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How to Travel to Chicago on a Budget

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How To Travel to Chicago With a Limited Budget

A vacation in Chicago is always a good idea, but it’s not always easy on the wallet. When you add up the cost of hotels, meals out and admission to attractions, it’s easy to think Chicago is expensive. But don’t worry: it’s completely possible to visit Chicago on a budget without missing out on all of the culture and excitement the city has to offer.

Check out our guide to exploring Chicago on a budget before you pack your bags!

Set Your Budget

The most important part of traveling to Chicago on a budget is knowing what that budget is. Before you book a flight, choose a hotel or create your itinerary, decide how much you want to spend on the trip. Use those numbers as a guide for deciding how long to stay and what to do while you’re there.

The following expenses will likely make up the biggest budget considerations for your trip to Chicago:

  • Transportation costs: This includes not only the cost to get to Chicago, but also the costs of getting around the city while you’re there. Budget for cab fares or public transportation costs. If you’re driving, figure it the cost of parking — it won’t be free, even at your hotel. Parking spots downtown are also limited, especially in winter.
  • Accommodations: Another significant chunk of the budget is your hotel room. Make sure you shop around a bit for something that’s within your budget. If you’re feeling adventurous, consider alternatives like Airbnb.
  • Food: You need to eat while you’re on vacation, and Chicago has no shortage of amazing food. Restaurants are available at all price points, so knowing how much you have to spend on food helps you select the Chicago restaurants you want to enjoy.
  • Attractions: Many Chicago attractions come with an admission fee. That fee varies significantly from one attraction to the next. Doing some research on the attractions you want to see can help you determine which ones are a good match for your budget.
  • Shopping: Chicago has some amazing stores, from upscale retailers on the Magnificent Mile to unique, locally owned shops. If you plan to do any shopping while you’re in the city, don’t forget to set aside some money for your purchases.
  • Souvenirs: You’ll want to bring home some special mementos of your time in the city, so don’t forget to budget for souvenirs!

You'll have some big budget concerns.

Once you decide how much you want to spend in total, you can divide that money up between the different expenses. Don’t forget to leave yourself a buffer for those unexpected outlays that may pop up. It’s easy to give in to temptation once you arrive, but stick to your budget as much as possible.

Paying for admission ahead of time is a great way to minimize spending. Another option is to sort out cash for various expenses so you can physically see how much money you have left.

Timing Your Trip

Chicago offers budget-friendly activities all year ‘round, but certain times of the year offer greater discounts on things like transportation and hotels. Summer is the busiest time in Chicago in terms of visitors and conventions, and more visitors typically mean higher costs. The visitor numbers tend to taper off in fall and decrease significantly in the winter months.

Summer In Chicago

In general, hotels tend to offer the cheapest rates during those less busy winter months when there aren’t as many visitors in the city. Of course, we’re known for our cold and snowy winters, so keep in mind that most of your activities should take place indoors if you head to Chicago in the winter. If you plan to spend much of your time outdoors, pack a heavy parka, mittens, hats and boots so you don’t freeze!

The lower number of tourists during the off-season can also help you get around faster, which lets you maximize your time in Chicago. You can pack a lot into a shorter period of time when you don’t have to wait in long lines at museums or wait for a table at restaurants.

Summer tends to be the busiest time of year for tourists — it can be challenging to find an affordable hotel room during June, July and August. Those more affordable hotels tend to fill up quickly during those times, so plan ahead to get the best rates if your plans take you to Chicago during that time period.

How Long to Visit

The length of your trip to Chicago is one of the biggest factors in determining the overall cost. Hotel accommodations take up a large chunk of the budget, so the more nights you stay, the more you’re spending. Food costs also add up quickly the longer you stay in Chicago.

A long weekend in the city lets you get a good taste of Chicago without spending a fortune on hotels and food. You’ll need to pick a few highlights and understand that you won’t see a lot of the city if you only stay for a few days. Rest assured, though, that even if you stay a week, you won’t be able to come close to covering all the city has to offer.

A long weekend is a great way to see Chicago.

If you can extend your visit a few more days, you’ll have more time to do all of the great free and low-cost activities available.

Saving on Hotels

Your hotel stay is likely going to be one of the largest expenses when visiting Chicago, so if you can cut costs here, you’ll save on your overall budget.

You’ll find many hotels right in downtown Chicago. You may pay a little more for these hotels, but they give you easy access to the attractions you want to see. You can often walk to various museums, parks and attractions. Staying close to the action also saves you time, which means you can pack in more free activities in a shorter vacation than you would if you traveled from a hotel in the suburbs.

