True Minnesota State Fair lovers aren't about to let pricey gas and a lousy economy get in the way of their Pronto Pup and a trip to the horse barn. Some of you, however, may think you can't afford the fair this year.

The fair knew you'd be concerned. So it didn't raise ticket prices for admission, shows or rides. It also sent a letter to vendors suggesting creative pricing such as family packs, buy-one-get-one-free offers and sample-size portions.

An unabashed State Fair fan, I want to make sure you know about all the money-saving tricks and don't-miss freebies. I thought, who better to ask than State Fair employees?

"Fair employees are diehards," communications manager Brienna Schuette said. "They love to save money out here because they're here so much."

Plan wisely. The fair has several special discount days that can save you money on admission, rides, concessions or transportation. The fair's website (www.mnstatefair.org) has a wealth of information to help you plan your visit around discounts, make note of freebies and budget for your favorite items.

Clip your coupons. The first words out of nearly every fair employee's mouth were: "Blue Ribbon Bargain Book."

"I go through this thing whenever I get a spare moment before the fair starts and I tab every coupon I'm going to use," Schuette said.

Spend $4 pre-fair at Cub Foods or $5 at the fair for this coupon book, which Schuette said has the 100 best deals at the fair that promise to save consumers at least 30 percent on everything from milkshakes to State Fair posters. Competition to get into the book is fierce; the fair turns away vendors each year.

Buy in advance. Purchase your fair tickets in advance and pay $8, not $11 (kids younger than 5 are always free). Pre-fair Mighty Midway and Kidway ride and game tickets will save you big bucks as well, says Pam Mix, who helps hire 2,800 fair employees each year. Buy the tickets at Cub Foods or check www.mnstatefair.org for outstate dealers.

Don't drive. Take the bus, or bike instead. "It's a super way to go to save cash. You can cut down on gas," said Nate Dungan, who books the entertainment for the fair's free stages. Park and ride for free instead of paying $9 to park. Or you can hop on a State Fair Express bus for $5 round-trip (four-year-olds and younger ride for free)

Hop on Transit Day is Aug. 27, with $3 round-trip express bus service. Bus riders that day (not park and ride) will also get a $2-off coupon for a regular-price admission ticket.

Focus on the freebies. Last year, I collected several reusable bags that I now tote with me to the grocery store. "It's all about the bag around here," Schuette said.

You need something to carry your free stuff in, after all. The Education building has enough free pencils to stuff any school-kid's backpack. And although I've never won, I can't help but sign up for the giveaways.

Take a look at the fair's "Deals, Drawings and GiveawaysGuide" for a list of freebies -- from seeds from the Minnesota State Lottery to a carabiner with a compass from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Check out the touring promotional exhibits for free toothpaste, beef jerky samples and coupons galore.

Pack a lunch. To some, the fair is all about food, so what's the point in going if not to stuff yourself silly? But if, for you, the fair is just as much about checking out the exhibits and watching pigs being born, office manager Carol Doyle suggests carting in snacks, drinks or a brown bag lunch to keep you satisfied, then splurge on a treat or two throughout the day.

Divide and conquer. Emily Kocian, who works with the horse show, splits food with her sisters. "Our favorite thing to do is buy a big bucket of cookies and go sit by the all-you-can-drink milk booth," she said.

Set limits. "I definitely have a budget -- I'm a college student," said Amy Burt, who works in the livestock competition office. "I say about $5 a day."

She packs a lunch and uses that money for "one fair food a day." Also, the fair's "Deals" guide has the "A Buck and Under" list. You can buy everything from shrimp cocktail to cheese sticks to sweet potato pie for only $1.

How do you save at the fair? Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or kara@startribune.com