Traveling the Midwest gives visitors a true taste of America and Americana. Through international eyes, the U.S. is often seen as the East and West Coasts, but in reality most Americans’ lifestyles come closer to those living in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Tour these states and you’ll find gorgeous national and state parks, vibrant major cities, folksy small towns, and abundant farmland.
When visitors think of Illinois, the first thing that comes to mind is usually Chicago. And, yes the Windy City certainly has its draws: Millennium Park, fabulous museums, and the Magnificent Mile, a shopaholic’s dream. But the Land of Lincoln offers so much more (although Springfield boasts all manner of Abe-related sites). Outdoor adventure is found in all corners — from Lake Michigan and Starved Rock State Park to rock formations at Garden of the Gods within Shawnee National Forest.
Although the Hoosier State lures about 300,000 fans annually to watch the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend, there are lots of other reasons to visit Indiana. Indianapolis the largest city, is home to major league sports, the award winning Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and Indianapolis Zoo. To the north, on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore lures beach-lovers. On those shores and on the Ohio River to the south, Indiana is home to riverboat casinos. Throughout the Indiana, you’ll also find cute-as-a-button tiny towns like Madison, Bloomington, and Hanover, perfect for antique hunting or hanging out.
‘Is this heaven?’ asks the movie Field of Dreams. ‘No, It’s Iowa’ comes to mind when traveling through the Hawkeye State. Scenic and downright serene, Iowa is a wonderful mixture of farmland, history and nature. Don’t miss the state capitol in Des Moines, the cornfield from Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa City (‘city of literature’), or the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Dubuque.
Fishing? Boating? Jet skiing? Sunbathing on the beach? If these are on your vacation to-do list, then Michigan should be on your destination list. Surrounded by the Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie), Michigan has 3,177 miles of shoreline. Darling beach destination towns include Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Holland and Saugatuck. The state’s number one draw is Mackinac Island, in the Upper Peninsula, which harkens back to an era of no cars and Victorian cottages. To best appreciate the resurgent Detroit, visit the Motown Museum, Ford Rouge Factory Tour and the Detroit Institute of Arts, a cultural gem.
Minnesota‘s name is derived from a Native American word meaning sky-colored water. That’s apt. Its lush landscapes and scenic waterways are preserved and celebrated in hundreds of state parks. So whether you head to Jay Cooke State Park for white water rafting or Bear Head Lake State Park for ideal canoeing and camping, the North Star State has you covered. If shopping floats your boat more than water sports, make a beeline for Mall of America, the largest indoor mall in the U.S. For big city fun, Minneapolis and St. Paul (‘Twin Cities’ often lumped together) excel in options for arts, culture, nightlife, history and sports.
It’s practically impossible in St. Louis, the states’ largest city, to ignore the St. Louis Arch and the Anheuser-Busch tour. The same is true for Kansas City (Missouri, not Kansas) and its American Jazz Museum and legendary barbecue joints. For live music and shows, there is no place like Branson. But to really get a feel for the Show Me State, drive the back roads to experience it for yourself. It’s riddled with state parks and history, home to Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and the Pony Express National Historic Trail.
There is so much to see and do within the Buckeye State’s largest cities (Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati) that you might not have time for anything else. That said, other worthy destinations in Ohio include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park (as Ohio is the home of the Wright Brothers), and the Cedar Point amusement park. But Ohio’s state park system can’t be overlooked. Nature lovers flock to Hocking Hills and Deer Creek State Parks for hiking, birding, caving, streams and more.
Adjacent to Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, Wisconsin is awash in outstanding outdoor adventures (see Wisconsin Dells). To the north is Apostle Islands National Park, where you will find historic lighthouses and the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, stretching almost 1,200 miles across the state. The largest city, Milwaukee boasts Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee County Zoo, and Miller Brewing Company, for touring and tasting.
–Thanks to Deb Kremer for getting us started with this introduction.
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
(not the same as Native American Day, which is only celebrated officially in two states, on September 25th)
November (11th): Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
To check the local time where you are, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (on the second Sunday morning of March at 2 a.m.). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (on the first Sunday morning in November at 2 a.m.), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except Hawaii and most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Open the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. You need to apply for membership and download the app in advance. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8 to10 per hour; gas and insurance are included. Foreign drivers can apply and you don’t need to pay a monthly fee if you’re an occasional driver (from $25 per year for a membership).
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip:
Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know:
Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees
In general, cities have higher taxes than rural areas do. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.
Lodging tax also varies by location. This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by an increasing number of hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.