The 5 best budget-friendly vacations in Wisconsin, according to readers

A view of Milwaukee at sunset.

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By Stacy Rounds

May 31, 2024

When it comes to planning a vacation, finding a destination that offers great experiences without breaking the bank is essential. Wisconsin, known for its natural beauty, charming towns, and family-friendly attractions, has plenty to offer budget-conscious travelers. We asked our readers to vote for their favorite budget-friendly vacation spots in the Badger State, and the results of our recent poll are in! Here are the top five destinations that won their hearts and wallets.

A rock formation and lush trees at Wisconsin Dells.

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5. Wisconsin Dells

Most people have heard of Wisconsin Dells, even from out of state. Known as the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” Wisconsin Dells offers a plethora of family-friendly activities and attractions, many of which can be budget-friendly or offer great value. Looking ahead for package deals can save big bucks, making this all-ages water park destination a budget-friendly affair.

Another way to save big bucks is by diversifying your trip to the Dells. Visit the H.H. Bennett Studio or the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory for educational fun at a low cost. These attractions offer interactive exhibits that are both entertaining and informative. Or find more affordable family entertainment with mini-golf, go-kart tracks, and more. These activities are often bundled into family-friendly packages.

Wisconsin Dells is home to the world’s largest fleet of WWII amphibious vehicles, known as Ducks, which provide unique tours of land and water. These iconic vehicles have become a symbol of the Dells and offer a one-of-a-kind tour experience.

For some quieter enjoyment, hop on a boat tour of the Wisconsin River to see the famous Dells rock formations. The Duck Tours are particularly popular, providing a fun and educational experience on both land and water.

Take advantage of free attractions, such as hiking in Mirror Lake State Park or exploring the downtown area. Downtown Wisconsin Dells has charming shops, restaurants, and entertainment that won’t break the bank. Check local tourism websites and brochures for coupons and discounts on attractions and dining.

Some hotel packages even include water park passes or other attractions. Many resorts and hotels in the area offer all-inclusive deals that provide significant savings.

4. Lake Minocqua

Located in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, Lake Minocqua is a paradise for water enthusiasts and wilderness adventurers. With its affordable recreational activities and natural beauty, no wonder our readers chose it as a top pick for budget-friendly vacations.

Lake Minocqua is part of a chain of lakes, providing endless opportunities for exploration by water. This network of lakes makes it easy to hop from one scenic spot to another.

Sporty travelers, there is plenty of fun to be had here every season of the year. If you enjoy fishing, cast a line in Lake Minocqua. Species such as muskie, walleye, and bass are abundant. Or for those who prefer water sports, paddleboards, kayaks, and pontoon boats can be rented for a reasonable fee to explore the lake.

Hikers and bikers can hit the trails in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest for some scenic exercise. Trails range from easy to challenging, catering to all levels of hikers and bikers. In winter, enjoy activities like snowmobiling, ice fishing, and cross-country skiing. The area is known for its well-maintained snowmobile trails, attracting enthusiasts from across the Midwest.

You can save big bucks here by traveling in a group. And if you opt for a vacation rental or cabin to accommodate the whole crew, you can certainly find one at a reasonable cost. Many rentals come with kitchens, allowing you to save money by preparing your own meals.

Visiting during off-peak times can ensure better deals on lodging and activities. Late spring and early fall are particularly beautiful and less crowded. Plus travelers can take advantage of the many free attractions, such as hiking in the state forest or attending local festivals and events.

3. New Glarus

Is it Switzerland or Wisconsin, who can tell? That’s the charm of New Glarus — its Swiss heritage and friendly atmosphere. In fact, New Glarus is known as “America’s Little Switzerland,” and its architecture and festivals reflect its Swiss roots, offering a unique cultural experience. The town’s Wilhelm Tell Festival, held every Labor Day weekend, is a highlight, featuring Swiss music, food, and traditional performances. This quaint town is perfect for a budget-friendly escape that feels like a European getaway, without the European price tag.

You can learn about the town’s Swiss roots at the Swiss Historical Village, a fascinating and affordable museum. The village includes original Swiss-style homes and buildings, providing a unique historical perspective.

The name New Glarus has become synonymous with delicious beer from its popular brewery, New Glarus Brewing Company. Visitors can tour the famous brew hub and sample their renowned beers for a modest fee. The self-guided tour also allows you to explore at your own pace.

Can you really experience Wisconsin without sampling some cheese? (Not unless you’re lactose intolerant, of course.) Visit local cheese factories to taste and purchase the creamy cheeses that put Wisconsin on the cheese-lovers’ map. Places like the Maple Leaf Cheese Store offer tours and tastings at budget-friendly prices.

Of course, there are plenty of beautiful places for hiking and biking in and around New Glarus. Explore the Sugar River State Trail for scenic views and outdoor fun. The trail is relatively flat, making it accessible for all fitness levels.

An aerial view of a pristine, clean lake.

Matt Sampson – Getty Images

2. Door County

Door County, often referred to as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” is famous for its charming villages, scenic coastline, and vibrant arts scene. This destination offers a wealth of activities that won’t strain your budget, particularly its beautiful beaches.

Outdoor enthusiasts can rent a bike and explore the miles of scenic trails. Peninsula State Park has some of the best biking paths, offering beautiful views of the shoreline and forest. And less active travelers can relax on the many beaches, such as those at Whitefish Dunes State Park and Peninsula State Park. These parks offer both peaceful sandy shores with clear waters, and scenic hiking trails.

Oenophiles, there’s plenty for you to drink in as well. Door County is home to several wineries offering affordable tastings and tours. Places like Door Peninsula Winery provide excellent wines at reasonable prices, and often have free tours. And you can complement the flavors of the local wines with some local foods. Door County has plenty of farmers’ markets with fresh, local produce and affordable meals. The Sturgeon Bay farmers market is a great place to start.

To fully enjoy your wallet-friendly trip, check out local festivals and events, many of which are free or low-cost, such as the Door County Cherry Festival, featuring local crafts, music, and cherry-inspired foods. After the fun, doze off at a cozy bed and breakfast or sleep under the stars at a campground to save on accommodation costs. Many campgrounds offer amenities that make your stay comfortable yet affordable.

Door County has more shoreline than any other county in the U.S., offering 300 miles of coastline to explore! This means endless opportunities for water activities and breathtaking sunsets. This is an amazing destination for a quick weekend or an extended stay.

A cave formation with sunlight beaming through onto the water.

Lawrence Sawyer – Getty Images Signature

1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is the perfect destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike. Located on Lake Superior, this collection of 21 islands offers stunning scenery, outdoor activities, and historical sites — all without a hefty price tag.

Did you know that the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is home to more lighthouses than any other site in the National Park System? It’s a lighthouse lover’s dream! In fact, you can visit one (or more) of the many historic lighthouses scattered throughout the islands for a glimpse into the past. Notable lighthouses include the Raspberry Island Lighthouse and the Sand Island Lighthouse, each offering unique insights into maritime history and breathtaking views. Fun fact: many lighthouse tours are free or low-cost, making them a budget-friendly way to learn about the area’s history.

Outdoor adventurers and thrill seekers, Apostle Islands also has plenty to offer you. If you love watersports, this is a wonderful destination to get some exercise while capturing some amazing views. You can rent a kayak or join a guided tour to explore the sea caves and pristine shorelines. The sea caves, particularly those on the mainland near Meyers Beach, are a highlight, offering spectacular formations carved by centuries of wave action.

For those who prefer land-based activities, hiking trails abound. The mainland portion of the park offers trails such as the Lakeshore Trail, which provides stunning vistas of Lake Superior and opportunities to spot local wildlife like black bears and bald eagles.

Outdoorsy travelers may opt for a campsite on one of the islands for a truly immersive nature experience. Sites are affordable, and the views are priceless. Reserve your spot early, especially in the summer months. Budget conscious Wisconsinites and visitors may consider visiting in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) for lower prices and fewer crowds. The fall colors are particularly stunning. Save even more by packing your own meals and snacks that you can enjoy on the many islands that have picnic areas with beautiful lake views.

 

Author

  • Stacy Rounds

    Stacy Rounds is a writer and growth producer for Up North News. Prior to joining the team, Stacy has worked as a writer, editor, and engagement specialist covering topics ranging from local history, disability advocacy, recreation, and food hotspots to relationships and mental health.

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