Chicago Travel Guide

USA  #3 in Best Weekend Getaways
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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 Rail regional train system that makes stops throughout downtown Chicago and in neighboring cities and suburbs. You can use public transit to reach the city from both nearby airports. O'Hare International Airport (ORD) sits 18 miles northwest of downtown and can be accessed via the L's Blue Line, and Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) is located about 11 miles southwest of downtown and can be reached using the L's Orange Line. Cabs and ride-hailing services are also available, although high starting rates and extra charges make this option a bit expensive. Parking garage and street parking fees are pricey as well, 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 feet. 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 (there are hundreds of stations around the city). Divvy day passes cost $15; single rides cost $3. If you're visiting during the winter, you'll want to bring plenty of layers to protect you from the notoriously low temperatures, and keep in mind that heavy snowfall can make wintertime biking impossible.

"L" Train

Although most L train stops are elevated as the system's name implies, not all of the Chicago subway network's eight lines run above ground. Identified by colors (red, blue, brown, green, orange, purple, pink and yellow), the L system provides extensive and speedy service to 145 stations around town (including the city's two airports). Two L lines – the Blue Line between downtown and O'Hare International Airport and the Red Line that runs north to south through downtown – operate 24 hours a day. Trains along the other six routes typically start running around 4 or 5 a.m. and continue operating until any time between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., depending on the line and the day of the week. Standard one-way fares cost $2.50 per person, but if you're planning to rely on the L, you'll probably want to purchase a one- or multi-day pass. One-day passes are $10, three-day passes cost $20 and seven-day passes will set you back $28. You can also fork over $5 for a Ventra Card, a reloadable transportation card that's valid on both L trains and buses. You can purchase or add money to Ventra Cards at the vending machines found in all L stations.

Bus

Roughly 130 bus routes – plus multiple rush hour express routes – bring travelers to various destinations throughout the city, including many of Chicago's top attractions. 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 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Express routes are only offered on weekdays during rush hour. A single ride will cost $2.50 per person if paid in cash or $2.25 if paid using the Ventra Card. CTA day passes – which range between $10 and $28 depending on the number of days covered – are also valid for use on the bus.

Metra Rail

For trips to the Chicago suburbs, Metra is your most reliable form 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 $4 to $11, depending on the distance traveled. If you plan on using Metra over the weekend, purchase a weekend pass, which allows for unlimited travel on Saturdays and Sundays for $10. Keep in mind that on weekdays, up to three children, ages 7 and younger ride for free; on weekends and holidays, up to three kids ages 11 and younger ride for free, when accompanied by a fare-paying adult. 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 (albeit pricey) way to get around the Loop and to areas beyond downtown. Within the Loop and the Near North Side, you should have no trouble hailing a cab from the street. If you find yourself outside that immediate area, plan on calling for a pick-up since there are fewer cabs about. Meters start at $3.25 with each mile costing $2.25. Extra charges also apply for trips to and from the airports and to and from regions outside of the city's limits. A cheaper alternative is to use a ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft.

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 tourist areas like Chinatown, the Museum Campus and the Loop. Water taxis are only in service from the end of May through September or October (or through November, weather permitting). Fares vary depending on the day, the route and the company.

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. Several apps and websites, including ParkChicago, SpotHero and ParkWhiz, can help mitigate some of that frustration, as they allow you to reserve spots and pay in advance. 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 will likely be icy and snowfall leads to limited visibility.

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