Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States behind New York City and Los Angeles, and it is a major transportation hub in what is considered “Midwest” America. More than 100 million passengers make their way through Chicago’s two major airports, with 919,704 flights at O’Hare International Airport in 2019, and 86,000 flights at Midway. These numbers make O’Hare the second busiest airport in the United States after Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Midway is the 26th busiest airfield in the country.
As you head out of Chicago’s congested airports, you will find packed highways and a busy downtown area. Because of the clogged roadways, navigating through the city is best done through Chicago’s advanced public transportation which is reliable and easy to understand with a quick study. While we cover the ins and outs of Chicago’s public transportation possibilities, our guide on how to get around Chicago without a car covers all of the basics of the Windy City’s transportation network from the airports, shuttles, rental cars, and parking while providing tips for saving money along the way.
Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) and Midway International Airport (MDW)
There are two major airports that serve Chicago. Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is 15 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, and depending on traffic, it takes 30-60 minutes to get there by car. Midway International Airport (MDW) is 11 miles southwest of downtown, and a 20-45 minute drive is required to get there.
The obvious advantage of flying into Midway is that you save time getting to-and-from the airport if you are staying in the downtown area, but there are other benefits. Taxicabs are plentiful at both airports, but a cab ride from Midway is roughly $35 while it is $45 from O’Hare. In addition, both airports serve all of the major airlines with the exception of Southwest Airlines, which only arrives and departs from Midway. Moreover, rush hour traffic around O’Hare is chaotic and frustrating, while the roadways around Midway run smoother.
Of course, Midway is Domestic only so anyone arriving from outside the States will arrive via O’Hare
Taxis, Uber, Lyft, Private Cars, and Shuttles in Chicago
From both airports, the base fare for a taxi is $3.25, along with a $1 charge for an additional passenger. Each mile to your destination adds $2.10, and there is an arrival and departure tax of $2 added to the final total, along with any tolls, and a customary tip of 15-20 percent.
Uber and Lyft are the ways to roll in Chicago, and they can be requested from both airports. The cars are cleaner and the drivers are more polite than cabs and cab drivers, with slightly lower fares. Here is a breakdown of starting Uber fares from O’Hare to give you an idea of costs:
- ORD to Downtown Chicago: $38
- ORD to Naperville: $42
- ORD to Union Station: $31
- ORD to Evanston: $29
- ORD to Forest Park: $23
- ORD to Wrigleyville: $27
From Midway, expect to see the following starting Uber fares:
- MDW to Downtown Chicago: $22
- MDW to Naperville: $40
- MDW to Union Station: $21
- MDW to Evanston: $38
- MDW to Lincoln Park: $25
At Midway, rideshare pickup is located downstairs on the Arrivals level near the baggage claim. Exit through Door 4, cross the street to the center lane, and wait for your driver there. At O’Hare, Uber pickup is a bit trickier. For uberX, uberXL, and UberSELECT, meet your driver on the Departures level in the designated Rideshare Pickup Zone. Those of you using UberBLACK, as well as those arriving at the International terminal, will find your driver downstairs on the Arrivals level.
Private cars and limo services are also available from both airports at a rate of $160-$220 before gratuity, and the driver will meet you at the baggage claim for celebrity service. A reputable company in Chicago for limo service is Home James Chicago at homejameschicago.com.
Finally, there is GO Airport Shuttle, which offers shuttle service for most of Chicago’s first-class hotels in both Downtown and suburban areas. The green and white vans have ticket counters near the baggage claim at both airports, and right outside of customs at O’Hare’s International terminal. The shuttles provide service from 4 a.m.-11:30 p.m. at O’Hare, and until 10:30 p.m. at Midway, with shuttles leaving every 10-15 minutes.
Prices vary, but typically, the cost for a GO Airport Shuttle van from Midway is $30 for one-way service and $50 for a roundtrip, if heading downtown. From O’Hare, you are looking at $35 and $62. However, there is a discount for each additional person in your party if they are traveling to the same destination. For example, on a recent trip from O’Hare to our hotel that was 18 miles away in Near Northside, Chicago, we paid $83 total for three people. Go to GoAirportShuttle.com to get a quote if you are price shopping.
The Issue with Shuttles is they are not private and will fill the Van with as many people as possible. This means waiting at the Airport for passengers to fill the Shuttle and then potentially dropping off at each person’s hotel. This can potentially add up to an hour on to your journey. You could get lucky and be the last in the van and the first drop off, or the first in the van and last drop off. It’s all the luck of the Draw really!
The “L” Train in Chicago
“The El” is a big deal in Chicago. El stands for “elevated train,” but it has become the “L” since its beginnings, and operates much like the New York City subway system, with cars that always arrive on schedule and grind through the night. Windy City residents rely heavily on these steel rails, and you folks who plan to stay for a while should use them as well because they stand to save you a lot of money. While there are numerous elevated trains in the system, they also dip below the street level on many of the lines.
From O’Hare, the L runs straight into downtown for $5; and for $2.50, the L out of Midway gets you to the same depot. In many cities, you save time by taking a taxi or renting a car to get you around the metropolitan area, but it is not the case in Chicago. With congested highways and byways throughout the city, you can often save time using public transportation, especially out of the airport.
From O’Hare, take the Blue Line, which will get you downtown in 40 minutes. If you want to get to Michigan Avenue, which is home to the Magnificent Mile – considered by many to be one of the top 10 destinations in the world for hotels, dining, entertainment, and shopping – you will need to hop over to the Red Line from the downtown depot, which will cost you an additional 15 minutes. The Blue Line runs 24 hours a day, with trains exiting O’Hare every 3-10 minutes during the day and early evening, and every 30 minutes at night.
