Contrary to common wisdom, the best deals in travel aren’t too good to be true.
The key is to travel with a group. Gather 20 people, and you can bring per-person costs way, way down — we're talking $20, $10, even $5 for an overnight stay.
Where? State-park lodges, environmental-learning centers, church retreats and youth camps.
Those are perfect for outdoors clubs, hobby retreats or family reunions.
You can also use your group's buying power to get a nicer place than you could afford on your own, such as a luxury vacation rental or an entire mom-and-pop motel.
One fall, I paid $6.50 per night to go to southeast Minnesota's Whitewater State Park with my outdoors group.
Our heated cabins sat in a bowl, surrounded by 200-foot-high cliffs, and when we wanted to hike on 10 miles of trails, we just walked out the door. We had our own shower house and our own lodge, with a wood-burning fireplace and a big kitchen with walk-in cooler.
The hiking was spectacular, with climbs to craggy blufftops that gave us panoramic views of fall color.
Whitewater is even more in demand in spring, when fly fishermen line its river and morel-mushroom hunters comb its hillsides. In summer, campers come for relief from mosquitoes.
Stay there, and you're really in the catbird's seat. The trick is to beat out everyone else who wants to stay there.
"You have to get on the horn at 8 in the morning, and usually there are two or three people calling at the same time,'' says park manager Garry Barvels.
If we'd had a few more people, we would have paid only $5 per night. That's the per-person rate, but the minimum was $130 when we were there. In high season, from April 16 to Oct. 14, it's $360.
There are group centers in other Minnesota state parks, too. Sibley State Park, in the lakes country of Kandiyohi County, is one of the state's most popular parks.
Its group center has 11 buildings, with its own dining hall, shower building, volleyball court and gathering spot for campfires.
Some people just rent the staff quarters, which has four bedrooms and three baths, says office manager Dede Johnson, but many spread out.
“We see a lot of family reunions,'' she says. "A lot of families have been doing this for years, and they keep expanding and growing and growing.
"And last year, we had a wedding, and many family members just stayed. We have a big, beautiful dining area with lots of picnic tables, and they decorated it.''
Lodgings in state-parks, hostels and retreat centers aren't luxurious, but they're a bargain. They also solve many of the problems encountered when planning for a group.
Everyone can afford to stay there, and the single bunk beds suit people who aren’t related to each other. They have large commons areas where people can congregate over coffee or wine.
If you don't have a group or you don't belong to a club, join one. For more about travel with outdoors groups, see Join the club.
Generally, you need to bring bedding and towels and clean the place before you leave. For more, see What to bring to a rented cabin.
Below are some of the best places I’ve found to take a group in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Minnesota state parks
Minnesota rents large, modern group centers at Whitewater, Sibley, Lake Carlos, St. Croix, Flandrau and Lake Shetek state parks. Only Whitewater's is open in winter, though St. Croix rents two large guesthouses that are open in winter.
Reserve directly with the park a year in advance.
Whitewater State Park in southeast bluff country has a group center that includes eight heated cabins that sleep up to 132, a central bath facility
and modern kitchen and dining hall. It charges $5 per person or a minimum of $130 from Oct. 15 to April 15 and $360 from April 16 to Oct. 14.
Groups also pay utilities. Call the park at 507-932-3007.
Sibley State Park near New London has a group center that sleeps 128 people. The staff building has four bedrooms and three baths and sleeps 14, and seven barracks sleep up to 18 each.
There's a mess hall with stove, dishwasher, refrigerator and walk-in cooler, though guests must bring cooking and eating utensils, and a shower building with flush toilets.
Cost is $5 per person per night, with a minimum charge of $360 per night. Call 320-354-2055.
Lake Carlos State Park near Alexandria has similar lodgings, the Hidden Lake Group Center. It can sleep 60 and has a dining hall, two bunk houses, a staff building, showers and toilets and a crafts building. Call 320-852-7200 to reserve.
