Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Frugal Travel: Dubuque, Iowa

When people hear that I am frugal, they naturally seem to think that means our family doesn't travel.  For example, upon describing our yearly trip to Bayfield every summer solstice I'll inevitably hear "hey, I thought you were frugal?"  I am, and one can be frugal without giving up travel.

Love to travel, but need help fitting it into your budget? Consider these -- Rules of Frugal Travel:

  1. Center activities around nature and or educational venues -- these types of places are often free or have low admission costs.  Think nature centers, state or national parks, preserves, museums, aquariums, etc.
  2. Stay in the area of your activities -- find lodging that allows you to walk or take public transit to your actvities to save on time, fuel, and parking costs.
  3. Avoid restaurants -- eat breakfast in the room, bring food in a bag for lunch on the go, and return to your room for dinner.  Brown bagging it like this will slash costs on food.  And if you travel with small children it will decrease the pricey but unhealthy empty carbs you find on kids menus (mac & cheese for example).
  4. Bring home digital images -- unleash your inner Ansel Adams and use your own camera to make images from your travels.  Turn those into prints, magnets, or gifts.  You'll avoid gift shops and the prices that go with them.
  5. Keep it short -- you may be away from home, but you are still paying for home.  Each day of travel is added cost on our budget, the mortgage doesn't stop because you are away.  Recognize this and keep the trip relatively short if possible.  
  6. Prioritize your wants -- I want to travel, so does my family.  Knowing this we skimp on other luxuries so that we have the funds to travel.  There is no Netflix subscription here, no summer pool membership, we love 2nd hand stores for clothing, and we drive cars that are paid for and not flashy (a Honda and a Mazda).  Figure out the 2 or 3 things in life that you really want, and put your money there.  
We recently started a new tradition to help celebrate our children's birthdays (ages 5 and 3) -- a family vacation.  The plan is to travel at the mid-point of their birthdays, which fall in late July and mid-August.  We also want to focus on doing things that are special to the children.  She loves fish, and he has been reading Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn with his dad developing a new interest in history and the Mississippi River.  The destination this year was obvious -- Dubuque, Iowa.  

A mere 1.5 hour drive from our home, getting there was less than a tank of gas in the Honda.  It's proximity to Madison was nice, but the fact that it is home to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium was the decision maker.  After a little internet research and talking with friends from the area it was decided we should stay at the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark.  The hotel and museum share a parking lot making it walkable for us, and I discovered that if I paid $20 more for one night we received admission to the museum for 2 days -- cutting the price in half.   Our room rate also gave us access to the water park, which offered several hours of fun for all.  Total price for two nights $226 (taxes included).  Note -- we selected nights with lower rates (low because it was not as full), so we stayed Sunday and Monday nights.

 Taken from our room.  Immediately below is the hotel water park.  
The brownish red building with the blue banner is one of the 2 buildings making up the museum

Deviating from our approach in Bayfield where we spend to get a condo with a full kitchen, here we opted for a standard room.  Equipped with a fridge and microwave many a meal were possible.  Why not a suite?The costs was higher, and it did not come with a full kitchen.  Knowing we were here to be out and about we decided more space was not really worth it for this trip.

The desk was converted into a dinning table for us, and worked quite well.

A favorite of ours is baked sweet potato.  The quilted bag it is on was a gift many years ago, and allows me to bake a potato in the microwave in 7 minutes or less.  Served hot or cool and bring along for a healthy snack.

Yes, we're Wisconsinites -- that is Bratwurst with cheese, plantain chips, and the sweet potato.  The brats were made back home and simply heated.  I use the same approach for meat filling for tacos.  Just added salsa and cheese, and we had Mexican for dinner.

The museum had numerous hands on activities for children, making it a warm and welcoming place for a family.  Mom and dad could relax a bit.

Staff at the center was extremely knowledgeable and friendly.  Here the children learned about crawfish and mussels.

Another section of the museum is devoted to Mark Twain and life along the river.  Kids love the chance to walk on logs.

And to get wet in Waterworks.  Hands on fun, and learning about the ecosystem along the river.

The Grand Harbor is situated on the river walk, a perfect place to sit or stroll.  We enjoyed it in the early evening.

Flowers abound!

And our little scientist with her nature sketch.  It cost $10 (I could have got one for $5 put it was pink and princess themed so I passed and went for this model) at Target.  Both kids have one, purchased for our 6 hour car trip to Bayfield.  It has provided endless hours of fun....and still does.

Talk to locals for tips!  Before leaving I asked a good friend who grew up in Dubuque about things the kids might enjoy.  Thanks Kate -- we loved the Fenelon Place Elevator.  Historical and an engineering marvel!  We took it down, the kids got an ice cream cone (I asked for a "kids" size, cutting the sugar and the cost) for them.  I found an excellent coffee, and dad read to us about the history of the to the 1880s!  Total cost to ride, $6.

Our last stop before returning home was the Mines of Spain Recreation Center.  Free admission, stunning views.  The kids were quite tuckered by this point, so we opted to a short hike up, and then back to the car.  There is a nature center, but they were asleep by the time we drove passed (less than 5 minutes).

And there you have our frugal trip to Dubuque.  We spent just about $300 -- $226 on the hotel (included water park and museum), $25 on lunch at the museum, $10 on coffee and ice cream, and a tank of gas.  Well, there was one added expense, one that taught us an important lesson.  When both parents are packing the car, double check to make sure everything was put in!  As we unloaded the car in Dubuque I looked at the cart, then at my husband and asked where did you put the kids' suitcase?  His expression said it all -- it was back in Madison!  Oops.  Instantly I was reminded of a quote I read recently "perfect isn't fun".  We rolled with the oversight, found the local Target and outfitted the kids.  Items were either on deep discount because they were summer wear, or were items I had intended to buy them in preparation for school.  Remember, mistakes will happen.  Unexpected costs develop.  Plan for that a bit, and you can still travel without breaking the bank.  Thanks for reading, and may you have a lovely rest of the summer.


  1. Tee hee, you mean mussels, I think. Darn spell-check!

    Sounds like a great trip; the elevator wasn't open when we went, so I'm thinking we need to go back some time in summer. Also liked the frugal eating tips. My kids are not so in love with restaurant food anyway, so next time we'll be looking for some sort of kitchen arrangement too.

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