardest-to-get reservations.
Here's our guide to the biggest and best events of 2013.
January is a good time to reserve for any place you want to visit this year.
Reservations for backcountry camping
permits in Michigan's Pictured Rocks National
Lakeshore are accepted starting Jan. 1, and a drawing is held the third Thursday
in January. After that, reservation requests are filled as they come in.
The group campsites and individual sites at Mosquito and Chapel campgrounds go fastest. Forms are at www.nps.gov/piro; for details, call 906-387-3700.
In the northeast Iowa town of Decorah, Nordic Fest on July 25-27 draws 75,000 people to the town of 8,500. A reservation in one of the town’s motels or B&Bs is nearly impossible to get, so most people camp or stay in private homes or rooms at Luther College. The college’s best accommodations are new townhouses with kitchens, then air-conditioned rooms.
Reservations open in early January; call 563-387-1538. Eventually, people book rooms as far away as Rochester or La Crosse.
In Minnesota state parks, reserve a cabin or guesthouse for next New Year’s Eve weekend. In Tettegouche State Park, the four cabins on Mic Mac Lake and the Illgen Falls Cabin are in particular demand for the holidays.
© Beth Gauper
The beachfront cabins in Michigan's Holland State Park are extremely popular.
Reservations for cabins, suites and guesthouses in state parks can be made a year in advance online or at 866-857-2757, toll-free in the United States and Canada. Starting March 1, reservations can be made daily between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. (after the first day of availability, on-line reservations can be made 24 hours a day).
Lodgings in Minnesota state parks also are in demand for the long Martin Luther King weekend.
Iowa also has a nice variety of rustic and modern
cabins in state parks. They book a year in advance.
Reserve early for the best choice of entry permits into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Entry permits for two Fall
Lake entry points and three on Moose Lake will be allocated by lottery until Jan. 21. Others will be first-come,
first-served at www.recreation. gov starting Jan. 30.
Starting Feb. 1, phone reservations will be taken 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, 877-444-6777. For more, see Minnesota's Boundary Waters.
In Michigan state parks, campsites can be reserved six
months in advance. At some campgrounds, particularly those on the beach-lined west coast of Lake Michigan, 100 percent of
sites can be reserved, so it's crucial to reserve early.
At Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on the Upper Peninsula, 80 percent of sites can be reserved.
© Beth Gauper
Two art fairs draw more than 200,000 people to Madison in July.
When Valentine’s Day falls on a Friday or Saturday, rooms at inns and B&Bs book up several months in advance.
The American Birkebeiner between Cable and Hayward, North America’s largest
cross-country ski marathon, fills northwest Wisconsin, Feb. 22-24.
In Iowa, the deadline for mail entries in the cross-state bicycle tour RAGBRAI is Feb. 15, and the deadline for on-line entries is April 1. The ride, July 21-27 in 2013, limits weeklong riders to 8,500. Entries are accepted by lottery.
Many other popular bike tours also fill up.
© Beth Gauper
In May, Pella's Tulip Time brings 150,000 people to a town of 10,000.
St. Patrick's Day is on a Sunday this year, so reserve weekend lodgings as soon as you can.
If you're a foodie, reserve far in advance for Chicago
Neighborhood Tours, especially Taste of the Neighborhoods, four new Taste tours and the new Hops & Barley: Pubs &
Microbreweries tours, which are sure to be popular.
Reserve early for spring-break trips to the indoor water parks of the Wisconsin Dells. The
three best and biggest are the Kalahari, Great Wolf Lodge and Wilderness Resort.
Many other hotels around the region also have indoor water parks that children will think are plenty of fun.
Going to Chicago by train is a great spring-break trip. The cheapest seats sell first on Amtrak, so reserve as early as possible at 800-872-7245.
If you'd like to camp in a Twin Cities park reserve,
especially over a holiday weekend, watch for the opening of the reservation window, generally the second Monday in
This is the time to reserve accommodations for big summer festivals, if you haven't already.
© Beth Gauper
Near Minocqua, campsite 435 on Crystal Lake is right off the beach.
If you want to go to the annual Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, the second-longest running craft-beer festival in North America, you'll need to send in a mail order for tickets or show up in person the first Sunday of May at one of various vendors in Madison.
Only 5,000 tickets are sold for the Aug. 10 event. It's held from 1-6 p.m. in Olin-Turville Park, and brewmasters from more than 100 Midwest breweries serve samples of 500 beers.
This month, the big festivals begin. One of the best is Tulip Time in Pella, Iowa, which brings 150,000 people to the town of 10,000. It’s May 2-4, timed to coincide with the blooming of 250,000 tulips.
The annual Wright Plus Housewalk is held May 18 in Oak Park, Ill., with interior tours of eight private homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries, plus entry to three other Wright buildings. Tickets for the tour, $85-$100, sell out far in advance. Phone orders begin Jan. 4.
Wisconsin's state parks have nine cabins for people with
disabilities. They’re very popular and can be reserved a year in advance; reserve now for next year’s
Memorial Day weekend.
Modern cabins are in Buckhorn, High Cliff, Mirror Lake, Kohler-Andrae and Potawatomi state parks and at Ottawa Lake in the
Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest and in Richard Bong Recreation Area.
