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Getting Around Chicago

The best way to get around Chicago is via public transportation — specifically the "L" train. Operated by the Chicago Transit Authority, the "L" (short for "elevated train") is cheap and easy to use. The CTA also operates an extensive bus system with routes servicing nearly every attraction, but the bus may be difficult for newcomers to navigate. There's also the Metra regional train system that makes stops throughout downtown Chicago. You can use public transit to reach the city from both nearby airports. O'Hare International Airport (ORD) sits just less than 18 miles northwest of downtown and can be accessed via the Blue "L" line, and Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) is located about 11 miles southwest of downtown and can be reached using the Orange "L" line.

You can also opt to take a taxi into and around town; rates start at $2.25 and increase by around $1.80 per mile. Expect a cab ride to O'Hare to cost between $40 and $50, and a ride to Midway to set you back between $30 and $35. With all of these transportation options, you won't need a car. But if you decide you need a set of wheels, rental agencies can be found at both airports.

On Foot & By Bike

Chicago is too big to navigate using only your own two legs. However, the Windy City's individual neighborhoods can easily be explored on foot or by bike. Chicago is laid out on a grid, making it very easy to find your way. And the city's Divvy bike share system allows you to grab a set of wheels whenever you need them. Divvy day passes cost $7; the first 30 minutes of each use is included in the cost of the pass, and you will be charged $2 for the next 30 to 60 minutes, $6 for an additional 60 to 90 minutes, and $8 or more should you continue to use the same bike for every additional 30 minutes beyond that.

If you're visiting during the winter, you'll want to bring plenty of layers to protect you from the notoriously low temperatures. Also, heavy snowfall can make wintertime biking impossible.

"L" Train

Although "L" train stands for "elevated train," not all of the Chicago subway system's eight lines run above ground level. Identified by colors (red, blue, brown, green, orange, purple, pink and yellow), the "L" system provides extensive and speedy service to 144 stations around town (including the city's two airports). Two "L" lines — the Blue Line between downtown and O'Hare Airport and the Red Line that runs north to south through downtown — operate 24 hours a day. Trains along the other six routes start running around 4 or 5 a.m. with service continuing until any time between midnight or 2 a.m., depending on the line and the day. The standard one-way fare is $2.25 per person, but if you're planning to rely on the "L," you'll want to purchase a day pass. One-day passes cost $10, three-day passes cost $20 and seven-day passes cost $28. You can also fork over $5 for a Ventra Card, a refillable transportation card that's valid on both the "L" train and the bus. You can purchase or add money Ventra Cards at the vending machines found in all "L" stations.

Bus

Roughly 100 bus routes traverse Chicago, with stops located near every major attraction. Several routes operate 24 hours a day, though like the "L" train, most buses hit the road around 4 or 5 a.m. and call it quits between midnight and 2 a.m. A single ride will cost $2.25 per person if paid in cash and $2 if paid using the Ventra crard; and the CTA's day passes are valid for use on the bus.

Metra Rail

For trips to the Chicago suburbs, Metra is your most reliable for of transportation. The system's 11 lines extend outward from the Loop, making stops in North, East and South Chicago before heading on to nearby communities like Evanston, Aurora, Joliet and University Park. The system is divided into zones, with fares determined by the number of zones you travel through: a one-way ride costs anywhere from $2.75 to $9.25, depending on the distance traveled. If you plan on using Metra over the weekend, purchase a weekend pass, which allows for unlimited travel for $7. Metra trains operate seven days a week from around 4 a.m. until after midnight (sometimes as late as 2 a.m.), though schedules vary by day and by line.

Taxi Taxis are a convenient way to get around the Loop and to areas beyond downtown. Within the Loop and the Near North, you should have no trouble hailing a cab from the street. And if you find yourself outside that immediate area, you might want to call for a pick-up since there are fewer cabs about. Meters start at $2.25 with each ninth of a mile costing 20 cents (that's around $1.80 per mile). The rate per mile tends to vary depending on the price of fuel, and you will be charged a dollar for the first extra passenger, plus another 50 cents for each additional passenger.
Water Taxi

A fun way to get around central Chicago is by water taxi. Two companies — Shoreline Sightseeing and Chicago Water Taxi — transport visitors along the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, past popular tourists areas like Chinatown, the Museum Campus and the Loop. Water taxis are only in service during the summer, starting in April or May and continuing through September. Fares vary depending on the day, the route and the company, though both service providors offer day passes.

Car If you do decide to use a car, you'll be helped by the city's grid layout. But you should be prepared for extremely limited (and often pricey) parking and heavy traffic during rush hour. If you're visiting during the cold months and do not have much winter driving experience, you'll be better off relying on public transport — roads can be icy and snowfall leads to limited visibility.

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