The Tip Jar: How to have a cheap staycation in Minnesota

Don't want to stray too far or spend too much this summer? The Tip Jar has you covered.
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Summer's just a few months away and I'm sure there are some of you out there (like me) who have left vacation planning to the last minute.

While I'm fairly good at booking flights in a timely manner, I'm a little more lax when it comes to organizing activities for my family when they visit Minnesota. In that spirit, The Tip Jar has taken a look at ways of having a staycation without breaking the bank, with a little help from Explore Minnesota.

This is by no means a definitive list. I'm sure many of you will have some great tips for cheap stays and activities in Minnesota, which I urge you to share with other readers in our Facebook comments.

Head to unfashionable locations

Areas like Brainerd Lakes, Mille Lacs and the North Shore are hotspots in the summer, but because of their popularity you're going to pay a premium during the peak season.

Last summer we booked a house on Ottertail Lake and, looking for a similar lakeside experience this summer, I found that some of the best deals were again in west-central Minnesota, which is a popular vacation spot for Fargo residents but less so those from the Twin Cities.

This time round we got a house for 10 for three nights on East Battle Lake for what I thought was a very reasonable $860 ($86 each for three nights).

Although it doesn't have many lakes, southeastern Minnesota too has some pretty cheap deals on rentals on VRBO, and there are rolling hills and valleys, cute towns like Lanesboro and hidden gems like the Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park to keep you busy.

Alyssa Hayes of Explore Minnesota also suggests checking out the northern reaches of Minnesota around Lake of the Woods. It's a serious, serious haul up there but it's a Mecca for fishing while remaining quiet and cheap.

If you're looking for a resort stay, check out some of the mom-and-pop operations that don't charge as much as the big ones. The Tip Jar managed to find a pretty good deal at the Jolly Fisherman Resort near Itasca State Park that was significantly cheaper than places like Cragun's Resort in Brainerd.

Do your research

It sounds obvious but it really is worth exhausting as many avenues as possible when booking accommodations or packages.

After finding nothing suitable within my price range on VRBO, Lakeplace.com and RentMinnesotaCabins, I checked out Airbnb and found several options that were quite a bit cheaper than I'd been expecting.

Same goes with hotels. There are plenty of comparison websites out there that can track down the best deal, and also check out the best/cheapest places to eat and things to do nearby through sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp.

Look for free stuff to do

When booking a vacation, think about what you want to do when you get to your destination. There's a load of free activities in Minnesota as well as the state park system that doesn't cost too much to enjoy.

Call or stop in at visitor centers to find out what the best local deals are, while Explore Minnesota has this guide of free things to do in the state.

Town festivals are held throughout the summer and are a great place to find some cheap eats, meet new people and enjoy some free activities. Some of these can be found on the Explore Minnesota calendar but it's worth Googling individual towns and cities to find more (it's at this point I give a shout out to Flekkefest in my wife's hometown of Elbow Lake every August).

Go off-peak

You're going to find better deals on cabin rentals, resorts and some hotels if you look to vacation in either the spring or the fall. It's getting a little late for spring but now would be a good time to book for September or October.

June to Labor Day is when things get not just expensive, but also really, really busy. If you're looking for a relaxing getaway consider booking after Labor Day. My wife and I stayed at Itasca State Park the weekend after Labor Day in 2015 and it was practically deserted.

Hayes also suggests looking to book midweek rather than at weekends, as some lodging properties will offer midweek specials.

Camping

Again, it seems obvious, but camping (in a tent, not a $50,000 RV) is a money saver. It's also the best way to really experience Minnesota's state park system and the unspoiled beauty of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs State Park.

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You can book camping or trailer spots in Minnesota's 67 state parks and 62 state forest campground using the DNR reservation system here.

I realize camping gear can be expensive, but treat it like it's an investment by buying tents and equipment that are going to last. The more you camp, the better value they become.

Stay at home, plan day trips

Yes I know it sounds boring, but we've got a 16-month-old child and, to be honest, traveling long distances with him is exhausting to the point of demoralizing.

Right now I'm planning where we can go that's within striking distance of the Twin Cities on weekends that doesn't require hauling half our house with us.

Excelsior, Stillwater, Red Wing and Taylor's Falls are on the list right now, and of course there's a whole host of stuff to do in the Twin Cities as well.

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