Lake Geneva, Wisconsin is a resort town close to the Wisconsin-Illinois border. So close, in fact, that it was where wealthy Chicagoans built summer homes–mansions, really–to get away from the heat and noise of the city. Families like Wrigley, Swift, Ryerson, and founders/owners/presidents of Ivory Soap, Harris Bank, and TruValue were among those who bought up waterfront property, especially after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Lake Geneva was called “The Newport of the West” because of its rich and famous residents.
Today Lake Geneva is still upscale, with a charming downtown and dozens of restaurants. Visitors can rent jet-skis, kayaks, canoes, or take one of the boat tours of the vast lake. It’s pretty…and pricey. How can a solo traveler afford a getaway, when hotels are in the $250-plus range?
Here’s how I had a two-night stay in Lake Geneva for less than $500…
First: Find a bargain!
This is crucial for a solo traveler. I subscribe to several websites that send regular deals to my Inbox. I have done well with TravelZoo and ShermansTravel. Groupon and its subsidiary LivingSocial have travel, attractions, and restaurant deals.
TravelZoo had a mid-week deal at a boutique hotel on the lake. For $159 a night (value $264) I also got $15 off breakfast, a bottle of sparkling wine, and a big cheese and fruit tray per night. Parking was free. I booked and paid for two nights. Cost: $320
Start with the hotel: No single supplement!
Hotels don’t usually charge per person. For solos, this is a the rare exception to the dreaded “Price is for double occupancy” clause that applies to trips, tours, and cruises. I hate single supplements—the penalty tax for traveling alone.
Your hotel is the biggest expense, so choose wisely. Is there a parking fee? Is breakfast included? Is WiFi free? Are there extras that will save you money? With a cheese tray and wine, I didn’t have to worry about dinner. With $15 off breakfast, I paid $6 each morning. These perks allowed me to use my remaining dollars for more interesting activities.
Visit the Tourist Office when you arrive
When I left home, I set my GPS for the VISIT Lake Geneva office. Tourist Information is always one of my first stops when I get to a new place, even though I do research before I go. This is where you can talk to experts about what interests you…and fits your budget.
I explained that I was traveling alone and had limited funds. The woman in the office quickly suggested one of the lake cruises that offer both a guided tour of the lake (and its magnificent mansions) and a visit to one of the preserved summer homes now maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Four hours for $37. A catered box lunch was one $9.50. Sounded good for my last day.
Next, I ask where the locals eat. Because we all know they aren’t at the 4-star, fine dining restaurants every night. She gave me a few brochures (with menus) and some coupons. She also told me where to find to local specialties.
Anything free, I asked? Sure, she said. The lakeshore has a 21 mile (or 26, depending on the source) path that goes across all the backyards of the homes; each homeowner maintains the path in a unique way. Walk and gape at the splendor, she advised. She was right…I ended up walking about 7 or 8 miles during my stay. The path goes between the homes and their docks, so I saw boats, boathouses, decks, and outdoor furniture that cost more than my little townhouse. The landscaping was phenomenal.
Public beaches are free, including one in downtown Lake Geneva. Art galleries are nearby. I like to visit libraries, too; you can learn a lot about a place by looking around. Libraries often have free charging stations for your devices–and clean restrooms.
All set! Here are my itinerary and expenses…
Let me start by saying that my interests and choices probably aren’t the same as yours. I’m also an Early Bird…you may be a Night Owl. After the expense of the hotel, how you spend the rest of your $500 is entirely up to you. I just want you to get an idea of how you can have a “champagne experience on a beer budget.”
- Arrived in Lake Geneva at 10:30 am. Stop at the VISIT Lake Geneva office for maps and information. Parking for 4 hours: $4
- Walked to lunch at Popeye’s, across the street from the downtown beach. (This Popeye’s is not related to the fried chicken chain. In fact, it claims to have had the name since 1971, before the chain started.) It’s a nautical-themed restaurant, specializing in outdoor rotisserie meats and unusual cocktails. I had the delicious Daily Special of roasted chicken and garlic mashed potatoes, washed down with a pint of local beer. With tip: $25
- Geneva Lake Museum of History was worth the time. Housed in an old waterworks building, visitors walk down “Main Street” with public buildings, stores, and homes furnished with items from the town’s history. Stained glass windows and art from mansions are on display. Admission: $6
- While driving to the hotel, I passed a Culver’s…flavor of the day was Butter Pecan. My favorite. I always try to stick with local places, but reasoned that Culver’s is as least a chain that started in Wisconsin. Hot fudge sundae: $3
- Checked into the hotel about 4 pm. Sparkling wine was already on ice and cheese tray was waiting in the mini-frig. I settled in and took a walk, my first on the lakeshore path. Back about 6 pm and sat on the private balcony, enjoying wine and cheese. After that, I didn’t need anything else.
