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Chicago travel guide for budget travelers

skyline Chicago travel guide

The Budget Travel Guides are travel tips to help you save money and enrich your travel experiences.  As one of the most beautiful cities in the US, Dan Patterson shares this Chicago travel guide filled with activities, ways to connect with locals, and money saving tips for the windy city.

In this Chicago travel guide you’ll learn all about how to make the most of your trip to Chicago, the Windy City. You’ll learn about some of the less-expensive ways to get around town, where the attractions are, and other things to do while you’re in Chicago.

Chicago travel guide for budget travelers

So get out your notebook and start taking notes, because this Chicago travel guide is going to give you a lot of information to make your stay in Chicago the best.

Chicago transportation

Chicago transportation Chicago travel guideJust like any major city, taxis are plentiful in Chicago. While they are incredibly convenient and will take you anywhere you want to go, they are also the expensive option.

Here are a few alternatives to consider rather than taking the taxi.


The best way to see Chicago is by walking it’s streets. If you take the time to plan your trip in advance, you can pick a hotel that is close to all of the main things you want to see and do. This gives you the option to get out and walk around rather than spending money on other forms of transportation. You’ll be glad you did.

“L” Trains

With 144 rail stations all over town, the “L” trains run by the Chicago Transit Authority are one of the most cost-effective ways to get around Chicago. Not all of the trains are “elevated.” The Chicago Transit Authority runs above-ground, street-level, and subway trains as well as more than 100 bus routes to help you get where you need to go.

A single bus ride is only $2.25. You can also pick up a Transit Card for bus and rail rides to make it even more convenient as well. You can pick them up at the rail station vending machines and Chicago Visitor Information Centers.

If you know you’re going to be using the transit a lot, you can also pick up 1, 3 and 7 day CTA passes for the best rates. These passes are available at select Currency Exchanges, Jewel and Dominick’s grocers, and CVS and Walgreens stores.

Water Taxis

If you’re going to be seeing a lot of sights on the waterfront a fun way to get around is on a water taxi. Single rides range from $3.00-8.00 or you can get a day pass for $11.00-29.00.

During the warm months of the year water taxis are a popular way to travel between sites like Willis Tower, Michigan Avenue, Chinatown, and more.

Visit chicagowatertaxi.com or shorelinesightseeing.com for more information.


Willis Tower lodging Chicago travel guide

Willis Tower

Like any big city, Chicago is full of hotels to stay in. Because of that, you can always find a place that’s within your budget, and in this Chicago travel guide we’ll help you do it!

One thing to keep in mind is that if you want to get the most out of your stay, you should try and find a hotel that’s close to the attractions and activities that you want to experience. Here are some of the neighborhoods of Chicago and the attractions and hotels you’ll find there.

The Loop and Downtown

The loop is the historic commercial center of downtown Chicago. This area has the Chicago River as it’s north and west border, Lake Michigan on the east, and Roosevelt Road on the south.

If you’re looking to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, Grant Park, Millennium Park, and Willis Tower this is where you should stay.

Hotels include the Congress Plaza Hotel, Wyndham Blake Chicago, Hyatt Regency and more.

Lincoln Park & Wrigleyville

Some of the attractions in this area include the Lincoln Park Zoo, North Avenue Beach, and the music clubs of Lincoln Avenue. And or course, if you’re a Cubs fan (or a baseball fan in general) this is the area where you’ll find the famous Wrigley Field.

Hotels in the area include Hotel Lincoln, The Majestic Hotel, and the Inn at Lincoln Park plus plenty more.

The Magnificent Mile

If you’re coming to Chicago to shop, this is where you want to be. The Magnificent Mile serves as the main street between The Loop and the Gold Coast and is now known as Chicago’s shopping district. Here you’ll find all sorts of mid to high-end shops as well as amazing restaurants and hotels.

This is also where you want to stay if your itinerary includes Navy Pier, the Chicago Children’s Museum, and the John Hancock Center.

