A Frugal Guide to the Iowa State Fair (or Any Similar County or State Fair)

One annual end-of-summer tradition in our household is attending the Iowa State Fair, held in Des Moines each year in mid-August. It’s something we look forward to for weeks.

Over the years, we’ve found a bunch of little techniques to turn what could be an expensive day trip into something much cheaper. If you invest some time and forethought into it, you can easily make a day at the state fair into a very cheap and fun family activity for everyone. Here are eleven tactics to try.

Buy advance tickets …
Get tickets well in advance. If you don’t know where to buy advance tickets, check online at the website for the fair and find out. Around here, grocery stores sell the tickets, usually at half the price of what you would have to pay at the gate. That means our family of four is able to get in the door at the State Fair for $10 rather than $20.

… or consider going on a discount day
Another option to consider is attending the fair on a day where the price is reduced, usually in the middle of the week. For example, the 2008 Iowa State Fair was free on the first day until 8:30 AM, plus you got a free corn dog upon entry. This encouraged an enormous showing of people that day, of course, but you can’t argue with the price. Again, check out the website of the fair well in advance so you can be aware of any discounted admission periods.

Make a full day out of it
While this was difficult for us this year with two young children who needed naps, most years we make a full day out of the trip to the fair, intending to get in the door not long after sunrise and leaving at sunset. Doing this maximizes the value of your admission, as you get many hours of entertainment out of your ticket instead of just a few.

Eat a filling meal before you go
The best tactic for making the “full day” work is by eating a filling meal before you go, so you’re less tempted to buy overpriced food while actually inside the fair. That means a big breakfast – make some pancakes, for example, and have some eggs with them. The goal is to keep you full (and full of energy) through a long day that will be spent mostly outside during the summer.

Bring your own water bottle
Along those same lines, bring a water bottle for each member of your group. Almost all fairgrounds have water fountains where you can fill your bottles. This eliminates the need to spend money on beverages during the day, again drastically reducing the expense of a day at the fair.

Do some advance planning
If you do some advance planning, you can not only make sure you hit all of the most interesting stuff at the fair in a day. Look not only at a schedule of events for the day, but also find a list of all the continuing exhibits. That way, you can make a list of all the stuff you want to hit and even plan something of a route through the fairgrounds so you don’t have to backtrack much.

Not only that, you can also make sure to go on a day where a particularly interesting event occurs. My family attended the Iowa State Fair this past Friday, August 8, where we got to see John McCain giving a stump speech. Here’s a picture:

John McCain on the stump

If you can’t spot him right off, he’s right next to the first blue banner, near the middle of the picture, wearing a navy colored hat. Since we had small children, we chose to stay at the back of the crowd.

Doing these things ensures you hit all the interesting stuff you want to see at the fair without missing things or backtracking, making the day more enjoyable (and likely making it possible to see more things).

Park where it’s free and take public transportation to get close
To attend the State Fair, my wife and I usually parked at a friends’ house in Des Moines, then use the free shuttle bus running through town to go to the fair. This meant we saved the cost of parking near the fair, which can often become very expensive. This little move might take a bit longer, but it shaves some extra cash off of the trip (and often makes it very easy to meet up with friends and attend the Fair together).

Focus on the free stuff
While there are exhibits and events that cost extra at the fair, there’s so much free stuff to see that you shouldn’t bother with those items and instead focus on the free stuff. We thoroughly enjoyed many of the free items at the Fair this year, including the butter cow:

2008 Butter Cow

(Yes, a cow made out of butter.) Our son also got heavily into the wildlife exhibits – here he is, enjoying an aquarium display:

A little boy enjoys an aquarium

Beyond that, we visited the Iowa Public Television booth (where my son had an awkward conversation with Clifford the Big Red Dog), the Republican Party and Democratic Party areas, a petting zoo, a demo station for the video game Rock Band (which I’m very bad at on the drums), and a bunch of other things I’m forgetting. All of this was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone (even our infant daughter) until nap time approached.

Share the treats widely
One of the big features of the Iowa State Fair is the plethora of … interesting food items for sale everywhere, tempting you to try them out. If you’ve eaten a big meal (as suggested above), fair foods are much less of a temptation, but if you must indulge, just buy one item and share it with everyone. Here’s an example:

Deep fried pineapple on a stick

Deep fried pineapple on a stick, indeed. We were intrigued, but passed that one up. Instead, we let our son pick out an item to share and he chose a very good hand-dipped ice cream cone that we all shared. That gave us all a tasty treat for a pretty low price.