Rustic cabins are at Copper Falls and Blue Mounds state parks. Reservations are taken by individual parks; for information, call 608-266-2181.
© Beth Gauper
Reservations for campsites with a view of Split Rock Lighthouse are the hardest to get in Minnesota.
In Wisconsin, campsites can be reserved 11 months in advance, 888-947-2757, so
now is the time to think about reserving for next year. In 2014, Memorial Day is May
26, the Fourth of July is on a Friday and Labor Day is Sept. 1.
The most in-demand campsites are in Peninsula and Devil’s Lake state parks and the Crystal Lake and Clear Lake campgrounds of Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Minocqua.
In Wisconsin, some park and forest campgrounds have a high percentage of first-come, first-served sites; look for one of those if you’re not able to reserve far in advance. Arrive on Wednesdays or Thursdays to increase the odds of finding a campsite without a reservation.
Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth is June 22. Many hotels have three-night minimums, and most raise rates for the weekend. Check in February and May for cancellations.
In March, dorm rooms become available at the College
of St. Scholastica, the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Wisconsin-Superior; shuttles serve guests who
In Chicago, the Blues Festival, June 6-9, draws more than half a million people.
The German ship Roald Amundsen makes occasional visits to the Great Lakes.
Summerfest, which Milwaukee calls “the world’s largest music festival,’’ brings nearly a million people to the lakefront festival grounds. It’s June 26-30 and July 2-7. Hotels fill, but there are always rooms available at the very nice dorms of Marquette University.
Then there are Milwaukee's big ethnic festivals, starting with PrideFest and Scottish Fest in June and ending with Indian Summer Festival the weekend after Labor Day; in between, there’s Juneteenth, Polish Fest, Bastille Days, Festa Italiana, German Fest, Irish Fest and Mexican Fiesta.
Taste of Chicago has been shortened and no longer is held over the Fourth of July; it's July 10-14 this year.
But it still attracts crowds.
The tourism behemoth in eastern Wisconsin is the annual EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, which draws 700,000 to 750,000 people and fills up every hotel room within a 50- to 60-mile radius. The Experimental Aircraft Association festival is July 29-Aug. 4. The Oshkosh housing hotline is 920-235-3007; for festival details, call 920-426-4800.
This is the time to start looking for a lake resort for next year, though some resorts have last-minute cancellations. If possible, drop by resorts in person while traveling in the area this summer.
It's also the time to reserve weekends and holidays in Minnesota state parks for next year.
Split Rock, which has a very scenic location on the North Shore but not many sites, is the hardest-to-get camping
reservation, followed by Temperance River, Tettegouche, Itasca, Gooseberry Falls, McCarthy Beach (on the Iron Range, near
Hibbing), Bear Head Lake (near Ely), Judge C.R. Magney, Jay Cooke and Cascade River.
In Minnesota’s state parks, 70 percent to 80 percent of campsites can be reserved. Call 866-857-2757 or reserve on-line.
In western Minnesota lakes country, the We Fest country-music festival fills the area around Detroit Lakes, Aug. 1-3, though most festival-goers camp on the grounds.
The Bayfront Blues Festival is the other big weekend in Duluth, Aug.
In the far northeast corner of Minnesota, it's notoriously hard to find close-in rooms for the Grand Portage Rendezvous and Powwow, when re-enactors from across the continent converge on Grand Portage National Monument. Reserve right after this year's event, Aug. 9-11.
Over Labor Day weekend, Milwaukee will be overrun by revving Harley riders in town for Harley-Davidson's 110th-Anniversary Celebration and H.O.G. 30th.
© Torsten Muller
On Minnesota's North Shore, everyone hopes to catch fall colors like these around Oberg Mountain.
The Labor Day Bridge Walk over the Mackinac Bridge, the third-longest suspension bridge in the world, fills lodgings within a 50- to 100-mile radius of St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, Mich., and especially Mackinac Island.
In Chicago, Jazz Festival draws 300,000 people over Labor Day weekend, Aug. 29-Sept. 1.
The Fall Art Tour in southwest Wisconsin on
the third weekend of October has become extremely popular, with many devoted customers returning year after year. Artists
open their studios in and around Mineral Point, Spring Green and Baraboo, with shoppers taking in the fall scenery between
Accommodations for fall in Door County are in high demand. Leaf color stays beautiful through the third week of October.
Reserve as soon as possible for fall-color weekends on the North Shore. For peak inland color, aim for the last weekend of September; for peak color along the shore, the first weekend in October.
© Beth Gauper
Tourists flock to Chicago in summer.
Because of the Education Minnesota teacher conference, Minnesota schoolchildren have a four-day weekend Oct. 17-20,
and every room is reserved on the North Shore. Indoor water parks in the Wisconsin Dells also are popular.
This is a quiet month. But more and more people are reserving a cabin or villa on the North Shore to watch the gales of November or fix Thanksgiving dinner.
For information about rentals, see Renting a vacation house.
Holiday festivities get going this month; see Great holiday festivals.
Hard-core shoppers should go the first weekend of December so they also can hit the annual One of a Kind fine-arts sale at
the Merchandise Mart.
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