You don’t need a big bank account to revel Chicago‘s cultural coolness. Accommodation will cost you, but the oodles of free activities, discounted ticketing system, and relatively low cost of food and transport help keep overall costs in check.
Here are our top tips for stretching your money in the Windy City.
Find out which airport in Chicago is the cheapest
Chicago has two airports: O’Hare and Midway. Low-cost airlines serve both and transport costs to the city center are similar, although Midway is slightly cheaper as it’s a few miles closer. Generally, budget airlines Spirit and JetBlue fly to O’Hare, Southwest and Allegiant fly to Midway, and Frontier flies to both. O’Hare is also a hub for United and American Airlines, which often offer cheap flights into the city.
Take the L train from the airport
Both airports have easy access to downtown via public transportation — particularly the L train — which costs $5 and takes 40 minutes from O’Hare and $3 and takes 30 minutes from Midway.
O’Hare has its own Blue Line station, while Midway has its own Orange Line station. Trains depart from both approximately every 10 minutes. This option is much cheaper than taxis, Ubers, or Lyfts, which cost ten times more and take almost as long given Chicago’s heavy traffic.
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Use Chicago’s public transit system to get around
The parking fees quickly put a strain on your wallet. Downtown street meters cost $7 an hour, while garages average about $40 a day. Plus, driving in the busy city is maddening – public transit is the way to go.
Chicago’s L train system has eight color-coded lines that will take you to most attractions and neighborhoods. Buses make up the gap in areas the L misses.
Ready for a bargain? A Day pass with unlimited travel costs $5, valid on all trains and buses. Buy it at any L station (including airports) or through the Ventra app. You can also buy a battery Ventra cardsaving approximately $0.50 per trip versus one-way tickets for one-time trips.
Board a water taxi
Chicago’s architectural boat tours are very popular, no wonder. It’s fantastic to glide along the river and stare up at lofty skyscrapers. But if you can’t shell out $40 or more on a guided tour, don’t worry. That Chicago water taxi runs along the river and costs about $10 for a day pass.
Boats travel from the Michigan Avenue Bridge to Madison Street and on to Chinatown, so you still feel like the wind is blowing through your hair.
Visit in spring or fall to save money
Summer (June through August) is Chicago’s peak season, when accommodation can be more expensive. Winter (December to March) is the best time to travel, but the cold and snow are not very inviting. Spring and fall are good off-season times when great deals and good weather coincide.
Consider staying in a hostel
Chicago has a lot of high quality. The Steadfast HI Chicago is right in the heart of downtown. Wrigley hostel Parties hard near the North Side Baseball Park. Chicago Getaway hostel has been accommodating travelers in the social Lincoln Park neighborhood for years.
In the meantime, Freehand Chicago, Hotel found and Selina Chicago are hostel-hotel hybrids full of bars that have recently opened on the northern edge of downtown.
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Look for accommodation beyond the core
Move away from the Loop, Near North, Gold Coast, and West Loop—Chicago’s hotel-crowded central districts—and rates tend to be lower. Try neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Lake View, both north of downtown and packed with bars and restaurants, and Wicker Park, northwest of downtown, near vibrant nightlife and shopping.
Cool areas that are even cheaper include Logan Square, Pilsen, the Ukrainian Village and Andersonville. Most accommodation in these remote areas is rental housing, so you can save extra money by catering for some of your meals. It’s important to be close to an L station though, so make sure you know that before booking.
Stroll through a market
Farmers’ markets pop up across town from May through October, offering inexpensive snacks. Green City Market offers the widest selection from pies to pickles to pasta on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Lincoln Park. That Logan Square Market adds live music to its range of fruit, vegetables and ready meals on Sundays. The downtown DaleyPlaza breaks out Thursdays with fresh Amish produce and baked goods.
And although it’s more of a flea market than a farmer’s market, on Sundays Maxwell Street Market has become a hotspot for foodies craving homemade churros, tamales, and other Mexican dishes.
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Look for cheap restaurants in Pilsen, Chinatown, Uptown and Humboldt Park
Several neighborhoods are particularly good for cheap eats, with plenty of quality cafes and mom-and-pop restaurants to choose from within walking distance of one another. In Pilsen, Mexican bakeries and taquerias mix with hipster cafes and grill joints along 18th Street. Chinatown along Wentworth Avenue offers a colorful smorgasbord of pie-stocked bakeries and dim sum shops.
Uptown along Argyle Street, Thai and Vietnamese noodle houses steam up the corridor known as “Little Saigon.” And in Humboldt Park along Division Street, cozy eateries serve strong coffee, fried pork, spiced rice and other Puerto Rican specialties.
Find the food trucks
Chicago has a relatively small fleet of food trucks, but those serving rolls serve up delicious tacos, Vietnamese sandwiches, soul food, and more at modest prices. They typically roam office-heavy areas like The Loop and Near North around lunchtime, and nightlife-centric Wicker Park and Lake View in the evening.
On Fridays in the summer, trucks gather at Daley Plaza during the lunch hour. Check Street Food Finder for locations.
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Buy a discount pass to save on attractions
You have a few options that can save you 30% or more on entrance fees. City Pass offers access to five of the city’s top attractions, including the art institute, Shedd Aquarium and Willis Tower Skydeckfor nine consecutive days.
That Go to the Chicago Pass offers around 25 sights, including all museums (except the Art Institute) and various bus and boat tours. You pay a flat fee for one, two, three or five consecutive days and visit as many attractions as you like during that period.
Check out Hot Tix for cheap theater tickets
Hot Tix sells theater tickets for the same week at half price. Drama, comedy, and performing arts venues across the city offer seating, including well-known venues like the Lyrical Opera and Steppenwolf Theater. Book online or in person at the downtown Hot Tix locations at 72 E Randolph Street and 108 N State Street. The earlier in the week you visit, the better the selection.
Know your baseball options
Chicago has two professional baseball teams. That Boys Play on the north side of town at Historic Wrigley field, which charms with its hand-carved scoreboard, neon entrance sign and other old-fashioned little things. That White socks Play on the south side of town at Guaranteed Rate Field, a standard modern stadium.
Tickets for the Cubs are usually much more expensive, although upper reserved infield seats can be reasonably priced. They are high up but have a decent view. For the White Sox, Sunday and Monday tickets usually offer the best deals.
Enjoy free activities
Chicago has a lot of attractions and activities that are 100% free. You don’t pay a dime to hear summer concerts Millennium Parksee great art exhibitions in Chicago Cultural Centerwave at the animals Lincoln Park Zoosmell the flowers Garfield Park ConservatoryTour of the city with Chicago greeter and much more.
Daily Cost in Chicago
- Hostel room: $35-55 (bed in dorm)
- Basic room for two people: $150-275
- Self-Catering Apartment (including Airbnb): $80-175
- Public transit ticket: All-day pass for $5
- Coffee: $3
- Hot dog: $4-5
- Dinner for two: $30-60
- Pint of microbrew at the bar: $7-8