Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and has a spectacular skyline, diverse neighborhoods, a variety of free and paid tourist attractions, and an impressive culinary scene. But while it may not be as expensive as New York, a trip to the Windy City can still burn a hole in your pocket. If you’re visiting Chicago, here are some best ways to save on your trip.
1. Well begun is half done.
The less you spend on reaching Chicago, the more money you have to spend in the city. Budget travel to Chicago is easy with $1 fares on Megabus and under $100 roundtrip tickets on Spirit Airlines and other carriers. Most of these deals are available when booked in advance and for travel on weekdays; if you are flexible with your travel arrangements you can save a lot of money right there. Another way to reduce your travel costs is flying off-season. Winter (excluding the holiday season) and early fall (just after schools are in session) are the best times to visit Chicago on the cheap.
2. Save on the accommodation.
Chicago Loop hotels are not cheap. If you absolutely want to stay near all the attractions, try Couchsurfing, AirBnB, or hostels. You can get incredible Airbnb deals (~$25 for a private room) if you travel on weekdays and off-season. Try Priceline, Hotwire and other online deals sites for discounted hotel rates. Another option is to book a hotel near O’Hare Airport and take the Blue Line or Metra to the city.
3. Walk the Chicago Riverwalk.
Chicago River architecture cruises are popular for a reason — there is no better way to experience Chicago than along the river, learning about the history and architecture of the magnificent skyscrapers as you stroll along a beautifully landscaped promenade. However, you can have the same experience for free by taking a self-guided tour along the Riverwalk. The Chicago Riverwalk is open to pedestrians, leashed pets, and bikers and hosts free concerts, music and street musicians. The Riverwalk also has many dining options or you can pack a to-go lunch and have a picnic along the river.
4. Find the street markets, food trucks, and Happy Hours.
Maxwell Street Market is Chicago’s longstanding Sunday tradition. The street market has bargain shopping options on a variety of apparel, household goods, produce, and unique finds. What makes this market great for visitors is the authentic Mexican food at affordable prices. The mouth-watering variety of tacos, homemade tortillas, quesadillas, gorditas, and horchatas makes this market the best place to sample Mexican food in the Midwest. Chicago also has many other budget meal options.The many food trucks doing the rounds at lunchtime are an excellent alternative to an expensive sit-down meal. You can also take advantage of the many Happy Hour specials at most of the Downtown restaurants for an early dinner.
5. Take the free trolleys.
Visitors can take the free Navy Pier trolley from the Art Institute of Chicago to Navy Pier. The trolley has many stops along the way and is a great way to explore Grant Park, Art Institute of Chicago, Millenium Park and Cloud Gate sculpture, Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier. The trolley runs daily during summer and on weekends throughout the year. Other budget options to get around Chicago include the CTA Day Pass and Water Taxis.
6. Repeat after me: “I won’t spend money at Navy Pier.”
While some people think of Navy Pier as a tourist trap and worth skipping, I beg to differ. The views of both the skyline and Lake Michigan from Navy Pier are incredible and it is possible to see Navy Pier without spending a dollar. Navy Pier has free entry, plenty of free attractions including Crystal Gardens — an indoor glass atrium with water fountains and palm trees, an outdoor park with water fountains, many art sculptures, free fireworks during summer and on special occasions, and fun mirrors. I would suggest walking all the way to the end of the pier to admire the skyline and lake views and to watch boats sailing by.
7. Go to the Zoo (and other free attractions).
Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo is free every day. It has a variety of animals including apes, bears, polar bears, tigers, and other big cats. The nearby Lincoln Park Conservatory is also free to visitors. The conservatory has beautiful orchids, plenty of bright flowers, and is always in bloom. Chicago also has other free attractions which are not as widely known. Families should visit the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryan Education Center for many free kid-friendly activities. At the center’s Art Studio, families can work together on art and take it home for free.
8. See Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chicago.
Architecture aficionados should take a walk through Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District in Oak Park. While the tour of the famous architect’s home and the studio is not free, visitors can stroll through the neighborhood and take a self-guided tour of over a dozen homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The rich collection of residences range from Tudor Revival style and Queen Anne style to the Prairie School of architecture and are excellent examples of the architect’s evolving design style.