Downtown Hotel Accomodations

Use these tips to save on your Chicago accommodations:

  • Start searching early: When you search ahead of time, you increase your chances of finding a great deal on the dates you want. Check many different hotels, since rates change frequently and you never know who might have a great deal.
  • Keep your dates flexible: If possible, keep your travel dates flexible to take advantage of the best rates. You may find moving your trip a few weeks earlier or later saves you a significant amount on your hotel room.
  • Search online deal sites: Sites like Groupon and Living Social often have deals on hotel rooms. This can make the room even cheaper than it would be if you booked directly from the hotel.
  • Compare total costs: The room rate isn’t the only thing to consider. Most Chicago hotels charge for parking, so if you’ll have a vehicle, it’s important to compare those fees. The amenities also vary. If you won’t be needing a pool or other marquee features during your stay, you may find a basic hotel without them at a cheaper rate.
  • Check on transportation: Some hotels may offer free transportation to and from the airport or to area attractions. This feature can save you money on your transportation costs, which in turn saves more money for other activities.
  • Go outside the Loop: The Loop and River North neighborhoods are very popular and are close to many well-known attractions, but hotels tend to be more expensive there. Venturing a little further into other Chicago neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Park, can mean cheaper hotel rates. Since the Chicago public transportation system is so good, it doesn’t take much to get from your hotel to the attractions you plan to visit.
  • Try Airbnb: An alternative to the traditional hotel route is to book a room with Airbnb. You can often find very affordable options through this service. It can also give you a more authentic vacation if you’re looking to really get into the Chi-town feel.
  • Consider hostels: Europe is best known for its hostels, but Chicago also has several hostel options if you’re open to the arrangement. HI Chicago is one such hostel with many amenities, including free Wi-Fi and breakfast. The location is close to many museums and other popular attractions. This option is best for those who don’t mind giving up some privacy to save money.

Getting to Chicago

If you live in the Midwest, driving to Chicago can save you a significant amount of money, particularly if you have a large family or travel group. Depending on your route, you may come across some toll roads. If you stay at a downtown Chicago hotel, expect to pay a daily fee to park your vehicle. When deciding whether to fly or drive, add up the costs of driving plus the cost of gas to determine how much you can save.

If you want to fly, you have the advantage of two Chicago airports. Compare airfare to both Midway and O’Hare to find the best rates. O’Hare is the larger of the two, so there are more flight options. However, Midway tends to have more discount airlines flying into it, so you may find cheaper rates there.

Skip the rental car and take the L to your hotel if you fly into Chicago. The L connects both airports to downtown and is an affordable option to get to your hotel.

Skip the rental car and take the L.

Another discount travel option for some Chicago visitors is the Megabus. This is an express route service to Chicago from several different cities. The fares are typically low, but they vary significantly depending on when you go. Having flexible dates can help you find the lowest Megabus fares.

Getting Around on the Cheap

Once you’re here, you’ll need to think about transportation. Chicago has plenty of cabs, but those fares can really add up in a hurry. Fortunately, we also have a robust public transportation system that’s affordable for travel in the city and to many suburbs.

The L train, or the elevated train, is a popular option with many stops throughout the city. You can get close to most activities if you find the right stop. The bus system is another option.

If you plan to use public transportation a lot while you’re in the city, a pass from the CTA may save you some money. You can get passes for 1, 3, 7 and 30 days.

Get a CTA pass!

If you stay near the attractions you plan to visit, you don’t have to pay a thing for transportation. Instead, walk to your destination! You get to see more of the city while you save on your budget. Plus: free exercise!

Driving yourself to various attractions is not a practical option in Chicago. Parking is very limited in most areas, so you’ll likely waste time even finding a spot. Once you do find one, expect to pay a premium for it. Every time you go somewhere new, you’ll have to pay another parking fee. Public transportation offers a much more affordable approach.

Free Activities in Chicago

Some museums and attractions in Chicago can be quite pricy, but the city also offers plenty of free options that let you soak it all in. Many smaller museums with a particular focus offer free admission or have a suggested donation. These attractions give you a more intimate look at Chicago and what it has to offer. They often give you an inside look at the city’s cultural scene.

Add these free Chicago activities to your itinerary to save money:

  • Lincoln Park Zoo
  • Millennium Park, home of the famed Bean sculpture
  • Garfield Park Conservatory (requested donation at the door)
  • Museum of Contemporary Photography
  • Navy Pier (attractions do cost admission, but you can walk around the pier for free)
  • Chicago Cultural Center
  • Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain
  • Window shopping the Magnificent Mile
  • National Museum of Mexican Art
  • The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (suggested donations accepted)
  • Cambodian American Heritage Museum
  • Public beaches
  • Walk along the Lakefront Trail
  • Chicago Riverwalk
  • Chicago Design Museum
  • National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture
  • City Gallery at the Historic Water Tower
  • Hyde Park Art Center
  • Lincoln Park Conservatory
  • Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago
  • DANK Haus German American Cultural Center

Go to the Lincoln Park Zoo!

