Like most major cities, there are two sides to Chicago. There’s the pricey tourist side, the one designed to entice you to spend as much money as possible while you experience the “must-see” sights, and then there’s the other side – the side for the people who live and work in Chicago everyday, and who want to experience the best the city has to offer on a smaller budget. It’s not that all the touristy activities aren’t worthwhile, or that locals never do those activities, they just know some of the secrets for saving money without missing out on some of the city’s most iconic activities and sights. Want in on the secret? Here are a few tips for saving some money while you explore Chicago.
The city’s best views
Sure, you could pay the $15 to go up in the Sears (now Willis) Tower and sit on one of the glass-bottomed ledges while David Schwimmer narrates your audio guide, but unless you really want to stop out on the Ledge (or if you’re traveling with small children), go the John Hancock Tower instead. Here, for the price of a drink, you can kip the admission fee and go up to the Signature Lounge, where you can have a cocktail, wine or beer, with your view. More bang (and booze) for your buck.
Chicago’s museums – like the Art Institute, Field Museum, and Museum of Science and Industry – are excellent, but expensive. For a family of four to visit even three of them, without discounts, it would cost over $200. To save some money, plan your visits wisely. Check out the calendar of free days offered by the major museums or consider a visit to some of the smaller, lesser known museums, which are cheaper, and in many cases, always free. If you plan on visiting several of the larger attractions, check out a discount pass, but be sure to compare the cost of the pass with the total cost of all the museums you plan to visit.
Chicago’s liquor laws allow restaurants to offer BYO (bring-your-own) service, and there are hundreds of restaurants that allow you to bring in your own beer or wine for no corkage fee (or, a small charge, usually $2). These restaurants can range from hole-in-the-wall dives offering authentic Indian, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Italian, African, or Moroccan food, or they might be upscale date-worthy spots offering multi-course tasting menus prepared by James Beard award-winning chefs.
And speaking of award-winning chefs, Chicago is home to some of the most celebrated restaurants in the country. At many of these restaurants, you might assume you’re locked into ordering the set menu, which can range from $85 to well over $150 per person. But, you can often save money and still get a taste of the chef’s talents if you sit at the bar. Some of these restaurants offer full dishes a la carte in the lounge, while other offer a menu of small bar plates which may range from $10-$20.
Cruising on the river
An architectural cruise along the Chicago River is one of my top recommended activities for visitors. It’s a great way to see the city from another perspective, and to learn about the city’s history and architecture. But, it’s not cheap. If you can’t quite swing the $20 or so per person, a more budget-friendly option is a ride on the water taxi that runs from Michigan Avenue to Chinatown. The ride costs just two bucks and you’ll pass many of the city’s most famous buildings (plus, you’ll end up in Chinatown, a great spot for cheap eats).
Living in the Loop or Magnificent Mile areas is expensive, with rents for one-bedroom apartments costing nearly double what you’d pay just a few el stops north. Likewise, hotels in the downtown area often cost more than those in neighborhoods Lakeview, Lincoln Park and Bucktown. If you can’t snag a deal at your preferred hotel near Michigan Avenue, look a little further out of the city. So long as the hotel is near an el line and less than 6-7 stops from the Loop, you can get in and out of the city quickly and easily. You’ll also likely be smack in the middle of a thriving neighborhood that offers cheap options for food and drink. Don’t go so far as the airport though; it’s not worth the hassle and lack of nearby restaurants and bars.
You can easily get to most attractions in the downtown area by foot, but if you want to get out and explore some of Chicago’s many diverse neighborhoods, walking won’t cut it. Driving is a hassle (parking is nearly impossible in some areas), and cabs from downtown to most neighborhoods will cost $10-$15 each way, so just hop on the el – the city’s elevated train – or the bus. Single rides are $2.25 and day- and week-long passes are available for those who plan to ride often. The El is not only cheap, but it also provides a great view of the city from above.