St. Croix State Park near Hinckley rents two seasonal group centers. Norway Point sleeps 215 people, and
Head of the Rapids sleeps 125.
Year-round, it rents two modern split-level guesthouses. Guesthouse No. 1 has eight bedrooms with 14 beds and a crib. Guesthouse No. 2 has six bedrooms, with 10 beds and a crib. Guests can walk or ski right onto park trails.
The living spaces are not particularly cozy, but the kitchens are amazingly well equipped, with all kinds of utensils, pots and basic supplies left by previous occupants.
Minnesota state parks also rents a variety of other lodgings, including the Club House at Itasca State Park, which sleeps up to 21, and the three-bedroom, two-bath guesthouse at Bear Head State Park near Ely, which sleeps up to 10.
Reserve up to 120 days in advance. For more, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.
Many other states, including Michigan, Iowa and Illinois, rent cabins in state parks. For more, see A roof in the woods.
Wisconsin state parks
Wisconsin state parks rent three "indoor group camps."
Point Beach State Forest, north of Two Rivers, rents two rustic, adjacent cabins on Lake Michigan. One sleeps 14 and the other 16, $60 or $5 per person.
Each has a boardwalk to a white-sand beach and has a
fire pit, pump and latrine but no electricity. There's also a covered
pavilion for eating. They can be reserved 11 months in advance, 888-947-2757.
Wyalusing State Park, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, has four buildings that each accommodate 27 people, with indoor bathrooms and a separate kitchen; $6 per person with a $300 minimum. Reserve directly with the park a year in advance, 608-996-2261.
Black River State Forest rents a two-bedroom cabin that sleeps up to 12. It can be reserved 11 months in advance, 888-947-2757.
Environmental learning centers in Minnesota
Deep Portage Conservation Reserve near Hackensack:
Deep in the heart of the forest, this environmental-learning center
calls itself Minnesota’s largest outdoor classroom.
The 54,000-square-foot lodge has an indoor climbing wall, a 70-ton granite fireplace and nooks for reading and playing board games. The center has 18 kilometers of ski trails on its 6,300 acres.
There’s food service for groups of
20 or more; smaller groups may be able to piggyback on larger ones.
Guests stay in 27 dorm-style rooms, some disabled-accessible, that
sleep six to 10 and each have a full bathroom.
For more, see Playground in the woods.
Osprey Wilds Environmental Learning Center near Sandstone: This center in eastern Minnesota, formerly Audubon Center of the North Woods, is three miles from the 75-mile Willard Munger State Trail. It has seven miles of hiking trails, canoes and ski gear and is known for bird-watching.
It rents rooms in three lodges. The historic Schwyzer Lodge on Grindstone Lake sleeps 16 in four bedrooms and a back room and has three bathrooms, a modern kitchen, a fireplace and a screened-in porch.
Groups or individuals also can rent rooms in the newer Crosby Lodge, where 14 rooms each sleep eight and have private bathrooms, or in the five-room Lowry Lodge, where baths are shared. Neither has a kitchen.
For more, see Minnesota's environmental learning centers.
Environmental learning centers in Wisconsin
Mackenzie Center near Poynette. This center between Wisconsin Dells and Madison is operated by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation in partnership with the Wisconsin DNR and Friends of the Mackenzie Center.
It has five nature trails, an arboretum, an observation tower, a logging exhibit with sawmill, a maple-sugar shack and three environmental museums. Public events, such as Haunted Hay Rides in late October, are held frequently.
Groups can stay in two dorms, which sleep 80, and use the lodge with commercial kitchen. 608-635-8100.
Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary near Spooner. This northwest Wisconsin wildlife preserve and learning center is just north of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and includes glacial lakes, bogs and old-growth forest.
Its 1930s Log Cabin
sleeps four to five and can be rented year-round. The 1917 Andrews Cabin
sleeps five to seven and is open May through September.
There are also two dorms, one with 17 rooms in four wings and one with six beds and a
central living space.