Keep an open eye for freebies – but be sensible about what you take
At many state fairs and other such events, there are tons of opportunities to pick up free items of all kinds, but just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s worth taking. I attempted to count the number of giveaways I spotted and I lost count somewhere north of two hundred in just under three hours.

However, you can find worthwhile stuff if you look carefully. My wife and I got two free canvas bags for using at farmers markets, a free chamois for car washing (which will go in the rag box, but be a useful rag), and a free copy of the day’s Des Moines Register. My son picked up a few coloring books and, best of all, two different Clifford the Big Red Dog books, which have already been read several times. Nothing breathtaking, but worthwhile stuff and the price is right. Just be sensible about it and take only stuff you’ll actually use.

Always get stamped for readmission
A final tip: always get a readmission stamp when you leave. You never know why you might need to go back into the fairgrounds – and if a reason comes up, you don’t want to have to pay for another ticket. Follow this, even if you believe you’re leaving for the day. You may have accidentally left an item inside, or you may remember that you promised someone a picture of the Butter Cow, and you certainly don’t want to pay admission again, do you?

Fairs are a great way to have some family fun in the summer, and they don’t have to be very expensive at all. Have a good time!

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  1. Molly says:

    This year I entered some photos in our county fair. For $20, you can enter up to 22 photos, along with a bunch of other things like fruits and veggies, flowers, paintings or drawings, collections, and handmade articles of clothing. They also give you 6 tickets, which are normally $6 each. I saved $16, and got to check off one of my 101 things in 1001 days (enter a photo contest).

  2. Dave says:

    Glad to see your son is rocking some awesome shades. ;)

  3. gbtwinsmommy says:

    Great tips. Thanks. I know that we spent a lot of money at the Texas State Fair last year. The price of the rides is ridiculously high.

    Plenty of time to plan ahead this year though as the fair does not start until the end of September.

    Maybe a group of us from work will all go together and get the group rate.

  4. AJ says:

    At America’s Fair, (formerly and fondly known as the Erie County Fair) you can bring in a picnic lunch and/or dinner. Picnic tables go fast – you leave your basket to reserve your spot – but a blanket on the grass works just as well.

    This way you can save even more $$ for that extra special Fair treat!

  5. dougis says:

    Thanks for a great writeup Trent (that is what I was asking for in my tweet).
    Headed to the WA state fair with my wife and girls pretty soon and one thing we are going to add to the list is buy wristbands for the carnival in advance (NOTE, this only makes sense IF YOU ARE GOING RIDE RIDES).
    Both girls (as well as my wife and I) LOVE roller coasters and last year they couldn’t ride some of them without a parent.
    The cost of tickets for us to ride with them would have made the rides $6 a head (doesn’t take long for a $20 wrist band to pay for itself that way).
    The girls were OK with not getting to go (and understood why another great chance to show them about the value of a $$), but have been double checking for months that we are getting wrist bands so we can ride with them this year :-).

  6. I hear you on the naps! That is always a problem for us when we’re on vacation. Happily, our youngest(and last), is 2.5, so we’ll be done with that problem soon. Knowing we have to deal with the naps, we’ve skipped out on doing stuff like amusement parks and such. We figure we’ll do more of that stuff later when we can get more enjoyment for our money.

  7. clint lawton says:

    Trent,

    I am afraid that I have ruined it for my kids. I teach them that the fair is not fair. that the rides are over priced and that the “games” are games of chance just like gambling. We don’t gamble and we don’t play the games at the fair. I go even further and watch people play these games and show my children how the person runing the booth is counting on them making the bad choice to play and then how the game is riged for them to lose. I site the basket ball game…shoot the ball through the hoop and win a prize…right…not so easy they use large balls and small hoops…not only small hoops but if you look at them from the side they are not round hoops they are cruched on the sides to make it even harded to hit it. then they are at a slant. I played basket ball my whole life was a all star in high school and went on to be preaty good in college. I spent $100 trying this game one day and did not make one shot.

    I guess I am just a spoil sport but at least my kids won’t get riped off.

    Clint Lawton
    http://www.a-debt-free-life.com

  8. AC says:

    Great ideas. Here’s one more ( we had 6 kid!-ya crazy I know) anyway – we made the fair a mini vacation each year. We paid for parking so that half way through the day we went back to to car pulled out the lawn chairs and blankets ate, had a rest and then headed back in to stay until the fireworks were over. The break was well worth it, everyone had a chance to relax and unwind.

