MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap stays

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

The Straz Tower dorm at Marquette University.

Marquette University's Straz Tower provides inexpensive dorm rooms on the edge of downtown Milwaukee.

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.

We also brought our bikes, and we knew we could bring them up to our room — at a college, nobody bats an eye about that.

When I was a student, I pinched pennies because I had to, toting a backpack, staying in hostels and using public transportation. Now, I'm what student-travel expert Kathleen Crislip calls a "flashpacker."

"They're back with a little more flash in the money pack," says Crislip, who writes for About.com. "They enjoy getting off the beaten path and living like the locals, but they stay in a private room, carry a laptop and go out to dinner. . . they're eating in good restaurants, but they're still taking the chicken bus."

In other words, we could pay $150 for a hotel room, but we don't necessarily want to. Besides, campus accommodations are a lot nicer than they were in my day.

In Milwaukee, we were supposed to stay in the year-round guest wing of Mashuda Hall, a former hotel that's next to the Pabst Mansion and housed the Beatles when they played Milwaukee in 1964.

But when we got to Marquette, we found we'd been moved to the 18-story Straz Tower, which suited us because it's much closer to downtown.

The recently renovated Straz once was the central branch of the YMCA, so we had access to a fitness center with a lap pool, indoor running track, racquetball courts, sauna, steam room and whirlpool.

On the 17th floor, our room had cable TV, microwave, refrigerator, phone, Internet access, a folder of tourist information and a little basket of toiletries in the bathroom. We had a sweeping view of freeways, factories and grain elevators from our room, spectacular at night, but Steffani King of Louisville, Ky., had done even better.

Her top-floor room had a beautiful view of downtown and the landscaped grounds of the Wisconsin Club, which occupies an ornate French Second Empire mansion across the street and hosts weddings nearly every Saturday.

King was on her first solo road trip and had meant to mostly camp her way west, but then she stumbled across Marquette.

"It's such a cheap room; I could never have found anything else this nice," she said. "Although the guy at the front desk is not exactly a concierge."

In summer, campus lodgings often are manned by students, and ours obviously wasn't at the top of his class. He couldn't find our check-in information and didn't know where we should park, though it looked as if we could park free at the meters outside until 8 a.m. Monday.

Another student was hanging around and called the city for us, but when he couldn't reach anyone he sent us two blocks away to a ramp, where we paid $2 for Saturday night but then parked on the street Sunday night.

Later, the university quickly refunded the $5 per night I'd paid in advance for parking, which turned out to be in the gated lot behind the tower. We'd been lucky to not get a ticket on the street; overnight parking is fine Fridays and Saturdays, but not Sundays.

It also had to bill us again; the young clerk had charged only for one. I'd thought $28 a night for both of us was way too low; after all, the Hilton down the street was charging $249.

But despite the glitches, we had a great time. We went to Polish Fest on the lakefront festival grounds. We rode our bikes on the Oak Leaf Trail and past the Lake Michigan mansions. We went down to Old World Third Street and walked along the Milwaukee River.

There's a festival every summer weekend in Milwaukee, and the town fills up for such events as Summerfest and Festa Italiana, both on the lakefront.

Colleges in other towns also open residence halls to summer visitors; in such places as New York and London, the savings can be huge. People whose budgets are severely limited can save even more by preparing meals in dorm kitchens.

Just remember, a college dorm is not a hotel. It's not romantic, either, because all the beds are twins. But for those who can channel their inner students, it's a great way to travel.

Trip tips: Summer stays at colleges

Below are some of the Upper Midwest colleges that open their halls to visitors in summer. Few colleges advertise; if you want to find out about availability elsewhere, call and ask. Some colleges reserve their summer housing for participants in conferences and other programs but may make it available to others if it's not filled.

Unlike hostels, nearly every residence hall does provide linens and towels. In general, they're open to summer visitors from late May or early June through early August. Some colleges have a few year-round guest accommodations.

Milwaukee: Marquette University is very well-located, on the edge of downtown and with good access to public transportation.

Its Straz Tower is three blocks from the special bus that takes summer visitors to the lakefront Henry Maier Festival Park and right on the Wisconsin Avenue route that takes baseball fans to Miller Park on game days.

Or ride your bike; it's a college dorm, so you're free to take your bike up to your room in the elevator. Milwaukee is a great place to bicycle; see Bicycling along Lake Michigan.

You also can stay a mile farther along Wisconsin Avenue at the seven-story Mashuda Hall, a former hotel where the Beatles stayed after their Milwaukee gig in 1964. It's next to the Pabst Mansion.

The air-conditioned rooms, all with WiFi, are available from late May to mid-August, but only if a conference also has booked rooms in one of the dorms. That's most days, but usually not holiday weekends.

At Straz, a room for one is $46, and for two, $64. A triple is $75, and a quad is $80. At Mashuda, a single is $43 and a double $60. Triples are $75. At both dorms, add $10 per room for microwave, refrigerator and cable TV. Call 414-288-7208 to reserve.

A daily pass to the Rec Plex Fitness Center is $5. If you want to park on the street, check Milwaukee parking rules

Mashuda Hall also has a guest wing that's open every day during the academic year. Singles are $52 and doubles are $62. Every room has a microwave, refrigerator and cable TV. To reserve, call 414-288-7208.

