It's amazing how many things are free around here.
We pay nothing to watch fireworks and water-ski shows, use trails and parks, visit zoos and museums and go to hundreds of outdoor festivals, art fairs and concerts.
Our children fill baskets at free Easter egg hunts and rake in armfuls of candy at summer and fall parades.
Chicago is on a roll. Millennium Park is wildly popular, and it just keeps getting better, along with the rest of the city.
These days, tourists have to compete with hordes of conventioneers and suburbanites fleeing back to the city. Prices, of course, have gone up.
Still, there's a lot to do for free. Here are 10 tips for making a trip affordable.
In summer, you don't need to spend much to have a great vacation
Many of the great travel experiences in the Upper Midwest cant be bought, anyway swimming in a Great Lake, hiking on a wooded trail, canoeing under an eagle's nest.
Here's where to find great vacations you can take for $100 or less.
With shoreline on three Great Lakes, Michigan is a popular destination in summer.
But it's still one of the best places to go for a budget beach vacation, thanks to the state parks.
They offer a huge array of cabins and lodges as well as campsites, though you have to reserve far in advance for a place in Lower Michigan parks.
In summer, its not as hard as youd think to take a trip that's a lot of fun but doesn't cost much.
Many of the great travel experiences in Wisconsin cant be bought, anyway bicycling along Lake Michigan, camping on sandbars, volunteering in a lighthouse.
If you like music and festivals, you're really in luck Wisconsin has many fun, family-friendly fests with on-site camping, at unbeatable prices. And its national forests and county parks are full of great campsites.
In summer, its not as hard as youd think to take a fun trip that doesn't cost much.
Many of the great travel experiences in Minnesota cant be bought, anyway hiking amid old-growth white pines, paddling through bluff country, listening to loons in the Boundary Waters.
Hikers can find a bunk just off the Superior Hiking Trail near Grand Marais for $29, and a family of six can learn to camp and play in a state park for $60 total. For $85-$90 a person, meals included, they can canoe and walk a ropes course at a lodge outside Lanesboro.
In summer, you have to work the angles to vacation for $100 or less.
You've got a good shot in Iowa, which has a big selection of cabins in state parks and especially county parks.
It's a little harder in Illinois. But Chicago has one of the world's best hostels, and some state parks have lodges and camper cabins.
In the Upper Midwest, there's nothing better than a week at the lake.
But summer or vacation, anyway doesn't last long. And while there's nothing better than a week, a few days can be almost as good.
My favorite escape is to Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge on Lake Bemidji. Like many of its guests, I first went after dropping off my son at the nearby Concordia Language Villages.
For people who love the outdoors, luxury is in the eye of the beholder.
Is it a Jacuzzi or a latrine? A four-course breakfast or a fire ring?
The answer is not so obvious. If the choice also includes starry skies, silence and snow-laden pines, many folks would take a camper cabin over a fancy inn, even if they have to use vault toilets and cook over a fire.
After a long winter, everyone deserves a spring getaway.
On a budget? No problem. Spring is the best time to find deals, and often the weather is stellar.
Along the Mississippi in Minnesota, join a warbler weekend at a retreat center. In northeast Iowa, go on a beginning backpacking trip. In Chicago, stay at one of three hostels during Craft Beer Week.
In Kandiyohi County, it's thanks to the last Ice Age that life's a beach today.
Near Willmar, a lobe of the last glacier came to a grinding halt 12,000 years ago, dumping massive blocks of ice that made big dents in the ground.
Now, they're lakes, popping up like mirages at the edge of soybean fields, behind screens of ash and cottonwoods. Farther north, they're hidden amid rocky meadows and rolling hillocks full of glacial rubble.
There's nothing like traveling the countryside on a bicycle.
From a bike seat, you hear the murmur of wind through field and forest, and you actually notice the sky and its clouds, as mesmerizing as a lava lamp.
You can ride on your own, but it's more fun to join one of the many cross-state rides organized by bicycle clubs and charities.
On the I-94 corridor between Chicago and Milwaukee, tourists get to go trick or treating all year-round.
In Pleasant Prairie near Kenosha, they get packets of jelly beans. In Chicago, they're handed chocolate and cheesecake. In Milwaukee, it's beer.
Everyone loves free samples, and factory tours are a fun way to spend an hour or two. But watch out: They usually end in an outlet shop, where you'll be sorely tempted to spend real money.
What a way to spend a weekend: hiking up and down ravines, clambering on rock, admiring views of water from ridgelines.
Its like hiking on the North Shore, my husband said.
But it wasnt Lake Superiors North Shore. It was Iowa. And everyone knows Iowa is one big, flat cornfield.
In the Upper Midwest, finding a good deal is a sport second only to football.
Some of us need a bargain. Some of us just like them. But we all need to get away occasionally, especially when cabin fever strikes in winter.