Hotels in the area include Trump International Hotel & Tower, Hotel 71, Hotel Sax Chicago, Raffaello Hotel and more. Naturally because this is the shopping district and also a big nightlife area you can expect to pay a little more to stay in this part of Chicago.


Naturally all throughout Chicago are various hostels you can stay at.  A couple of great resources for finding different hostels and rates are Hostels.com and HostelWorld.

Planning ahead is the key to finding the best lodging. If you know ahead of time the kinds of things you want to do while you’re in Chicago you can save not only on your lodging, but also on the amount of transportation you’ll need.


The Bean Chicago travel guide

Have a picnic in Millennium Park at The Bean

As you can imagine, Chicago is full of great places to eat. So let’s jump right into the next section of this Chicago travel guide and show you where to eat.

With any big city there is fine dining to be had for a lot, but if you’re traveling on a budget you need to stick with the less-pricey side of things.

First of all, if you have a smart phone and you aren’t using Yelp when you’re in bigger cities, you need to start doing it right now. With Yelp you can find the nearest restaurants, see the ratings and reviews that others have given them, and sometimes you can even get discounts or special deals just by “checking in.” The other benefit of using Yelp is you can get an idea of what the prices will be like before you even go into the restaurant, saving you time and money.

Here are some other tips for saving money on food in Chicago:

  •  Stay at a hotel that offers breakfast. That’s one less meal you have to pay for.
  • Plan a picnic in the park. Millenium Park, Grant Park… there are so many parks in Chicago that make for a great afternoon picnic while enjoying the Chicago scenery.
  • Street Food Vendors. If you want to keep going on your sightseeing, consider carrying cash and just picking up some food from some of the amazing street vendors. A lot of them are even registered on Yelp so you can plan ahead.

While you’re in town you have to budget to eat at a nice restaurant, but to keep things reasonable follow some of the steps above to save money on food while you’re in Chicago.


Acqua Show Shedd Aquarium Chicago travel guide

Acqua Show Shedd Aquarium

There is so much to do in Chicago that you definitely won’t have time to do it all. This is where once again planning ahead is key so you know what you want to see this trip, and what you can save for a future trip.

For starters, if you’re going to go to Chicago you have to take time to see the parks. Your visit to Chicago won’t be complete if you don’t get a picture at Cloudgate (The Bean) in Millennium Park. Also make sure to see Grant Park and the famous Buckingham Fountain.

If you’re into city attractions, you’ll want to plan on seeing famous sites like the John Hancock Observatory, Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry or any of the other amazing museums in Chicago.

Here’s a little Chicago travel guide tip: if you know you want to hit the top attractions in Chicago pick up the Chicago CityPASS. You’ll get discounted admission to some of the top attraction in Chicago and also get to skip a lot of the main ticket lines. Find out more at CityPASS.com.

If shopping is your thing, head over to the Magnificent Mile.

If you’re into the nightlife scene, there is plenty of that going on in Chicago as well. A great resource for all things nightlife is ChicagoMag.com. For example, check out the top drinking and nightlife bars and lounges for 2012.

No matter what your preference, Chicago has enough for days of enjoyment.

Connecting With Locals

meet locals Chicago travel guideIf you’re looking to connect with the local scene, you just need to know what is going on in town the week or weekend you’re going to be around. One great resource for this kind of information is Metromix Chicago. There you’ll find all of the concerts and other events that are coming up in the Chicago area.

Bars and night clubs are of course another great way to connect with the locals. Or, head to a Cubs, Bulls, or Bears game to also cheer for the local pro team.

There is no way that this Chicago travel guide could cover all of the great things to do in Chicago. But hopefully I’ve given you enough information to help you get started on planning a great trip to Chicago.

Check out more Budget Travel Guides for destinations in the US, like ColumbusCleveland, AustinSanta Fe, as well as other destinations around the world!

Have you been to Chicago?  What travel tips and recommendations do you have for visiting this city?

Dan Patterson works for CityPASS. Save money on your trip to Chicago with the Chicago CityPASS. To help plan your visit in advance, be sure to see our Plan Your Visit to Chicago page.

Thanks to Dan for sharing these awesome tips in this Chicago travel guide and for sponsoring this post. 

