MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap summer getaways in Iowa and Illinois

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

A cabin in Backbone State Park.

© Beth Gauper

In Iowa's Backbone State Park, blufftop cabins face a lake.

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.

And because there are so many people in northern Illinois, there are many outdoors clubs that host low-cost trips around the region.

Here's our list of best cheap trips in 2018.

For budget travel in neighboring states, see Cheap summer getaways in WisconsinCheap summer getaways in Minnesota and Cheap summer getaways in Michigan.


Paddling two rivers

Every year, members of the non-profit Midwest River Expeditions, based in Dubuque, Iowa, choose a different river for their Great River Rumble

In 2019, it's on the Cedar and Iowa rivers, from Cedar Valley near Cedar Rapids to the Mississippi, with take-out in Burlington, Iowa, July 27-Aug. 3.

Cost of $150 includes camping with showers, baggage shuttle, power-boat escort, entertainment and farewell party. Shuttle from the end point to starting point is $25 apiece for people and boats.

A yurt on Iowa's Clear Lake

Rent both yurts on the shores of Clear Lake in north-central Iowa, and you've got your own dock, shower house and oak-shaded corner of McIntosh Woods State Park.

Each yurt has a full-size futon and bunk beds and costs $35, or $210 per week. It's connected by bike trail to Clear Lake, a laid-back beach town with a 1950s vibe and music every weekend. There's a sand beach in the park and a lakeside supper club next door. It's camping, but just barely.

For more, see Yippee for yurts and Clear Lake tranquility.

Cabins in Iowa parks

Iowa has a big variety of cabins in many price ranges, but they're all a deal.

In hilly northeast Iowa, a family of four can spend a week in a cabin at Backbone State Park for $300. The lovely sand beach on Backbone Lake is nearby, there's great hiking, and the cabins, built in the 1930s by the CCC, have bathrooms and kitchens.

Many other parks rent cabins, too; in Palisades-Kepler State Park near Cedar Rapids, four cabins with bathrooms, $50, have their own blufftop corner of the park.

RAGBRAI riders in Iowa.

© Beth Gauper

Along the route of Iowa's RAGBRAI, many locals host riders for free.

In summer, they rent only by the week; the rest of the year, the minimum is two days. For more, see A cabin in Iowa.

And check MyCountyParks for 174 other cabins in 47 county parks.

Many are on Iowa's large system of bicycle trails, including Dawson's Sportsman Park, which rents two cabins that sleep five and have a bathroom and kitchenette, $50-$70.

Near Adel, the Glissman Lodge in Glissman Conservation Area sleeps eight and rents for $70-$100. 

Seeing the sights on a bike

An organized bicycle tour is the best and cheapest way to see the countryside and make a lot of friends along the way.

One of the nation's most famous tours is RAGBRAI, The Register's Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, July 22-28.

This ride crosses Iowa, starting at or near the Missouri River and ending at the Mississippi, and is in its 46th year. 

This year, it's going through southern Iowa, starting in Onawa and ending in Davenport.

The towns go all out to welcome riders, and many citizens and businesses offer free camping or lodgings.

For details and more rides, see Sightseeing by bicycle and Tours on two wheels.

Pedaling and skin-cancer screening

In Kalona, near Iowa City, a ride to raise funds for cancer research has an unusual benefit for riders: free skin-cancer screening.

The Courage Ride is Aug. 18. Cost of $75-$85 includes breakfast, lunch, live entertainment, showers, a shirt and free camping Friday and Saturday nights. There are six paved routes from 16 to 110 miles, and five gravel routes.

A dad and his daughters on an Illinois bike tour.

© Larry Varney

On GITAP, the Grand Illinois Trail and Parks ride, this family wore T-shirts that read, "1 Dad, 2 Daughters, 3 Bikes, 7 Days . . . Priceless.''

Travel with a club

Traveling with an outdoors club is one of the best deals you can get. You need to be a member to go on overnight trips, but you don’t need to live in the town where the club is based; you can meet the group at the destination.

Meet-up groups serve every interest. In Des Moines, the Iowa Explorers Club hikes, paddles, camps and climbs.


Seeing the sights on a bike

Tour northwest Illinois on the family-friendly Grand Illinois Bike Tour. This June 10-15 loop is in central Illinois and starts from Clinton, with stops in Lincoln, Springfield and Decatur.

Cyclists can ride 200 to 370 miles. Ridership is limited to 225; reserve a place as early as possible. 

A cheap stay in Chicago

Chicago is so much fun in summer that everyone wants to be there — bad news for people on a budget. But you can beat high hotel rates by staying in a hostel.

The cabins of White Pines Inn.

© Beth Gauper

West of Oregon, White Pines Forest State Park has 25 cabins.

In the South Loop, Hostelling International Family Hostel is two blocks from Grant Park, which hosts free festivals and concerts all summer. Save money by fixing meals in its communal kitchen.

In River North, the Freehand Hotel/Hostel also has a kitchen as well as a bar, cafe and activities concierge. The Chicago Getaway Hostel is near Lincoln Park, and rates include breakfast.

For more, see Where to stay in Chicago and Cheap Chicago.

A lakeside campfire in Chicago

Next to the Museum Campus on Lake Michigan, Northerly Island once was Meigs Field airport but now has been converted to a park.

The Chicago Park District occasionally offers family camping there, with nature hikes, fishing and campfires. Cost is $50 for a family of up to six, ages 6 and older. Camping and fishing equipment is included.

There's also a camping weekend for adults Aug. 10-11, with glow-in-the-dark kickball, s'mores, beer, live music and sunrise yoga.

Cabins in state parks

In Illinois, 18 state parks have 40 two-bedroom heated camper cabins, each with two bunk beds and a full bed that sleep six. Rates vary from $50 in winter to $65 on holiday weekends.

In northern Illinois, they include three at Chain O' Lakes State Park, two at Shabbona Lake and Kankakee River and one at Rock Cut and Lowden. Reservations are made through ReserveAmerica.

Garcia fans in Woodstock

Just west of the Chicago area, the Grateful Friends Fest is June 15-17 at Stone House Farm in Earlville. Geared to "Dead Heads, Hippies and Kind People,'' it includes a kickball tournament, bicycling and children's activities.

Tickets include camping.

Travel with a club

LakeShore Ski and Sports Club of Chicago: This year-round club of 550 members offers trips featuring cross-country and alpine sking, hiking and bicycling. 

Members meet the first and third Wednesdays from fall through spring at Dapper's East, near West Addison and North Kedzie in Chicago. Membership is $35-$45.

Four Winds Ski and Social Club: This year-round family club in west-suburban Chicago plans alpine ski trips in winter and social outings in other seasons.

Members meet monthly in Elk Grove Village. Membership is $30, $40 for families.

The Chicago Cycling Club offers rides from 15 to 100 miles at all paces; some are for families, and some are overnight camping tours.

The Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association holds day and weekend trips on Lake Michigan and on waterways in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. Membership is $12.50.

Also in the Chicago area, Prairie State Canoeists offers dozens of day and weekend trips on rivers in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, plus northern Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana. A family membership is $20.

The Illinois Paddling Council lists other clubs around the state.

Forest Trails Hiking Club, Chicago area: This club, founded in 1942, holds weekend day hikes in northeast Illinois and beyond, typically of 10 to 12 miles.

Budget travel all year-round

If you want to plan ahead, see Cheap fall getawaysCheap winter getaways and  Cheap spring getaways.

Last updated on April 8, 2019