If you travel to Chicago during the summer months, you’ll find several festivals, parades and special events throughout the neighborhoods in the city. Many of those events offer free admission. Others charge a small admission fee, which still makes these events an affordable way to experience the city like a local.

Some of the free festivals include:

  • Grant Park Music Festival from June to August
  • Chicago Blues Festival in June
  • Chicago Gospel Music Festival in June
  • Taste of Chicago in July
  • Chicago Jazz Festival in August
  • Chicago Air and Water Show in August
  • World Music Festival in September
  • Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago in October

Blues Festivals are free!

Ways to Save on Higher-Priced Activities

Chicago has a number of museums and attractions that come with an admission fee, including the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium. While the cost for one person may not seem that high, the costs add up significantly for larger groups or families. There’s no denying that some of the higher-priced activities are amazing and worthy of a visit, and you’ll be happy to know it’s possible to fit in these more expensive activities without totally breaking your budget.

Use these tips to save money on those higher-priced activities:

  • Buy tickets ahead of time: Most places allow you to buy your tickets ahead of time online, and those pre-purchases often come at a discounted rate. Another perk is the fact that you can skip the long line to buy tickets at the gate.
  • Stick to the basic experience: Many of the museums offer different ticket prices based on what you do. For example, the Museum of Science and Industry offers general museum entry at an affordable price. However, they also have special experiences, such as an onboard tour of the U-505 submarine, Omnimax films and a coal mine tour that come at an additional cost.

    Sticking with the base ticket still gives you the experience and access to most of the exhibits while making the stop more affordable.

  • Use a discount card: The CityPASS and the Go Chicago Card are two ways to see some of the major Chicago attractions at a discount. CityPASS is a ticket booklet with admission to the Art Institute of Chicago or Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, Skydeck Chicago, Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry or 360 Chicago. You save a significant amount of money over ticket prices at the gate and you get to skip the lines.

    The Go Chicago Card is similar, but it gives you the option to choose from more than 25 Chicago attractions, so you can customize it based on your plans.

  • Check for free admission days: Many Chicago museums offer occasional free admission days. These events are often only available to Illinois residents, but it’s always a good idea to check with the attractions you’re considering to determine if you might qualify, whether you live in Illinois or not.
  • Choose what interests you: Many museums and attractions in Chicago are world-renowned and interesting to anyone. However, when you’re working on a limited budget, take the time to consider what really interests you. If you’re a huge art fan, the Art Institute of Chicago is a good investment. If you’re not that interested in art, skip that stop on this trip. Just because an attraction makes all of the must-see travel lists doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for your interests and budget.

Additional Tips for Visiting Chicago on a Budget

With all of the free and low-cost options, you really can experience the city on a budget without missing out on the buzz, culture and entertainment Chicago is known for. Some additional tips to save on your Chicago trip include:

  • Choose one or two headliners: When you plan your itinerary, choose one or two main activities that may cost a little more. This gives you a chance to experience something like the Museum of Science and Industry or the Field Museum without completely blowing the budget.
  • Schedule a Chicago Greeter tour: This free service pairs you with a volunteer who takes you on a two- to four-hour free guided tour of Chicago. The tour can be customized based on your interests. The service requires registering at least 10 business days before your tour, but they also have InstaGreeters who offer a one-hour tour of downtown without advanced registration.
  • Save on food: Sure, Chicago has its fair share of high-end eateries with big price tags, but the city also offers plenty of affordable food options. You can get a Chicago-style hotdog on a budget and experience one of the city’s most famous food options. Look for local delis and small eateries for the best prices in town.
  • Check for deals: Before you go, check online for special deals. Groupon and Living Social are two good options for getting discount admission to attractions and discount rates at restaurants.
  • Look for alternatives: Concerts, theater productions and other performances can be quite expensive. Instead, look for smaller-scale productions, such as community theaters or bars hosting local bands, that will save you a significant amount of money. Oftentimes, the talent of the performers is just as good as the higher-priced shows.
  • Venture beyond the loop: Chicago has a hugely eclectic array of neighborhoods full of culture and entertainment. Don’t be afraid to venture beyond the Loop to find the best of those neighborhoods. Many areas have a heavy influence from a particular ethnic group, which gives you a well-rounded view of what makes Chicago so unique.

Venture beyond the loop!

Have you packed your bags yet? Chicago may be a large city, but it’s completely possible to experience it on a budget. While you’re here, don’t forget to experience the world-famous Chicago pizza! Giordano’s has you covered in that department. With locations throughout the city, you’ll have no trouble finding a Giordano’s to satisfy your deep-dish craving!