A trip to Chicago can be as low-cost or as luxe are you want to be, with a few limitations of course. Though you have less control over the costs of transportation and accommodation, you’ll find a range of options for dining and sightseeing according to your tastes. For that reason, planning your budget for a trip to Chicago can be difficult. Here are some tips to help you determine your costs.
The cost of getting to Chicago is going to be your biggest variable. The form of transport you take, when you come, and where you’re coming from will all affect the cost of getting here. If you live in the Midwest, you may be tempted to drive. Don’t…unless you plan on staying outside of the city or plan on journeying from Chicago to another Midwest destination. While it may seem like a bargain to drive your own car, you’ll find that parking costs quickly add up. In most cases, it’s cheaper to take the bus or train for $30-$60 (or even less) each way, and sometimes even go by plane if you can score a good deal on a flight.
And speaking of, it’s difficult to give estimates on flight prices because they can swing so much depending on a number of factors. If you’re coming from another major US city in off season and book a few months in advance, you can expect to spend anywhere from $150 to $350 round trip. The price tends to go up if you need multiple connections, book last minute or are traveling over the holidays.
The best way to figure out if you’re getting a good deal is to start looking a few months in advance and keep an eye on the price. Once it dips below the previous average, jump on it.
When it comes to transport in Chicago, you also have a choice on how much to spend. You can do as the locals do and get around mostly on foot and via bus and el (with the rare cab ride) or rely more on cabs and watch the dollar signs add up.
Riding public transport in Chicago is easy, with the lines servicing nearly all areas that tourists would want to go. Even if you choose to get out of the city for a day trip, you can ride the Metra for less than the cost of a day or parking in a downtown hotel.
Chicago offers a range of accommodation, from the ultra-luxe to cheap and basic. In off-season it’s fairly easy to find a quality hotel for around $100 per night on or near the Magnificent Mile. On peak weekends, that goes up to about $150 per night. Of course, you could spend much more at places like the Park Hyatt, Four Seasons and Fairmont. If you don’t plan on spending much time in your room and are just looking for a clean place to lay your head, expect to pay about $70 per night.
Dining (along with sightseeing) is the area of your budget you’ll have the most control over. You could spend thousands of dollars drinking and dining in Chicago over the course of a single weekend – and it wouldn’t even be difficult thanks to a host of restaurants that offer multi-course gastronomic tasting menus that range from $100 to $260, not including wine.
But if you’re not a foodie, you certainly could spend less. Chicago is home to hundreds of restaurants where you can get a cheap, tasty meal for under $10 (and often even less). Chicago also has a unique liquor law that allows restaurants to offering BYOB liquor service – patrons can bring their own bottles of wine, beer of alcohol and consume them at the restaurants. The establishment generally provides glassware, and often non-alcoholic mixers, and sometimes charges a small corkage fee of under $3.
If you’re on a smaller budget but still want to sample some of Chicago’s finest fare, grab some cheap eats on the go for breakfast and lunch (maybe a hot dog or some deep dish pizza) and then alternate higher-end dining experiences with a few BYOB restaurant nights. Or save your splurge meals for lunch, when you can enjoy some of the same food in smaller portions and at smaller prices.
>> more on dining on a budget in Chicago
There are several ways to save money on sightseeing in Chicago. If you plan on hitting most of the major museums (and you visit doesn’t fall on one of their free days), look into a Chicago City Pass, which is sold at a set price ($69 for 9 days) and offers free admission to a number of attractions over a set number of days. If you decide to go this route, just be sure to compare the individual costs of each museum you plan to visit with the cost of the pass to make sure it’s the best deal for your plans.
Luckily, many of Chicago’s best attractions are free. There’s no charge for checking the gorgeous lakefront and beaches, strolling through Grant Park past the Bean and Buckingham Fountain, or window shopping along the Magnificent Mile. If you really want to get out on the water but don’t want to spring for a river cruise, just ride the summer water taxi from Michigan Ave to Chinatown. You’ll get the same views for a fraction of the price.