Our game plan for visiting open-air flea markets helps you make the most of these countryside smorgasbords of furniture and collectibles.
Carol inspects an antique wheel.

Antique Hunting

I've been hooked on flea markets for 20 years, and each visit still brings new thrills. Though there are some basics to help ensure a fun day, anyone can enjoy an open-air market, like the Sandwich (Illinois) Flea Market shown on these pages.

You can find a one-of-a-kind gift, furniture for your house, or fill out--or even start--a collection. Outdoor flea markets are, at the very least, a delightful outing in the country. Breathe fresh air, eat some home-style food and get some exercise.

Following are tips on preparing for your antique hunt, dealing with dealers, looking for hot collectibles, and contacting our favorite Midwest flea markets.

Come Prepared

1. Dress in layers for changing temperatures. Wear comfortable walking shoes, and bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a packable umbrella, just in case. Be casual--you might get dirty carrying items. Bring a foldable tote for small purchases.
2. Wear a vest with pockets, or a fanny pack to hold money, keys and snacks, and to keep your hands free for touching merchandise.
3. Bring tools, such as a tape measure for checking furniture sizes. (Before you go, measure the space where you'll put items, and your trunk, so there aren't any surprises.) A magnet will determine precious metals (it won't stick to them). A small magnifying glass lets you see markings on china and silver.
4. Throw old blankets, newspapers and boxes in your car to pack and protect your purchases on the ride home.

How to Deal with Dealers

Do be polite. I've run into very few dealers who won't negotiate, if you ask in a friendly way.

Don't belittle a price. Dealers might not sell to you if you do.

Do bargain with dealers. Try offering a lower price (generally no more than 20 percent off what's marked). Or ask the dealer for the "very best price," if you're prepared to buy if it's right. Most dealers will come down some to make a sale. Also, dealers generally will offer a group discount for multiple buys.

Do wait until the end of the day to get the very lowest prices, when many dealers want to clear out their inventory, so they don't have to truck it home.

Don't, however, forget that by waiting, you risk losing to an earlier buyer what you want.

Do cultivate good relationships with dealers who can fill you in on the history of an item, hold a purchase for you, and offer free delivery, depending on where you live and what you bought.

Ten Hot Collectibles

1. Toys Old-fashioned fun, especially metal items.
2. Textiles Quilts, chenille, bark cloth, lace and more.
3. Dishware Pottery to transferware china to Jadeite.
4. Containers Wooden boxes, baskets, tins and glass jars.
5. Furniture Nostalgic rockers, chairs, chests, tables, beds. Fine quality to old reproductions.
6. Primitives Handmade items, such as folk art, wooden buckets, rag rugs and furniture.
7. Retro Fifties and Sixties relics, such as kitchenware and old bowling pins.
8. Cottage Vintage floral paintings, ironwork, wicker, white-painted -furniture.
9. Garden Nozzles, sprinklers, watering cans and trellises for display.
10. Architectural Salvaged doorknobs, windows, brackets and columns.

Eleven Must-Attend Flea Markets

ILLINOIS: Kane County Flea Market
At the corner of Randall Road and North Avenue in St. Charles, Illinois, 35 miles west of downtown Chicago.
When Weekends throughout the year, except January and February.
Why we love it All year round, rain or shine. One of the first. More than 500 dealers.
Contact 630/377-2252, kanecountyfleamarket.com

ILLINOIS: The Sandwich Flea Market (where Carol shopped)
Sandwich Fairgrounds, 60 miles west of Chicago, on US-34.
When One Sunday a month, spring through fall.
Why we love it Picturesque fairgrounds, with 100-year-old trees. More than 500 dealers.
Contact 815/786-3337; antiquemarkets.com

INDIANA: Tri-State Antique Market
Lawrenceburg Fairgrounds, US-50, 1 mile west of exit 16 off I-275 (Cincinnati Beltway).
When One Sunday a month, generally May through October
Why we love it Located on the southeast border of Indiana, close to Ohio and Kentucky. 275-300 dealers.
Contact 513/738-7256; queencityshows.com/tristate/tristate.html

IOWA: What Cheer Collector's Paradise Flea Market
Keokuk County Fairgrounds, 20 miles south of I-80 on State-21.
When One weekend in May, August and October
Why we love it Farmland ambience. Bargains! 300-400 dealers.
Contact 641/634-2109; whatcheerfleamarket.com

KANSAS: White Cloud Flea Market
Four miles south of Nebraska state line on County-7.
When One weekend in late spring and one in late summer
Why we love it Historic town in northeast Kansas, on the bluffs of the Missouri River. 300-400 dealers.
Contact 785/595-3381.

MICHIGAN, Centreville Antiques Market
Centreville Fairgrounds, State-86.
When One Sunday a month, May-October
Why we love it Located in the Amish community surrounding Centreville. More than 300 dealers.
Contact 269/467-8935; centrevillefair.com

MINNESOTA: Cambridge Antique Fair
Isanti County Fairgrounds, 40 miles north of the Twin Cities.
When One weekend in August.
Why we love it Good food, good selection. 325 dealers.
Contact 651/735-0113; north-trek.com.

MISSOURI: Antiques On The Common
Greenwood, 25 minutes southeast of Kansas City.
When One Saturday in May and in September
Why we love it Small in size, but charming, with live music. 75 dealers.
Contact 816/537-7822; antiquesonthecommonshow.com

NEBRASKA: Lexington Spring Fling Antiques Market
Dawson County Fairgrounds, center of the state, north off I- 80.
When: Memorial Day weekend.
Why we love it Smaller, but great location. 150 dealers.
Contact 308/234-4354

OHIO: Springfield Antique Show and Flea Market Extravaganzas
Clark County Fairgrounds, exit 59 off I-70.
When Three weekends, in May, July and September
Why we love it Absolutely huge! Around 2,500 dealers.
Contact 937/325-0053; springfieldantiqueshow.com

WISCONSIN: Elkhorn Antique Flea Market
Walworth County Fairgrounds, nine miles northwest of Lake Geneva.
When One Sunday in May, June, August and September
Why we love it Under the trees in scenic farm country. 600 dealers.
Contact 414-525-0820; nlpromotionsllc.com

Most quality antique flea markets ban recent reproductions or new products. Most dealers accept cash or checks; some take credit cards. Many larger shows offer furniture delivery services, clean restrooms, seating areas, food, an ATM and on-site medical assistance. Most admit small children free. Call beforehand if you have questions.

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2004.)