Summary: Chicago could be a budget traveler’s dream come true. The city is conveniently located in the middle of the country, it is surrounded by several major airports, has decent rail and road links, and has tons of free and affordable things to do.
Getting in: Getting to Chicago is going to be one of the easier parts of your trip. The city is served by almost every airline in the country (except Virgin America), and flights arrive at O’Hare or Midway airports. Adventurous (and creative) fliers can also fly into Rockford or Milwaukee airports, but the ride to the city may add too much to the cost of your trip.
Chicago may not be the massive rail hub it used to be, but Amtrak still offers rail service from many US cities. A round trip from Denver to Chicago costs about $190 and takes 18 hours. A train ride from San Francisco to Chicago takes 53 hours and costs $290 round trip. These fares may be substantially lower than air travel, but you’ll lose a day (or two) just getting there.
Of course, if you are feeling like a challenge, you could go all Clark Griswald on us, and drive.
Getting around – Making your way around Chicago is pretty simple, the downtown area can be reached from O’Hare with the Blue Line CTA trains, and once you get downtown, you’ll be close to a subway or bus stop almost everywhere you go. A great place to start is the site of the Chicago Transit Authority. Fares are $2.25 each, but unlimited ride passes start at just $5.75 a day.
Where to stay : Expedia has 562 hotels listed for the greater Chicagoland area, but like many big US cities, the closer you stay to the “action”, the more you will pay.
For example; one of the cheapest hotels listed for “Chicago” is a $42/night Days Inn, located in Gurnee, IL. You’ll be quite disappointed when you arrive at this hotel and realize it’s a good 40 miles from downtown Chicago.
Downtown hotels will cost you around $90 a night, just don’t expect too much luxury at that price range.
The cheapest way to stay downtown in Chicago is usually through Priceline. Downtown hotels usually go for about $50 when you use the Priceline “name your price” feature.
A great place to check recent winning bids is betterbidding.com. If you don’t feel comfortable with making a bid for a cheap room, then I can only suggest checking the rates on your favorite hotel booking site, because cheap stays is not something Chicago is known for.
What to see: When it comes to things to do in Chicago, the question is not what to do, but how much time you actually have to see the things you are most interested in. A typical downtown Chicago tourist will usually spend their first day strolling up and down Michigan Avenue. Between all the stores are a couple of impressive landmarks.
The Chicago Water Tower was one of just a handful of buildings that survived the great Chicago fire of 1871. The Water Tower is also home to the Chicago visitors center, where you’ll be able to snag some discount coupons for local attractions. Other “must see” attractions on the budget traveler’s list are:
- Navy Pier – the pier is the most popular tourist destination in the Midwest. This structure extends about 3,000 feet into Lake Michigan and offers everything from a (boring) food court to a massive outdoor Ferris wheel. Navy Pier is also home to an Imax theater, the Chicago Children’s Museum and a large indoor garden. Access to Navy Pier itself is free, and during the winter quite a nice place to hang out. During the summer months you’ll find plenty of outdoor seating as well as weekly outdoor events. The Children’s museum at Navy Pier offers free admission every Thursday evening from 5-8pm, and free kids (<15) admission every first Monday of the month.
- Field Museum – The Field Museum of Natural History is a must see for anyone wanting to get up close and personal with Sue, the worlds largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex. She’s setup right in the middle of the main hall. Admission to the museum itself is sadly not very budget friendly and starts at $15 per person, up to $29 for their “platinum pass”. There are however 52 days a year when you can get free general admission.
- Shedd Aquarium – This aquarium is one of the most impressive in the world, at one point it was the largest, and most visited aquarium in the country. A total of over 32,000 different animals are on display, from over 2,000 different species. The aquarium admission is a fairly steep $17.95 for adults, so keep an eye on their discount schedule for 2009.
- Hancock Center / Sears Tower – Either one of these Chicago skyscrapers is a great place to relax for a bit. You’ll grab the elevator to 1,030 feet (Hancock Center) or 1,353 feet (Sears Tower). Once you are up there, there is no rush to leave, and you’ll be able to spend some time looking down at all the other fun things you can do. Admission is pretty high ($15 for the Hancock and $12.95 for the Sears Tower).