- Total for Day One, including the prepaid hotel for two nights: $353
- Excellent in-room coffee maker! I lazed in my room, doing a little email and reading the Los Angeles Times on my tablet. I deliberately went to a late (for me, anyway) breakfast. The dining room overlooks the lake…beautiful. I had a skillet breakfast, with orange juice and more coffee. After the hotel credit–and with gratuity–$10.
- Headed downtown for the day. This time I found free street parking. I walked the lakeshore path for a few hours. Finally all the coffee took effect and I turned around and came to the library. Pit stop and quick phone charge, as well as looking at the calendar of events and the kids’ section. Good stuff in this active community!
- Next I wandered around downtown. Boutiques, galleries, cafés, and of course, t-shirt shops. Still not hungry, I did stop in Funky Kup, a family-owned business, for rolled frozen yogurt. Interesting…who knew there was such a thing? I tried the Strawberry-Cheesecake roll for $7.
- Back in my car, I found another public entry point for the lakeshore path and walked a few more miles. It was late afternoon and the lighting was perfect for photography. It was nearly dark when I returned to the hotel. I had more wine and cheese, along with a few things I’d brought. Chamomile tea on my balcony…it was a terrific day.
- Total for Day Two, including gratuity for the housekeeper: $24
- Coffee in my room, but no languishing today. I wanted to take one last walk on the lakeshore path before breakfast. Off I went for an hour, then back to get cleaned up for the day. I had another satisfying breakfast in the dining room: $10
- After breakfast, I checked out. Bags in the car, I drove downtown to find street parking near the docks where the boat tours departed. The ticket office was open, so I paid for the Black Point Estate Tour and a box lunch. My tour left at 11 am; we boarded at 10:30 am. I was a little early, so I went to the park across the street and followed the stream that ran through it. Picnic tables were everywhere-very pretty!
- We boarded on time, got the safety talk, and set out. Captain Nate steered and gave us the history and highlights. Shipmate Andy claimed he made the world’s best Bloody Mary; today it was a special for $5. The ride on the lake was beautiful, the homes were astounding. We arrived at Black Point for a guided two-hour tour of the summer home of Chicago’s “Beer Baron.” Life was pretty swell back in the 1890s… On our way back, I took one of those Bloody Marys–it WAS good! Box lunches were handed out and we enjoyed the sunny afternoon. Perfect ending to my getaway: $64, including tips.
- Our boat docked about 3 pm. I headed back home, feeling content. Not even the horrendous traffic delays bothered me. Can’t wait to do it again!
- Total for Day Three, including gratuity for the housekeeper: $70
Total cost for my Lake Geneva resort getaway: $448 (Costs were rounded up.) I was able to drive there and back on less than a full tank of gas–I really did do it all for under $500!
The fine print:
- I always bring some food, especially when I drive. I love sparkling water, so I pack a couple bottles of Perrier or San Pelligrino. And instant coffee…because I require caffeine. Fruit, snack crackers, chocolate, nuts…easy and portable. I can always make a great snack or mini-meal.
- As much as I love fine dining, it is not part of my solo travel. I prefer to put my money toward the experience, not a meal. You may choose to do otherwise–it’s all good!
- The total cost of getaways does not include transportation to the destination. How you get there is your decision. Airfares change by the minute. Everyone has a different car with different miles-per-gallon.
- Lake Geneva is an example of a resort town. You probably have a similar one near you. Summer is high season, of course; bargains will be rare. Shoulder season and off-season bring fewer crowds and excellent values. I went to Lake Geneva shortly after Labor Day; the weather was perfect. Some places may close after summer, but so what?
This is one of a series about $500 getaways for solo travelers. I want to show how to have a great time without paying a single supplement.
Check out these posts, too!