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  1. Connecting with locals, hey that is me!

    Another travel tip which is a must for Chicago is to check out the different neighborhoods. Besides the worn out spots like Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park, try Lincoln Square, Logan Square, Andersonville, Uptown, and Ukrainian Village to name a few. The brown and the red line are a great way to explore these lesser know hoods that have great dining options, bars, and music.

    • Thanks for the tips Ted. Glad you chimed in. I figured you would have some tips for this. Great thing about cities is exploring the neighborhoods. Glad you mentioned a few that people can go, find some local places, and eat some good food.

  2. Agness says:

    Great guide! It’s much cheaper than I though actually… :)

  3. Jenna says:

    I have only been to Chicago once and it was just overnight. I really want to go back. I would love to take my kids to the museums, especially to see the dinosaurs!

    • I went to Chicago as a kid. I got to see the Cubs play in Wrigley Field. However, my most vivid memory of that trip is a drive in the car. I fell asleep for a couple of hours (or it seemed to be that long anyways). When I woke up, we had gone about 10 miles.

      I am sure Chicago has changed a lot since I’ve been there. I need to go back too.

  4. Kathryn says:

    I can’t believe I am still yet to go to Chicago. Almost every time I go to the US I think about making a stop there but I find myself basically sticking to the coasts and Hawaii. I thought that with it being such a big air hub I would’ve at least had a stopover in Chicago by now. I’d like to go see some comedy there.

    • I totally understand. Being from South Carolina and now living in California, I go from coast to coast. I’ve seen most of the US but the states I am missing are mainly in the US. I need to get back to Chicago and see how much it has changed.

  5. Julie says:

    There are a lot of free things to do in Chicago, especially in the summer. I am from there, so I love it! Just walking along the waterfront or Navy Pier is nice, sitting at the beaches, Millennium Park, outdoor concerts, window shopping, etc. The “L” is very cheap and good way to see the various neighborhoods!

    • Thanks for the recommendations Julie. I really need to go back to Chicago and see all the things I haven’t seen. I love the neighborhoods and the waterfront. However, I’ve always heard that the south side of Chicago isn’t a good area. Is that still true?

  6. Andrea says:

    My Dad’s side of the family live mostly in Chicago and I love visiting there. Such a fantastic city – great tips!

    • Thanks Andrea. Have you spent a lot of time in Chicago? As a visitor with some local connections, any places you recommend in the city? What’s a can’t miss place to eat or see that’s not included in this guide?

      • Andrea says:

        I haven’t spent a lot of time in the city – usually just in the suburbs. I always recommend the many museums…

        • As a side note, that’s what’s so interesting about the US compared to Europe. In many big US cities (cities like San Francisco and NYC exceptions), many people live in the suburbs. In European cities, they prefer to live in the city. Suburbs are great for exploring. I didn’t do any of this in Chicago. However there is still so much of this city I still want to see.

  7. Katie says:

    I agree with Ted! Get out of downtown and explore Chicago’s neighborhoods – especially if you are on a budget! You can get almost anywhere by the el or bus (not mentioned in the post, but super easy to figure out and very convenient). And almost everything is cheaper when you get out of the typical Loop/River North/Lincoln Park areas. A beer drink that runs $10 downtown is probably half the cost in Lincoln Square or Andersonville.

    Chicago also has some great B&Bs outside of the center that let you save a few bucks and see more of the city – and we have a very active Couchsurfing community and a lot of people offer their places up on AirBnB as well.

    For shopping, get away from Michigan Avenue and go up to Armitage or North Avenues or west to Bucktown/Wicker Park.

    While the Cubs and Wrigley Field get all of the hype, it’s much easier and cheaper to get a ticket to a White Sox game and, in my opinion, the Cell is a much better ballpark to catch a game. Go on a weekend night and stay for a great fireworks display after the game.

    Ok, I could go on forever, I’ll stop now. :)

  8. Love Chicago. In my top 3 fave US cities, and a place I could live. But next time want to avoid the winter and visit in the summer. Go Bulls :)

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