  9. Sandy says:

    Did you really have to pay ANYTHING to get your tots into the fair? Our fair, under 3 gets in free.
    We did all the cheap things to get into the fair while our kids were that age, too. It does get harder as they get older, and their stomachs get bigger,and rides become imprtant. This year, I worked the Democratic table, and got in free. They cost $5 each to get in, and I gave them each $20 to spend as they wished. They bought the all afternoon ride pass for $11 each, plus a few snacks. They had to touch base with me every hour, and after they ran out of money (the money I gave them, plus whatever they brough of their own money)it was time for the freebie stuff. We all went to look at momma pig and her brand new litter…amazingly cute!
    I think my younger daughter tried one of those games (with her own money!) and after 3 losing tries, she said…that’s enough…I’m not throwing away any more money on that. Good leasson for a 10 year old…her 15 year old sister learned that lesson earlier, too!

  10. Dan Bruns says:

    What free shuttle did you use? I went to the IA state fair this weekend and the shuttle was not free it was like $2 or so and we also purchased tickets ahead of time for $7 for adult tickets.
    Did you get yours for $5 somewhere? Or did you just toss numbers out there as an example.

  11. Lynne says:

    I just took 2 of my grandkids to our Sonoma County Fair. We parked in a friends driveway 2 blocks from the back entrance (free)! One grandchild was free, the 2nd $2.00. I had to spend $5.00 to get in, but saved $2 using a newspaper coupon. It was dollar ride day (a huge savings)and we bought $12 worth of ride tickets. Even though my grandson would have liked to ride some “scarier” rides, he compromised so he & my granddaughter could go together, (she also bravely went on a ride that was very scary). We went through the exhibet buildings, free, we got an icecream cone, free, from the Clo’s booth. They are there each year representing Clover dairy products which are locally produced. We did finally break down and buy a large lemonade which we shared. We chose the large since refills were half price. We finished off our first lemonade then bought the refill. Plenty for the 3 of us. My grandson chose to toss a couple of quarters trying to win a prize. After being discouraged from wasting more, he chose to try one other game, where you toss balls and compete against other fair goers. He won a huge penguin & had spent only 50 cents. After that we watched a free puppet show, diving dogs, a well-know band performing on one of the stages. They took one more ride, then we left, since both children had soccer practice. We had to skip the free hay ride, Mexican Village, Jazz performances (all free) and of course the many livestock on display. But all in all we felt that we definitely got our moneys worth, since we represented 3 different families. Yes, you can go to a fair and not spend a lot. BTW, our fair also has picnic facilities, so if you chose, you could carry in your own lunch. This was representative of what we have done for many years, except that before it was our kids, & my husband (now deceased) & now it is grandkids!

  12. Anni says:

    We have a small local fair here each June. Parking is free because we walk and there is no entrance fee. In celebration of the county’s dairy heritage there is milk, yogurt and cheese to be sampled. We have always spent a minimal amount at the fair but the children, now teens, still enjoy spending a few hours there every year.

  13. NED says:

    To sum the whole post up: Be prepared and plan ahead.

  14. Karen says:

    I loved this post Trent. I was planning on going to the Texas State Fair after missing it for several years. Will plan ahead. I am lucky since my sister usually gets free tickets and parking. YEA!

  15. Dawn says:

    The New York State Fair actually sent out a flier that had 10 ways to cut down the cost of the fair. Most have already been mentioned (like buying advanced tickets and advanced ride tickets, or going on specific discount days). They also suggested bringing your own food and drinks, and had a list of places that had discounted or free food (like the Milk tent selling milk cartons for 25 cents or the Potato booth selling loaded baked potatoes for $1 or the cooking demos giving away free tastes).

    I’ve found that’s true at other fairs as well–sometimes they have booths that are not near the typical food booths that sell foods at a discount or have free samples that can give you a snack or supplement a meal.

  16. Carrie says:

    Good move skipping the pineapple on a stick, my husband and I spilt one and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We went early on Sunday (I had free tickets through work) and were able to park on the street a couple blocks from the main gate for free.

  17. Blake@youngdough says:

    Hey, hey! I know the Iowa State Fair, as I live only 45 minutes south of Des Moines. Where are you located Trent?

  18. Sarah says:

    Oh-I was about to post that you should totally get the fried pineapple!!! Roasted is probably better, but if like pineapple at all, it is usually really good.

  19. Lise says:

    I just wanted to add that some of my fondest childhood memories were of going to the fair. I was excited by the prospect of it all summer.

    Was it the rides and the rigged games that I loved?

    Nope. It was going through the 4H and FFA barns again. and again. and again. (I’m an animal lover).

    To this day my aunt jokes about how many times I dragged her through the cow barns as a child.

  20. We’re looking forward to the Nebraska State Fair in 2010 since it will be closer to us! Linked to this in my weekly roundup post. Thanks!

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