8 great travel tips
Planning a summer vacation? Here are a few good things to know.
© Beth Gauper
In popular summer vacation areas, such as Duluth, cottages often are a better value than hotels.
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? Where can I get a deal in the Wisconsin Dells/Duluth/Minneapolis? What are the best places to stay? What should I bring to a rented cabin? How can I avoid bugs?
Having made most of the mistakes a traveler can make, I'll pass on what I know. Here are eight of the best strategies to use while planning a trip.1. Make reservations, especially for Saturday nights. I had to learn this the hard way, sleeping in the car when every single hotel room along I-80 in Nevada was filled by a big festival.
And don’t think you can forgo a reservation in a small town that’s not a big tourist destination – the smaller the town, the faster its hotel rooms are filled by a big wedding or family reunion.
2. If hotel rooms are sold out, look for a cottage. Don't think you have to stay in a hotel — during peak times, when hotel rates are highest, a vacation rental often is a better deal, especially when you have more than two or three people in your group.
The lodgings section of every tourism site has a "Vacation rentals'' or "Cottages and cabins'' category. For example, hotel rooms on Duluth's Canal Park zoom past $200 in summer, but for little more than that, you can get your own one-of-a-kind cottage.
The Duluth web site lists 10 vacation rentals; I've stayed at Cottage on the Point and the Hillside Cottage, and both were
lovely. There are also 32 places listed on VRBO and 16
on HomeAway. You also can try Airbnb, on which people
rent all or part of their homes.
3. Get a discount. A lot of people have AAA or AARP cards and forget to use them, thereby losing the 10 percent discount many hotels offer. The AAA card also gets you 10 percent off Amtrak fares and discounts on many attractions.
You'll have to watch for other discounts, but it takes only a little effort these days to save a lot of money.
Before reserving a hotel room, see what the rates are at such sites as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels and Hotwire. For
a rock-bottom price, use Priceline, though you'll
get the best deals off-peak.
© Beth Gauper
On holiday weekends, get a hotel bargain and head over to see the popular Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park.
At RetailMeNot, you can shave a few bucks more off your deals at Orbitz, Travelocity, Amtrak, Megabus and many hotels, airlines and rental-car agencies.
If you know you want to go to a certain resort or use a certain airline, sign up for its email specials in advance.
Get an Entertainment book for your destination; they include many 2-for-1 specials. They list at $35 but drop to $9.99 by June.
For other ploys, see our Cheap Trips stories.
4. Bring what you need. First, make a list so you don't forget something obvious — like your passport, if you're going on the Circle Tour of Lake Superior.
Rented housekeeping cabins are tricky, because each one requires you to bring different things. But there are a few constants. No. 1 on my personal packing list is a decent chopping knife, because cabins rarely have one.
No. 2 is a reading light. Only the humble motel can be counted on to put a light on each side of the bed; B&Bs are the worst offenders.
For more, see What to bring to a rented cabin.
5. Check for road construction. Before leaving, check your local DOT web site. But it’s always hard to pinpoint where the worst delays will be, so I always carry a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer to help me plot a getaway.
The big red books, available at bookstores, outdoors stores and Targets, show every little county road. The Wisconsin one was invaluable during the floods of June 2008, when I-94 was a parking lot — it helped me peel away and find an alternative route on back roads.
© Beth Gauper
When renting a cabin, the rule is that whatever you need but didn't bring is what it won't have.
6. Use the phone. Don't be afraid to talk to a real person! Sure, there’s a lot of good information on the Internet, but you’ll get the best and most up-to-date information about a place from the people who live there.
Websites can be — and often are — outdated. Not only will you get the latest information from a real person, you'll often get inside information if you're willing to do a little friendly chatting.
That's what people at visitors bureaus are there for — to help you out.
7. Check reviews on online forums. Yes, citizen posts on review sites are notorious for their snarkiness and unrealistic expectations. But if there are enough reviews of a place — at least 10 — you'll get a pretty good idea of what they're like.
8. Be a contrarian. Don't move with the pack; go the opposite way. On holiday weekends, go south instead of north and avoid mind-numbing return traffic that will wipe out memories of whatever fun you had.
Holiday weekends also are a great time to visit big cities, because conventions rarely come to town then and hotels rates are a third what they are when there's a big convention or festival.
On Memorial Day weekend, I like to go to Chicago or head south along the Mississippi River Valley toward northeast Iowa.
On the Fourth of July, I stay home — everyone can find a festival close to home then.
My favorite time to travel is the last two weeks of August — the weather is good, families are headed back to school, and already hotel rates are lower. This is the best time to visit busy Door County.
The week before Labor Day is a great time to go to a lake resort; many offer 10 days for the price of seven.
The first two weeks of September are the lull before the big fall-color season and a good time to travel.
During fall-color season in Minnesota, go to lakes country in the center of the state instead of the North Shore — the
color is better, and it's practically deserted.
Don't plan a last-minute trip to Minnesota during the school break in October, because all the vacation areas book up. This
is a good time for Minnesotans to go to Wisconsin or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
My favorite time to hike on Minnesota's North Shore is the week after the school break, when hotel rates go down, crowds are gone and the trails have hardened.
I like to hike in November, too, but starting on the first Saturday in November, I go to Wisconsin, where the deer
firearms-hunting season doesn't start until the third Saturday.
If you DO want to travel in peak season and catch the biggest festivals, plan ahead.
For more, see Serious reservations.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.