Patricia DePoli called 15 southern Illinois hotels in search of a room where her family could stay the night before the Aug. 21 eclipse. The few rooms she could find -- budget hotels normally priced at $89 a night -- were now $429 a night with a two-night minimum stay.
She was able to get one room for one night in Du Quoin, a small town 20 miles north of Carbondale, for $331.89. She plans to squeeze her family and their friends into the room, plus pack food and drinks in case restaurants are overflowing with customers.
"I thought we'd have this cool, little small-town experience, and everyone I told started laughing at me. So I've had to lower my expectations," joked DePoli, a mother of two from Wilmette. "But I love nature and natural phenomena ... so I was, like, 'We gotta see this.'"
Despite the costs, crowds and potential traffic jams -- the Illinois Department of Transportation estimates as many as 200,000 people will converge on southern Illinois for the eclipse -- many suburban families are intent on heading downstate to see the rare astronomical event.
During the eclipse, the moon will move in front of the sun for a few minutes, turning the midday sky dark. While the Chicago area will experience 86 percent "totality," areas downstate, and near St. Louis, will have 100 percent totality. The 70-mile-wide totality path extends from Oregon to South Carolina.
The wild card will be the weather, which could block the view, although experts say the sky swould still darken. Bad weather could mean smaller crowds, and good weather could increase them.
"If it's cloudy, there'll be 10,000 people looking at it on their phones," Sid Bratkovich of Schaumburg joked of the expected crowd at Southern Illinois University's Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, which is hosting a weekend of festivities.
Ron and Jodi Martin of Elgin have a strategy to combat clouds, crowds and costs.
They'll travel to downstate Pekin on Sunday, the day before the eclipse, and stay with Ron's brother. They'll rise early Monday and consult an eclipse weather app, which will determine whether they head west and pick up the eclipse in Missouri or if they drive south and catch it in southern Illinois.
"The smart way to do it is not to be tied into any one spot," Ron said, "to get up early in the morning to see where you're more likely to have cloud cover."
Once that decision is made, the Martins plan to look for an off-the-beaten-path spot -- perhaps simply by pulling off to the side of an uncrowded country road -- where the crowds might not be. Once they find it, they'll park, pull out the cooler and portable chairs, and wait for the show. Once it's over, they'll immediately head home.
By contrast, Eric Claeys is one of the 250 people from the Naperville Astronomical Association making the trek. They're all staying in hotels and watching from a ballpark and parking lot they reserved nearly two years ago.
"The two things I'm worried about are the weather and the traffic," he said. "I'm thinking, where are people going to park? Even if people have to pull off to the side of the road and watch, it'll probably be something people remember for the rest of their lives."
IDOT warns people not to pull over on the interstates but to exit the highway and park in a safe place.
While all the hotels in Carbondale and Effingham are booked, Springfield still has plenty of hotel rooms available in the $100/night range, that city's tourism office said Tuesday. While Springfield is not in the path of totality, it'll get you closer.
Meanwhile, searches Sunday night on VRBO.com and HomeAway.com for eclipse-weekend homes or cabins for rent in the Carbondale area yielded about a dozen results, almost all at a cost of $1,000 a night or more.
Spaces on the Amtrak trains to Carbondale are limited, but there are plenty of seats on trains to Galesburg, Quincy, and Jefferson City, Missouri -- places with 93 percent or more totality.
Roselle resident Karen Williams is renting an RV -- something she's never done before -- to take her teenage sons and their friends to see the eclipse. They'll park it on a friend's property in southern Illinois.
"This is the last time this summer that we can get away with the kids," she said. "They're definitely excited."