From Midway, the Orange Line is a breeze into downtown at 20-30 minutes, with the train leaving the airport station every 3-12 minutes. The one advantage that O’Hare has over Midway is its moving sidewalks. With the train station, a significant distance from the Midway terminals, those with numerous bags will have a hectic trek. In addition, while the O’Hare airport train station is open 24 hours, Midway’s trains stop running from 1-5 a.m.
All fares, regardless of the length of travel are $2.50 with a 25-cent transfer fee to a bus or other train within two hours. A day pass is $5, and for a week, you dish out $20. Children 6 and under ride free, and kids aged 7-11 ride for $1.25.
There are eight major train lines identified by color, and while they all wrap around the Loop of Downtown Chicago, they provide service in the following ways:
- The Red Line runs north and south along the front of Lake Michigan and services many tourist attractions.
- The Pink Line serves the southwest side of Chicago.
- The Orange Line serves Midway Airport, running southwest of Downtown Chicago.
- The Purple Line serves the northern suburb of Evanston and only operates during rush hour.
- The Brown Line runs to the north of Downtown Chicago.
- The Green Line serves areas south and west of Downtown Chicago.
- The Blue Line serves the Northwest neighborhoods of Chicago, including Wicker Park and Bucktown, as well as O’Hare.
- The Yellow Line route provides rapid transit train service between Dempster-Skokie (in Skokie, IL) and Howard (in Chicago), with connecting service to downtown Chicago via Purple Line Express or Red Line.
L Train System Map
Or Click here for a Downloadable PDF File (External)
First-time visitors to Chicago will be in awe of the views provided by the L as it zips past office building windows and residential homes to the north. The Brown Line, in particular, provides a fascinating perspective of the city that you cannot get from ground level. The Brown Line curves around downtown and heads through unique residential neighborhoods filled with apartment buildings and homes, unlike any other you might have ever seen outside of New York City. The 45-minute ride to the end of the line in Kimball is a great cultural adventure.
Public Buses in Chicago
The bus provides a great way to get around the lakefront where the trains do not run. Bus stops in Downtown Chicago are spaced out at a distance of around two blocks apart. The bus stops are marked with blue and white signs, and the buses prominently display the street name they serve along with a number. For example, the bus that serves LaSalle Street reads: “no. 156 LaSalle.”
You can pay for your bus fare onboard the vehicle, but the driver does not give change, so you must have the exact fare or lose money during the transaction. You can also purchase bus passes at a train depot, but it is quite an inconvenience if you are not near one.
Renting a Car and Parking in Chicago
Unless you plan to travel outside of Chicago to see other parts of Illinois, and Michigan, or take a day trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for brewery tours galore – a 90-minute ride – a rental car is not advised. As mentioned earlier, the downtown area is congested and can be confusing to visitors. We learned this on one road trip through the Windy City in which we went to a Cubs and White Sox game, before heading up to Milwaukee. We were locked into rush hour traffic for quite some time as we made our way around Chicago. On our other trips, we flew into the city and took the L train and taxicabs, which made for a more pleasant experience. If you need a rental, though, all of the major car rental companies have offices at O’Hare and Midway.
Chicago is one of two cities where you may choose to Start a Route 66 Road Trip. The other is Santa Monica L.With Chicago being our natural choice. In this case, you are going to need transportation. But even in this instance, or with any other road trip starting in Chicago we still Fly-in, explore the city for a few days, and when ready to kick off the Trip, head back to the airport and pick up the hire car. There really is just no sensible reason to have a car for your time in Chicago!
Another reason to skip car rental is the extravagant parking fees around the city. With parking at a premium in the popular areas of town, you will be confronted with high prices. Street parking downtown is limited to two hours. Pay boxes are located near available parking spots, and once you make a purchase, the receipt must be displayed in your car window. After two hours, you must vacate the parking spot. Even if you pay for another two hours, you can still receive a fine. Crazy, huh?
The parking rates vary by area but hover between $5 and $9 for one hour, and they run all day and night, seven days a week. Moreover, during rush hour, many metered spots are off-limits for parking, and there is no leniency paid to the poor fellow who does not read the signs carefully, as cars are immediately towed, even as you watch. This is especially true in the area around Michigan Avenue. There are also warnings for snowplows during winter visits. Therefore, read all parking signs and warnings with great caution.
Furthermore, the neighborhoods around busy areas like those near Wrigley Field are often resident-only parking on the streets all day or after 6 p.m. There are warning signs everywhere in these neighborhoods, so look for them.
In addition, there are also parking garages downtown, which run to around $35 a day, but on the outskirts, you can find all-day parking for as low as $20. Check out Park Whiz at parkwhiz.com to find all the parking options in the area in which you plan to visit, by simply typing in the address before you leave for your destination.
The Final Word on Transportation in Chicago
You are best served through Chicago’s public transportation system and using Uber and Lyft to get you to places quickly. Renting a car is great in many cities where the attractions are spread across a wide area, but in Chicago, the downtown area has a robust number of attractions that will keep you busy during your trip. While renting a car and traveling outside of Chicago provides for an interesting adventure, you will never grow bored by what Chicago has to offer from the fantastic food, inspiring museums, musicals and plays, and iconic sports franchises. Furthermore, parking is costly and hard to find. While much of Chicago is pricey, the transportation is very reasonably priced, so take advantage of it while exploring the culture of one of America’s greatest cities.
Have Your Say?
Let us know your experiences of Getting around Chicago. Do you use the EL or do you stick to taxis, Uber, and Lyft? Have you braved a Hire car? Let us know your experiences in the comments below. If you have any questions or would like to know how to get to any specific point in the City just fire us a comment below. We would love to hear from you!