Here are 10 tips to make a trip to the Windy City easy to afford.
© Beth Gauper
Check Hot Tix for discount tickets to productions in the downtown theater district.
Chicago is on a roll. Millennium Park is wildly popular, and the city has been crowned the western White House.
But long before Barack Obama made Chicago cool by association, people had noticed that it's a whole lot of fun. These days, tourists have to compete with hordes of conventioneers and suburbanites fleeing back to the city. Prices, of course, have gone up.
But Chicago is a populist town, and there's lots to do for free. Here are 10 tips for making a trip affordable.
For more tips, see Pinching pennies in
1. Go when business people and vacationers don't. Hotels are cheapest in Chicago on the week before Christmas and in
the depths of winter.
I've also gotten very good deals on the long Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends and in late October (avoid the Chicago Marathon in mid-October).
2. Get there cheap. The Megabus still costs only $1 each way, if you book early enough, though $20-$60 is more typical.
3. Stay cheap. The Hostelling International family hostel in the South
Loop, three blocks from the Art Institute at Congress and Wabash, is quite posh, with pancake happy hours, an Internet room
and a carpeted great room with foosball, ping-pong and a pool table. Volunteers takes guests on forays around town.
In 2006, 2007 and 2009, it was voted Best Large Hostel Worldwide. Beds are $29-$38 per person, including a breakfast for bagels, muffins, cereal and fruit, and there's a kitchen where guests can cook for themselves.
For more, see At home in a hostel.
If you want to stay in a hotel, the key is to avoid going when a big convention is in town; when planning a trip, first check the Chicago convention calendar. A quick look at Hot Rooms also will give you an idea of what rates will be.
In slow times (see No. 1), you can use Priceline to
get rooms in three- and four-star hotels for as little as $50 to $70.
Or exchange your
home for one there. That saves not only the hotel rate, but the hotel tax of 16.5 percent.
© Beth Gauper
Watch for free days at Shedd Aquarium and other popular museums.
Check Choose Chicago's Always Free
On Michigan Avenue, across from the John Hancock Building, the beautiful, neo-Gothic Fourth Presbyterian Church offers free noontime concerts on Fridays year-round.
Metromix Chicago lists lots of festivals, many in the neighborhoods, and most are free.
6. Use coupons. If you plan to visit the big museums, buy a CityPass, $94 and good for nine days. It provides general and special-exhibit admissions to Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, Skydeck Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry or Hancock Observatory and Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute.
Before you visit, subscribe to Groupon, LivingSocial and other deals for Chicago, or the Chicago Dealradar digest. Many offers are aimed at locals, but some are for theater
tickets and tours, and there are lots of restaurant deals.
For more, see Cornucopia of coupons.
The Entertainment books for Chicago North and Chicago South & West aren't as good as it used to be, but check the offers if you'll be doing serious sightseeing and eating.
They start at $35 in fall, and the price drops as the year progresses. Buy online for such bonuses as free shipping, a $25
restaurant coupon and/or two books for the price of one.
7. Eat cheap. It's not hard. Along Michigan Avenue, look for Cosi, the Corner Bakery, Panda Express and Chipotle;
you can eat well for less than $10 at all of them.
At the foot of the John Hancock Tower, try L’Appetito, a great but unassuming Italian deli at the foot of the John
On the mezzanine level of Water Tower Place, eat at foodlife, a bazaar of
made-to-order kiosks. But be careful; the food has so much eye appeal it's easy to run up the bill, recorded on a magnetic
8. Use public transit. It's easy to use the CTA, which operates subway/El trains and buses. Get a Visitors Pass, $5
for one day, $9 for two and $12 for three.
They're for sale at airports (also museums, Navy Pier and visitors centers), and you can order the passes from the Chicago Transit Authority.
9. Go to museums on discount days. The big museums used to have one free day a week, but now they vary their schedules, except for the Art Institute of Chicago, which is free on Thursday evenings.
Mondays and Tuesdays in the off-season (which doesn't include December) are good bets, but sometimes museums schedule entire
free weeks. There's a handy list of
free days, mostly for Illinois residents, at Choose Chicago.
Because waits already are long at the Museum of Science and Industry, it may be best
to avoid free day there.
10. Have a Chicago Greeter show you around. Volunteer Greeters offer
free tours of Chicago neighborhoods; reserve seven to 10 days in advance. There's also an Insta-Greeter service available at
For more about architecture tours, neighborhood food tours, ethnic neighborhoods, bicycling on the Lakefront Trail, the Christmas season and traveling with kids, see Chicago stories.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.