Guests use a shower house. In summer, groups can request meals. 715-635-6543.
North Lakeland Discovery Center in Manitowish Waters. This learning center on Statehouse Lake in far northeast Wisconsin can sleep up to 100 in cabins and bunkhouses.
It also rents the Director's House, which sleeps six. 877-543-2085.
Other non-profit centers
Camp Miller Retreat Center in Sturgeon Lake, Minn. This large center on Sturgeon Lake, 45 miles south of Duluth, is run by the Duluth Area Family YMCA.
Established in 1898, it has seven miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, an ice rink, ice houses for rent, sails for skate sailing and a sauna. There's a climbing tower and high ropes course.
The center sleeps groups of 30 to 150 in four lodges and eight cabins, some with stone fireplaces.
Camp Onomia Retreat Center near Onamia, Minn.: Family groups on a budget hardly could do better than a weekend at Camp Onomia, a retreat center with an indoor pool and two saunas that's four miles south of Mille Lacs-Kathio State Park.
Its main center sleeps 140 people year-round; each of 28 rooms has six beds and a private bath.
YMCA Camp du Nord near Ely, Minn.: It's a family camp in summer, but in other seasons, the YMCA rents out its cabins.
are 21 heated cabins, some with gas fireplaces, in three villages. Some
are rustic, but most are quite luxurious.
Rates depend on size of cabin and how many people share the cost. You get half off if you reserve Sunday through Wednesday or in April and May, and you get Thursday night free if you reserve Friday and Saturday.
The camp offers adult-retreat weekends with programs and meal service, and groups also can come then. The camp offers meal service when 20 or more people have reserved. Call 612-465-0490.
One Heartland Center near Willow River, Minn. This youth camp rents rooms in its retreat center as well as 14 rustic cabins to groups of 20 or more.
The center includes an outdoor swimming pool, high and low ropes courses, a climbing wall and shoreline on three lakes.
Camp Sturtevant in Wausau, Wis.: This Woodson YMCA camp can be rented by groups year-round. It's especially popular in winter because it's so close to alpine skiing at Granite Peak and cross-country skiing at Nine Mile Forest.
Its Riverside Lodge has bunk-bed accommodations for 60 in two wings separated by a fireplace room. A shower house is just outside the door.
Groups in Riverside Lodge can use the kitchen and heated bathrooms in the Family Lodge. It also can be rented for overnight use, but accommodations are on the floor. Reserve a year in advance for ski season and early summer at 715-849-2267.
Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge cabins, Bemidji, Minn.: This resort on Lake Bemidji is a good place for groups in winter. Along the lake, comfortable four-bedroom cabins have seven beds and kitchens; guests can use the very nice pool, sauna and whirlpool complex.
Downtown Bemidji is nearby and has nightlife and good restaurants; Lake Bemidji State Park is just around the lake and has ski trails.
The manager gives 10 percent discounts to previous guests and AAA members. Call 888-788-8437.
Heartwood Conference Center & Resort, Minong, Wis.: This attractive conference center, formerly the Schwan Center, is about 40 minutes west of Hayward. It rents rooms to individuals as well as groups in hotel rooms, cottages and duplexes.
Ten Pine Village duplexes sleep up to 14 each and have
kitchens and fireplaces. Meals are available for groups, and guests can
ski out their door on 20 kilometers of trails. Call 715-466-6300.
Kawishiwi Bunkhouse near Ely, Minn.: Kawishiwi Lodge and Outfitters is 22 miles east of Ely on Lake One, an entry point into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In addition to housekeeping cabins that are rented by the week in summer, the resort has two bunkhouses, each with full kitchen and bath and one with screened porch.
One bunkhouse sleeps nine and one sleeps eight, and each is rented to only one party at a time. Call 218-365-5487.
Many vacation rentals can sleep 12 or 16 people. Check local websites as well as Airbnb, Vacation Rentals by Owner and HomeAway.
For more, see Renting a vacation house and Adventures in renting.