For more, see Party in Milwaukee and other Milwaukee stories.

Duluth/Superior: For Grandma's Marathon festivities in mid-June, three local colleges pitch in to house the 50,000 spectators and 17,000 runners.

"A lot of times, it's the last resort for some people, but also we've heard a lot of great feedback, that they're cheaper and more convenient," says Bob Gustafson of Grandma's Marathon, which operates shuttles to and from the colleges.

The colleges also are open at other times, and the University of Minnesota-Duluth and St. Scholastica both operate popular programs for seniors who leave their winter homes in Arizona and Florida to spend a cool summer on the shores of Lake Superior.

For Grandma's, the University of Minnesota-Duluth charges $182.54 for two nights in a room with two beds and $396.81 for up to four in a two-bedroom suite. Call 218-726-7390.

The rest of the summer, seniors can rent furnished apartments that sleep four and include phone, utilities and a meal card.

For Grandma's, the College of St. Scholastica, just west of UMD off Skyline Parkway, charges $178 for two nights in a dorm room for two, with bath down the hall, $388 for a two-bedroom suite for four with private bath and $494 for a two-bedroom or four-bedroom apartment for four.

At other times, the room rents for $57 nightly, $378 weekly; the suite for $95 nightly, $420 weekly; and the apartment for $163 nightly, $630 weekly. Call 218-529-5777.

The University of Wisconsin-Superior charges $70 per room for up to two adults and two children for Grandma's weekend, with a two-night minimum. On other days, it may rent them for $29 per night for a single and $40 for a double. Call 715-394-8575.

Twin Ports hotels often fill on summer weekends; for Duluth tourism information, call 800-438-5884.

Thunder Bay, Ont.: From May through late August, Lakehead University in the Port Arthur part of town offers lodgings. Single rooms are $30, $40 with mini-fridge, and basic doubles are $50 for two.

Four-bedroom apartments and townhouses are $140, $200 with TV and all appliances and utensils. The apartments have two baths; the two-level townhouses have one bath and a back patio. To reserve, call 807-343-8485.

For more, see Exploring Thunder Bay.

Chicago: Chicago can be very expensive in summer, so campus housing is an especially good deal.

At Congress and State in the Loop, the 1,700-bed University Center houses students from Columbia College and DePaul and Roosevelt universities during the year. In summer, it rents four bedroom, two-bath apartments for $72.50 per person, with a minimum of four.

For a semi-suite that shares a bath with another semi-suite, it's $91.90 for one and $55.90 apiece for two; the rate includes one meal in the dining center.

A weekly rate of $364 per person for two in a room and $580 for a single includes 10 meals and $20 in dining credits. The weekly rate in an apartment is $435 per person without meals and $517 with meals.

The University Center also rents year-round guest suites that have a queen bed, flat-screen TV, kitchen and bath, and they rent for $125 for two, $135 for three and $145 for four, with a minimum two-night stay. Call 312-924-8089.

Just west of downtown in the University Village neighborhood, the University of Illinois-Chicago rents apartments mainly to students who have come to Chicago on internships, but it also will rent to others.

Apartments with shared bathroom and kitchen in 4-year-old Thomas Beckham Hall, at Roosevelt and Halsted, rent for $75 daily, $300 weekly, $900 monthly. Call 312-355-6317.

Big events in Chicago include the Blues Festival in early June, which draws more than half a million people, and Taste of Chicago, late June to early  July, which draws 3.6 million. 

For more, see Cheap Chicago and other Chicago stories.

Decorah: In this northeast Iowa town, Luther College helps house the 60,000 people who flood into town for Nordic Fest in late July. A single in an air-conditioned dorm is $33.50; a double is $28.50 per person.

A room without air-conditioning is $26.50 single, $23.50 double per person; new townhouses with four to six bedrooms cost $38 per person, including breakfast.

The college will rent summer accommodations at other times if local hotels are full, says summer-program coordinator Jud Barclay. Call 563-387-1538.

For more, see Nordic nirvana.

Staying in hostels

Hostels are another low-cost accommodation; see At home in a hostel.

At hostels, rooms have multiple beds and share a bath and kitchen, but many hostels also rent private rooms. In Madison, the University of Wisconsin does not open its residence halls to the general public, but the Hostelling International Madison hostel off Capitol Square rents private rooms. Call 608-441-0144.

In Chicago, the Hostelling International family hostel in the South Loop, three blocks from the Art Institute at Congress and Wabash, is quite posh, with pancake happy hours, an Internet room and a carpeted great room with foosball, ping-pong and a pool table. Volunteers takes guests on forays around town.

In 2006 and 2007, it was voted Best Large Hostel Worldwide. Rates include continental breakfast, and there's a kitchen where guests can cook for themselves.

In Minnesota, the Minnesota Council of Hostelling International USA operates the comfortable Mississippi Headwaters Hostel in Itasca State Park, walking distance from the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

It has six bedrooms with 31 beds, five common rooms, three bedrooms and a large, well-designed kitchen. The 18-bed "quiet wing'' has its own skylit sitting area with games and books.

For more, see Itasca in winter.

For information on hostels in general, check Hostelling International or Hostel World, which includes ratings from guests and features on hostels and towns around the world.

Last updated on January 4, 2014
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