Getting to Indy for March Madness' Final 4, on way less than 500 (bucks)

March MadnessOutside of a Kentucky Fried Chicken with a spectacular all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, the city of Indianapolis is usually best left to the delightful citizens of Indiana. But this year is different for the Mecca of all things Midwest: March Madness descends upon Indy, with the Final Four hosted at breathtaking Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the state's beloved Indianapolis Colts.

Despite the misguided reputation of the city, there are lots of fun things to do in Indianapolis, according to the official Final Four Web site, which calls Indy "an inviting mix of metropolitan style, unique arts and cultural districts, and small-town charm, making it a successful destination for 22 million convention, business, and leisure travelers each year."
There, it's a successful destination. That's a super thing to say about a city.

But for big time fans of college basketball, traveling to Indianapolis for the Final Four can be an expensive burden. However, getting there -- and staying there on the cheap -- can be done.

Now keep in mind that tickets for the championship game alone, according to recent ticket trending, run from $160 apiece at the low end, all the way up to "I hope my inheritance comes early, sorry Grandma" prices at the top. That said: Figuring out travel and lodging for under $350, while it seems like an improbable task, is doable in a Northern Iowa-upsets-Kansas kinda way.

Aside from hitch-hiking, frowned upon these days by totally lame mothers and fathers, the cheapest way to get to Indianapolis is to drive. If you can't get there by car but live in the Midwest, Southwest Airlines is offering $70 one-way tickets to Indianapolis. Flying from the coasts is exponentially more-expensive, so using alternative means of transportation, like $180 train rides from the west coast on Amtrak, are an option.

Be forewarned, it takes 52 hours to get to Indy from the west coast by train. That's a really long time to sit. Not sure why anyone would want to sit for 52 hours, but apparently the views are nice, which gives you something peaceful to look at as you pull each individual hair out of your head.

Once in Indianapolis, if you're willing to take a slight step down from the Four Seasons, there are some relatively inexpensive hotels still available to stay in near Lucas Oil Stadium. But move quickly, many hotels are already sold out throughout Final Four weekend. The cheapest available hotels are the Quality Inn and Suites in Greenfield at $54 a night (22 miles away, get ready to take a cab to the stadium) and the Super 8 Motel Indianapolis/Emerson for $75 a night (only six miles away), featuring such new world amenities as cable TV, a hairdryer, and a short enough walk to Lucas Oil Stadium to burn off that KFC lunch buffet.

I know: You're booking your reservations right now. I can hear you typing.

Jason Hill, general manager of the Comfort Inn Suites in Indianapolis, says that rates are relatively high across the city of Indianapolis right now for the tournament, but there's a hotel trick to getting a better rate.

"Normally rates are high up until the last minute, "Hill said. "Everyone's trying to squeeze every last rate out as long as they can go. But if you wait until the last minute, hotels generally dump their rooms in order to fill them. You can get really cheap rates if you're patient."

Using social media, however, you have unique opportunities to get to Indianapolis and stay in Indianapolis for free. Try placing ads for what you need on the Facebook Marketplace, including carpools and even lodging to Indiana. There are currently 27 listings for "short term" lodgings within 50 miles of Indianapolis. Reaching out to one of the owners may just net you a free place to stay for the weekend. Butler University is hosting the Final Four this year, and linking up with students at Butler via Facebook or Twitter may be another thrifty way to stay in Indiana for the tournament.

"I live in a house off campus and I think it would be a really nice way to welcome people to this great community," Butler University senior Ryan Waggoner said. "I'm just not sure how many students would share my sentiment."

As far as cheap or free places to stay in Indianapolis, Waggoner says if you can't stay with a Butler student for free, look outside Indy for cheaper hotels.

"I do not know of any cheap places right in the city, but the southern suburbs -- Franklin, Whiteland, Greenwood -- would be much more reasonable," Waggoner said. "You would have to make a 15-20 minute drive to get to those places, but I think you would save a ton."

Finding a place to stay on GlobalFreeloaders.com, which features nearly 100 members in Indianapolis who've opened their doors for free, is a cinch, provided you're willing to stay with a complete stranger on the recommendation of a Web site (I let Web sites make all my decisions for me). After signing up, new members can browse through listings to find ones in Indianapolis that best meet their needs.

David Clark, a traveler from Melbourne, Australia, recently traveled across Canada for free using GlobalFreeloaders.

"I have just returned from traveling across Canada," Clark said. "Met some great, friendly people and without the support of the GlobalFreeloaders site I would've been stuck on a number of occasions. The response from other [members] was fantastic. Most said that I was their first visitor, and the friendships that [I have] built from them has been overwhelming. I can't speak highly enough of GFL and I will continue as a provider and a user of the service."

Hopefully someone actually from Indianapolis can show you more than a good buffet during your Final Four stay.

Seattle-based Erik Larsen is an award-winning former sports editor of the Loyola University Chicago school newspaper, the Phoenix, a former sports writer for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye, and author of the Sports Tzublog. Got a tip? Or a spare ticket to the Final Four? Email him at eriklarsen1+sportstzu@gmail.com.

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