The great irony now that so few of us can afford to travel is that travel is more affordable than ever. Airlines are dropping their fares, hotels are offering two-for-one deals and restaurants are letting kids eat for free.
They’re offering all of those great deals because the economy-and most family budgets-are still struggling. That may mean the family vacation to Hawaii is on hold, but it doesn’t have to mean the spring break trip is off altogether. There are lots of fun trips within 300 miles of Chicago, some so close you can go for the day and be home that night.
Here are a few of our favorite family-friendly Midwest destinations, both day trips and short trips, to get you away at least for a little while this spring.
Burpee Museum of Natural History, Rockford
This is the home of Jane, the teenage T.rex. Admission is just for adults, for kids. It has enough hands-on, interactive stuff to keep younger kids engaged. And Jane is just plain cool. www.burpee.org, (815) 965-3433
Starved Rock State Park, Utica
One of the state’s natural treasures, Starved Rock State Park offers 18 canyons and 13 miles of marked trails for hiking around the sandstone structures and along the bluffs. Outdoor enthusiasts will find fishing and camping, while indoor enthusiasts can book a room at the Starved Rock Lodge. The name comes from the tale of some Illiniwek Indians who sought refuge atop a 125-foot sandstone butte during an uprising in the 1760s. They were surrounded by the Ottawa and Potawatomi, who stayed until the Illiniwek died of starvation. If you’d like more than just the nature experience, stay across the street at Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort so the kids can play in the water park after they get done hiking at the state park. www.starvedrockstatepark.org, (800) 868-ROCK (7625)
These four cities – Moline and Rock Island, Ill.; Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa – line either side of the great Mississippi River and offer lots of affordable fun. My kids have long been big fans of the John Deere Pavilion in Moline. They love climbing on the giant tractor. I love it because it’s free. Before you leave town, get your sugar fix at Lagomarcino’s, an ice cream shop and confectionary that also serves yummy sandwiches. In Davenport, the Putnam Museum that showcases science and history and the Figge Art Museum are the stars, while the Rock Island Arsenal is the place to see in Rock Island. www.visitquad
cities.com, (309) 277-0937
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, Springfield
This homage to our 16th president is divided into two parts. Journey I is the kid-friendly section. It includes Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic, a hands-on play area where kids can dress up as the Lincoln kids, play with mid-1800s toys and rearrange the furniture in the Lincoln dollhouse. Journey II features his post-election life, which can be a little intense for youngsters. www.alplm.org, (800) 610-2094
This one is for the snow buffs. It’s a six-plus hour drive to Traverse City, but the tourist folks there are making it worth your while: the Traverse City Convention& Visitors Bureau has a Traverse City Escape Package good through May 13 that offers rates as low at .50 per person mid-week at 25 participating hotels plus a wide range of discounts on ski lift tickets, ski lessons and equipment, snowmobile rentals and more. My family’s northern Michigan favorite, Crystal Mountain Resort, has a buy two, get one free deal on lodging throughout the month of March and ski packages that allow kids to ski free at the resort. www.vistittraversecity.com (800) TRAVERSE (872-8377)
Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn
This building houses an amazing collection of Americana, from the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile to a 1960s era Holiday Inn hotel room complete with that ugly green shag carpet I remember so well from my childhood. And, of course, there are plenty of cars. The outdoor Greenfield Village, a living history depiction of a late 1800s village, reopens April 15. Stay at the nearby Dearborn Inn, an elegant hotel with staff that like kids. www.thehenryford.org, (800) 835-5237
This popular summer destination is a calmer, quieter place in the off season. But there are still plenty of restaurants, galleries and lodges open. The Hands On Art Studio alone is worth a visit. It gets overcrowded on rainy summer days, but in the off season, it’s a great place to spend a day creating art-painting pottery, making jewelry, welding metal and more. The all-condo, family-friendly Landmark Resort has a buy two, get one night free deal mid-week through April 27. www.doorcounty.com, (800) 52-RELAX (527-3529)
One of the family-friendliest cities anywhere, Milwaukee is home to the wonderful Betty Brinn Children’s Museum and the terrific Milwaukee Public Museum. Its newest attractions, Discovery World and the Harley-Davidson Museum-are aimed at those hard-to-please tweens and teens. Discovery World is a science and technology museum and the Harley-Davidson Museum, obviously, celebrates the 105-year history of Milwaukee’s own creation. www.visitmilwaukee.org, (414) 273-3950
Fair Oaks Farm, Fair Oaks
The Fair Oaks Farms Adventure Center presents dairy farming as Walt Disney might have done it-lots of bright colors, interactive games and big screen video. From the interactive Adventure Center to the groan-inducing cow humor (What do you call a Guernsey calf after it’s 6 months old? Seven months old.) to the birthing barn, where as many as 100 calves are born daily, there’s plenty to keep everyone engaged for several hours. It’s only about 75 miles south of Chicago. www.fofarms.com, (877) 536-1194.
This charming and affordable city is less than four hours from Chicago and has a host of terrific museums and attractions. First stop for any family with younger kids has to be the recently expanded Indianapolis Children’s Museum. For sports buffs, there’s the interactive NCAA Hall of Champions, with an entire second floor of simulators. It’s located in the White River State Park, Indiana’s only urban state park. White River also is home to the Indianapolis Zoo, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art and the Indiana State Museum. For the outdoorsy types, there is the living history museum at Conner Prairie. Indy 500 race fans won’t want to miss the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. www.visitindy.com (317) 639-4282
Brown County State Park
This state park about an hour south of Indianapolis is a huge tourist attraction in the fall when the leaves are changing. But the new water park at the Abe Martin Lodge makes it a year-round family destination (don’t leave without trying the fried biscuits). There also are a variety of family cabins and small inns located in or near the park. The park has miles of trails for horseback riding, biking and hiking. If you tire of all that nature, head to nearby Nashville, Ind., to explore the antique stores, artist galleries and flea markets and a line dancing lesson at Mike’s Dance Barn. www.browncounty.com
This city has that most coveted of family features: lots of free stuff to do with the kids, including the St. Louis Science Center, Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Zoo and the Anheuser-Busch Factory Tour, which includes a visit to the stable that houses the famous Clydesdales. www.explorestlouis.com, (800) 916-8938
Go for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Really. If you’re a rocker, that museum alone is worth the trip. But there’s plenty more too, including the Great Lakes Science Center, which is right next door. www.positivelycleveland.com, (800) 321-1004