- Millennium Park – If you are planning to visit the Windy City during the not-so-cold months, then a trip to Millennium Park is a great way to spend some time. The park has evolved into the heart of the downtown cultural area. During the summer, there is always something going on in one of the various pavilions. One of the best ways to get around the park (and the rest of the downtown area), is with a bike rental at the McDonalds cycle center. Rentals start at $8/hour. The cycle center is also where you’ll be able to participate in a guided bike tour of the lakefront.
- Goose Island Brewery – Thirsty and in need of something to do? Check out the Goose Island Clybourn brew pub and tour. You can get a guided tour of the facility every Sunday at 3pm and 4:30pm. The $5 tour fee includes a tasting of their fantastic Chicago-born ales and lagers.
- Lincoln Park Zoo – The Lincoln Park Zoo is located just off Lake Shore Drive, and is open 365 days a year. The best part about this zoo is that admission is free. You’ll find lions, polar bears and a fantastic kid-friendly zoo pavilion on the campus, as well as a large bird house. Because of the weather in Chicago, many of the exhibits are indoors.
- Chicago Water Taxi – The water taxi runs from Michigan Avenue to Chinatown (and back), and rides are just $2 each. The first ride starts at 6:30am (9:45am on weekends) and the last ride is around 6pm. Their $4 “all day” pass is the best way to ride up and down the river and get some fantastic chances for some photos. Due to ice in the river, the service won’t start till March.
You’ll have noticed that most attractions in Chicago are not always very budget friendly. If you plan to visit as many things as you can, you’ll often be better off with a Chicago Citypass. $59 gets you free access to the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium and either the Hancock Center or Sears Tower observatory decks. The admissions usually include at least one premium exhibit and is valid for 9 days from the day of first use.
Places to eat: Chicago natives, look away. My recommendations for places to eat are mostly touristy places, but unlike some other major cities, the tourist eateries in Chicago are by no means a tourist trap.
- Billy Goat Tavern – This legend of a restaurant has always been famous in Chicago, but it became famous worldwide thanks to a skit on SNL. Remember Cheezborger, no Pepsi, Coke! and no fries, Cheeps? Head to their original location at lower Michigan Avenue for the authentic experience.
- The Vienna Beef factory store – No visit to Chicago is complete without at least 2 or 3 Chicago-style hot dogs…and where better to eat a dog, than the restaurant attached to the place where they are made? Vienna Beef dogs are the quintessential Chicago food. Order your dog the way it was meant to be – with neon relish, mustard, onions, slices of tomato, a pickle, sport peppers and a light sprinkle of celery salt. Make sure you pay attention to the warning on the wall – ketchup is “illegal” on hot dogs in Chicago for anyone over the age of 12.
- The Wiener’s Circle – This eatery is a “must visit” in Chicago. Think “Soup Nazi”, but with hot dogs. Avoid going here during the day, it’s much more fun late at night on a weekend. The restaurant is currently closed due to some “minor” health code violations, but do not let that scare you away from going there once it opens again. Remember to order a chocolate milkshake!
- Pizza – Make sure to grab a slice of authentic Chicago pizza. There are several decent restaurants serving the real thing, my personal favorites would be Lou Malnati’s (order your pizza with buttercrust) or Giordano’s. These restaurants will serve individual deep dish pizza for about $6. Make sure to put aside up to 45 minutes for your pizza to be baked.
- Heaven on Seven – Authentic Louisiana food in downtown Chicago? You bet. Chef Jimmy Bannos makes a killer gumbo, even better jalapeno cheddar corn muffins and a Cajun ice tea that is so potent, they limit you to one. I’ll admit that the place is not the most budget friendly joint in town, but $12 will get you a cup of gumbo and a huge chicken Po’ Boy sandwich. Trust me on the gumbo though – don’t leave without ordering it. Real fans will be happy to know that will gladly sell you the stuff by the gallon.