The frugal state fair.

thThe county or state fair is one of the biggest money pits in the world. These places exist to part you from your cash, whether it’s for food or rides (or both).

A partial solution: Be a judge at the chili cook-off. I promise you won’t want to eat another bite for the rest of the day, or possibly until the next afternoon.

It’s not that the chili and salsas were bad. Quite the opposite: All were good and most were excellent. But after you’ve had 70 or 80 spoons’ worth, with bites of tortillas and sips of water in between, you simply can’t face any other comestibles.

You might also be averse to any carnival rides that move faster than the average baby can crawl. At the end of the day I did manage one ride, the “1,000 Nights” – a large platform that rotates clockwise, very high and very fast. By the time the first full rotation had ended, I was second-guessing that decision out loud.

All right, I admit it: In full-throated screams. I mean some real shrieks, worthy of Jamie Lee Curtis in her horror-films phase. My older great-nephew, who’d coaxed me onto the ride with him, kept urging me to “Look at the beautiful mountains!”

And they were lovely in the early evening, especially Pioneer Peak. I clutched the armrest, howled myself hoarse but avoided throwing up because beautiful mountains.

The video of this ride makes it look a lot slower than it actually is. (Trigger warning: motion sickness.)

Postcard-worthy views

Another reason that contest judging is frugal: You get two free adult tickets and two parking passes. The day of the chili cook-off was also “Kids’ Day,” which meant free admission to any child bringing canned goods for the local food bank. That meant we saved $50 before we bought so much as an elephant ear.

We didn’t need the parking passes, though, because we took the Alaska Railroad to the fair. Our free admission canceled out the cost of the railroad tickets ($12 adults, $8 kids) — and now that I’ve taken the train I don’t ever want to drive to the Palmer Fairgrounds again. Once you’ve gone clickety-clack, you can’t go back.

Normally you’re stuck in a long, long line of cars creeping into the parking area. Wait times of up to an hour are not uncommon, and the inch-along just shreds your nerves even if you aren’t in a car full of antsy kids. Once you finally pull into a spot you realize, “Later today I’ve got to reverse the process.”

But the train ride was wonderful. I love trains anyway, and once we got out of downtown Anchorage the trip became more postcard-like with every mile. Despite mankind’s inroads, the Last Frontier remains a freakin’ gorgeous state. Mountains, lakes, open fields, animals, creeks, cottonwoods beginning to shade yellow. Animals sighted by members of our group: a moose, eagles (and an eagle’s nest being built atop a utility pole), some type of waterfowl, ravens and a lynx.

About that last: Malachi and I spent most of the ride back in one of the vestibules, the tops of whose doors were open to the rushing air and the chatter of the wheels. While I took a bathroom break, Malachi saw the tufted feline. Missing lynx, apparently, is my new superpower.

Grind and Texas Red

That money we “saved” on admission went to rides, games and a surprisingly small amount of food. The Alaska Chip Company sponsored the chili cookoff, and its minions were handing out free small bags of chips and popcorn all day long.

In addition, large sacks were given away to the first six or seven people who ran up to the stage and named of the categories of the chili cookoff.

Britain (“Texas Red”) and Malachi (“Grind”) both raced up, returning with sacks of cheddar popcorn and kettle chips, respectively. Between the little bags and the big prize bags, the two of them ate so much that they didn’t want much more than a corn dog the rest of the day.

Fine with their mom, I’m sure. But I was surprised.

As for me, I consumed no other food. Too bad, because I always looked forward to a specific state fair meal: vegetable soup, a cheeseburger and a slice of pie at the St. Michael’s Slippery Gulch food stand. The soup and pies are homemade by parishioners (and always delicious), and Mass is offered both Sundays of the fair.

As much as I wanted that soup, it just didn’t seem smart. I did, however, get us a couple of soft drinks for the ride home. Given the chance for a treat at Slippery Gulch, Malachi declined. Either those chips really were filling or his own stomach was rethinking its contents after the 1,000 Nights.

One money lesson a day

Because I’m me, I had to shoehorn in a frugality lesson. Malachi had $5 to spend and wanted to buy a couple of toy guns from a booth. I knew, just knew, that they’d fall apart quickly, possibly even on the trip home. So I made a proposition: If he didn’t spend that $5 I would match it after we left the fairgrounds.

He thought it over briefly and agreed. Late in the day I splurged on some ride tickets, which came packaged with a few game tickets. Malachi chose the swing-the-sledgehammer game, the kind that supposedly measures masculinity by how hard you can hit the target. He played twice and got two toy swords.

On the train ride home, I pulled out the promised $5 and handed it to him. He said, “You know, I’m glad I didn’t buy those guns. If I had I wouldn’t have any money now, and I got two swords instead.”

It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “Yes, but only because I paid for those, too.” But I zipped it. One money lesson a day is enough.

Related reading:

468 ad


  1. lostAnnfound

    The Big E is coming up in 2.5 weeks here in Western Mass. I try to get my ticket for free ($12) by donating blood at the Red Cross beforehand (it’s one of their thank-you gifts from local sponsors) and save on parking by stashing our car at a friend’s house in the town where the fair is and getting a ride to the fairgrounds from them. Hubby & I eat our way through the six New England states; each state owns a piece of property at the fairgrounds and has a building on it that people can go through and see/buy food or craft items that are associated with that state. It’s a fun day out, but we only go every couple years or so because it is definitely not frugal.

  2. SherryH

    I haven’t been to the fair in years! I may have to try for the county fair this year, unless it conflicts with other plans, which it probably will… Never been to the State Fair in Raleigh, and probably won’t. It might be fun, but I can think of other ways to have fun for that kind of money.

  3. Tina in NJ

    We favor the county 4-H fair over the state fair here. The Somerset County 4-H Fair doesn’t charge admission, doesn’t have rides, and all the food vendors are charities like scout troops and churches. It’s all about the hard work the kids put in all year on their projects. Lots of animals, but also RC cars, model rockets, model trains, and double-dutch jump roping!

    • Donna Freedman

      Sounds lovely. The fair of my own youth was the Cumberland County Fair, and we were allowed only a couple of rides apiece. No games and no food except for a snow-cone. We thought it was wonderful.

  4. We always loved the AK state fair. It is a bittersweet time as summer is waning and winter is coming to ” freeze banks”. The best part is the food and the GIANT vegetables. I will have to time my next trip up north around the fair.

  5. We used to go to the South Carolina state fair when I was in college. The fairgrounds shared parking with our football stadium, so it was relatively easy to get to. We didn’t eat much (being poor college students), but I am fairly certain that is where I had my first taste of french fries with vinegar…

    I keep thinking that I would like to enter some of my knitting or quilting in the Colorado state fair, but I’ve heard rumors of “lost” or damaged projects, so the whole thing makes me a little nervous.

    Someday I’ll take the plunge, though.

  6. We go to the fair that takes place in our hometown here in VT. We usually end up buying tickets ahead of time at a discount, or we make a plan to go on their “carload day”. Basically, for $60, the entire (legal) car load gets admission to the fair, parking, and a ride bracelet for unlimited rides. For the 3 adults and 2 children in our group, we save quite a bit of money. We save more by eating dinner at home before going to fair and by avoiding the games that cost money. Fair admission would normally be $10 per person, parking $5 per car and the ride bracelets are normally $25. Carload day wins in my book!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *