MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap trips

Bargains for beginners

Free or cut-rate ski and snowboard packages make it easy to learn.

When you’re a beginning skier, it’s nice to catch a break.

Alpine ski areas want to foster lifelong skiers and snowboarders, so most offer great deals to first-timers. Places often are limited, so reserve in advance. 

Scour websites for details on deals. Here are a few of them:

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Cheap winter getaways

Here are 20 places where a fun weekend away is easy on the wallet.

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. After that, most of the fun — skiing, snowshoeing, bird-watching, festival-attending — is free.

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Cheap fall getaways

Here are 20 places to enjoy autumn colors without going into the red.

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 state parks, the mom-and-pop motels, the environmental centers, the outdoors clubs.

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Sightseeing by bicycle

Join a rolling tour, and you'll see the best of the Upper Midwest.

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.

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Free for all

At festivals and attractions across the region, fun doesn't cost a thing.

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.

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Cheap summer getaways in Minnesota

No money, no problem: Here are 20 great vacations that are easy on the wallet.

In summer, it’s not as hard as you’d think to take a fun trip that doesn't cost much.

Many of the great travel experiences in Minnesota can’t 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.

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Cheap summer getaways in Wisconsin

No money, no problem: Here are 20 great vacations that are easy on the wallet.

In summer, it’s not as hard as you’d think to take a trip that's a lot of fun but doesn't cost much.

Many of the great travel experiences in Wisconsin can’t 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.

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Cheap summer getaways in the Upper Midwest

No money, no problem: Here's how to find a great vacation for $100 or less in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Illinois.

In summer, you don't need to spend much to have a great vacation

Many of the great travel experiences in the Upper Midwest can’t 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.

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Cheap summer getaways in Michigan

On the Upper Peninsula and Lake Michigan shores, vacation for as little as $100.

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.

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Cheap summer getaways in Iowa and Illinois

From quiet lake parks to the big city, vacation for $100 or less.

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.

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Cheap Chicago

Here are 10 tips to make a trip to the Windy City easy to afford.

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.

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Table-hopping in bluff country

On a culinary adventure to Decorah, we tighten our belts, then let them out.

Sometimes, we like to travel like kings . . . and paupers, too.

I suspect a lot of other people do 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 $80-$100, same as a hotel room. Our solution? We pitch a tent.

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A roof in the woods

In state and county parks and forests, visitors love their camper cabins.

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.

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Cheap spring getaways

Here are 20 places where a fun weekend won't break the budget.

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.

In Wisconsin's Blue Hills, help out at a nature preserve and stay free. In central Iowa, learn orienteering and archery at a women's skills retreat. In Chicago, have a sleepover in a museum or stay at one of three hostels during Craft Beer Week.

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Mom-and-pop motels of Grand Marais

Cheapskates love 'em, but so do traditionalists and anyone who just needs a room.

In summer, when the cities start to sizzle, a lot of people suddenly realize they’d rather be in Grand Marais.

This village on Minnesota’s North Shore is awash in Lake Superior’s cool breezes, and it has everything else a tourist could want – restaurants, shops, galleries, nightlife and scenery.

But it doesn’t always have enough room for all of the escapees, especially on festival weekends.

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10 great travel tips

Follow these savvy strategies, and you'll save money and avoid nasty surprises.

We get a lot of questions at MidwestWeekends from people planning vacations.

We’re glad to help, because we believe in planning. Spontaneity is a wonderful thing, but it’s risky in summer, when the rest of the world also is on vacation.

Most common questions: When is the best time to take a summer vacation?  How can I find a good lake resort? What should I bring to a rented cabin?

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At home in a hostel

Feeling adventurous? The dorm-style lodgings are open to everyone, and you can't beat the price.

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 won’t find a bed that’s cheaper than those at hostels.

Many Americans think hostels are used only by college-age backpackers in Europe. That’s how most of us discover them.

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Lake break in Bemidji

A historic northern-Minnesota resort is a great place for a low-key, low-cost getaway.

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.

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Camping in Kandiyohi

West of the Twin Cities, county parks provide easy access to beach life.

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.

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Braking for jelly beans

With the siren call of free samples, the Jelly Belly warehouse reels in visitors.

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.

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A cabin in Iowa

Spectacular scenery lies at guests’ feet in Backbone State Park.

What a way to spend a weekend: hiking up and down ravines, clambering on rock, admiring views of water from ridgelines.

“It’s like hiking on the North Shore,’’ my husband said.

But it wasn’t Lake Superior’s North Shore. It was Iowa. And everyone knows Iowa is one big, flat cornfield.

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Staying with Airbnb

Like meeting people? Like a deal? An online service makes travelers guests in private homes.

Apparently, hotels are so 20th century.

These days, people are staying anywhere but. They’re renting vacation homes through VRBO and HomeAway. They’re house-sitting at Caretaker.org. They’re staying for free at HomeExchange.com, Servas.org and Couchsurfing.org.

Now, we have Airbnb.com, whose slogan is “Travel like a human.’’

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Swapping houses

For budget travelers, keys to a borrowed home open a lot of doors.

It’s 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.’’

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On budget in a dorm

In summer, college residence halls are a boon to budget travelers.

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.

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Playground in the woods

At Deep Portage, adults take a tip from the kids.

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.

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Follow the leader?

On a guided trip, drop a bundle or a bit — the choice is yours.

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.

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