The easiest way to save is to round up a group of friends and rent a guesthouse in a state park. You'll find more overnight deals at environmental centers and hostels. And most of the fun skiing, snowshoeing, bird-watching, festival-attending is free.
Lately, weve been traveling like kings . . . and paupers, too.
I suspect a lot of other people are doing the same thing. To get what we want, we save on something else.
Our favorite splurge is eating out, but a meal for two in a really good restaurant costs $60-$100, same as a hotel room. Our solution? We pitch a tent.
When youre a beginning skier, its nice to catch a break.
Alpine ski areas want to foster lifelong skiers and snowboarders,
so most offer great deals to first-timers. Places are limited, so
reserve in advance.
At Trollhaugen in western Wisconsin, adults
who buy lift ticket and rental get a free beginner's lesson any time. And for $136, first-time skiers or snowboarders age 13 and over get three lessons in January, either Sundays or Tuesdays, plus rentals and lift tickets, plus a free lift ticket for the rest of the season.
Fall is the busiest travel season of the year we all know the nice days are numbered, and we're going to try our darndest to make them count.
But with pretty much everyone heading out to look for fall color, especially on weekends, there are few bargains.
That's why those of us on a budget look to our old friends: the parks, the mom-and-pop motels, the environmental centers, the hostels, the outdoors clubs.
Apparently, hotels are so 20th century.
These days, people are staying anywhere but. Theyre renting vacation homes through VRBO and HomeAway. Theyre house-sitting at Caretaker.org. Theyre staying for free at HomeExchange.com, Servas.org and Couchsurfing.org.
Now, we have Airbnb.com, whose slogan is Travel like a human.
In summer, when the cities start to sizzle, a lot of people suddenly realize theyd rather be in Grand Marais.
This village on Minnesotas North Shore is awash in Lake Superiors cool breezes, and it has everything else a tourist could want restaurants, shops, galleries, nightlife and scenery.
But it doesnt always have enough room for all of the escapees, especially on festival weekends.
To get a bargain on lodgings, you can try Priceline or Hotwire. You can clip coupons or use AAA or AARP discounts.
You can try every angle, but a single traveler still wont find a bed thats cheaper than those at hostels.
Many Americans think hostels are used only by college-age backpackers in Europe. Thats how most of us discover them.
Its a leap of faith, letting strangers stay in your house.
But if you take that leap, you can land in some pretty nice places.
The home-exchange concept is simple: You vacation in my house, I vacation in yours. It was pioneered in 1953 by teachers in Europe, and it got a big boost by the 2007 movie The Holiday.
Until recently, my memories of college dorms mostly involved sloppy drunks, sloppier roommates and a bathroom shared by the whole floor.
Then my husband and I stayed at Marquette University in Milwaukee. It was as quiet as a cathedral, and we had a private bath and a panoramic view of the city from our 17th-floor picture windows.
We paid $28 apiece, which was nice because we like to save money. But mostly, we stayed at Marquette because it was so convenient, three blocks from the special bus that takes summer visitors to the lakefront Henry Maier Festival Park and right on the route that takes baseball fans to Miller Park on game days.
These days, everyone wants to give you a good deal.
Sign up for the many online discount programs and youll get offers for lodgings, restaurants, theater tickets and spa services delivered to your in-box every day.
You can save the most on lodgings, and the best deals come in the off season, generally winter.
We get a lot of questions at MidwestWeekends from people planning vacations.
Were glad to help, because we believe in planning. Spontaneity is a wonderful thing, but its risky in summer, when the rest of the world also is on vacation.
As adults, we sometimes forget how great it is to be a kid.
People give you toys to play with. They show you new games and explain things in interesting ways. They feed you freshly baked cookies and s'mores.
Kids take it for granted. But I didn't one January, when I got to stay at Deep Portage Learning Center, in the woods north of Brainerd.
Before you head out the door, check to see what deals are waiting for you because all you have to do is ask.
Many people know that their AAA card gets them a 10 percent discount at most hotels. But I suspect many members of public radio and other arts organizations have forgotten about the great deals they can get on inns, restaurants and entertainment.
If youre a member of Minnesota Public Radio or Wisconsin Public Radio, you can get two nights for the price of one at Fitgers in Duluth, which has downhill and cross-country skiing right in the city.
When reserving a hotel room, there are deals, and then theres Priceline.
Five years ago, I tried the on-line bidding service, which has a big catch: You dont know what hotel youve reserved until youve paid for the room. We got a hotel in Miamis South Beach that had a decent location but was noisy, had an unfriendly staff and charged an extra "resort fee.''
After that, Id had it with Priceline until friends made me reconsider.
Want to save money on trips? Then, step away from the fancy catalog.
Glossy pages of snow-capped mountains and medieval castles are eye candy for travelers. But the prettier the brochure, the more eye-popping the prices.
Luxury excursions are like Jaguars and Jimmy Choo shoes. We covet them, we window-shop for them, but only a few of us can afford them.