Chicago is a major metropolitan center and the 3rd Biggest City in the United States. Whenever you are dealing with a Huge City you can be sure things are going to get expensive! A visit to Chicago can rival New York City in terms of Hotel Prices Food costs and even Visiting the Cities attractions. But there are many ways you can manage your budget and get to see the Windy City on a budget. This article helps you fin all the best ways of Visiting Chicago On A Budget.
There are many ways to save money on your Chicago Vacation without compromising the experience of how much you get to see and do. In fact, some of the cheaper places to stay are just as good if not better then the more costly, Eating Cheaply gets you into the food culture the Locals enjoy and saving on attractions often means you end up seeing and doing more. Our guide to saving money will not only keep those dollars in your wallet it helps you get the BEST out of the city.
Where to Stay in Chicago on a Budget?
The bad news here is Chicago is renowned for some fairly expensive hotel prices. Hotel occupancy rates are always high and this pushes prices high. Even hotels we consider “cheap” for downtown are going to run to $200 a night at busy times! While heading out of the big city might get you some cheaper hotels the hassle of commuting in is not worth the cost savings. Instead, it’s best to root out bargains in the hottest districts and have some great suggestions below.
The Whitehall Hotel – Stands out as a great value choice right in the middle of the Magnificent Mile and can be bagged for under $100 a night. While it is not the most luxurious hotel its quality far outweighs the price tag and all but the most discerning will be very happy.
The Acme Hotel Company – Occupying a fantastic spot just off the South end of the Magnificent Mile right in the heart of the city this Boutique Hotel offers a really cool vibe for the young single couple or solo traveler. approx $120-130 a night
The Ivy Boutique Hotel – A Beautiful Boutique Hotel right in the middle of things. We may be pushing the Budget envelope here but you really are getting a wonderful 4* hotel for around $150 a night which while not cheap, is great value.
Chicago Getaway Hostel (Lincoln Park): If Your Budget is the ONLY decision factor and you just want somewhere to lay your head for the lowest price the Getaway Hostel is your best bet Around $30 a night is pretty unbeatable and while you are going to have to slum it in a shared Dorm, at least there will be some good laughs and the chance to build new friendships. The real Travelers Option.
Timing is Everything!
Prices in Chicago fluctuate hugely, the hotel prices we quoted above are typical for quieter times booked at the low end. As hotels fill up prices rise. However, as the dates draw near if occupancy is low prices fall! So timing it perfectly is essential.
That is why we use Booking.com. Their Totally free cancellation (if offered) Means you can book as soon as you see a hotel at the right price and then keep watching. If you see it cheaper, even on Booking.com, you can cancel and book at the lowest price. We have saved $1000’s this way!
Not all Hotels in Chicago offer this so check before clicking the “book it” button you are on the free Cancelation or not!
Air B&B is one option to save some money, but if you are house sharing there are obvious disadvantages (and advantages) with that and Whole Apartment shares can run to as much as a downtown hotel. You are also unlikely to be downtown as most accommodation downtown is not legal for Airb&b
So you will be staying out of town so you are going to need to commute in for your days and evening activities. This requires a fair bit of research to check you are not staying in a less favorable neighborhood, there are parts of Chicago still not really overly safe, and not every AirB&B Landlord is honest about where the unit is! You also have to check it’s close, but not too close to an L-stop so you can easily get into the City.
Overall we find the disadvantages outweigh the upsides and tend to stick to hotels but AirB&B is big business in Chicago and many people love the service.
When to Stay in Chicago?
January and February are great times to Stay in Chicago as far as prices go. Hotels are Empty, Restaurants are easy to get tables for, with great offers running, Attractions will have no Queues, and the Museums are empty for you to roam alone. There is a reason for this, it will be bitterly cold outside…on a good day!
When the Winds blow and the Snows fall The Midwestern winters are brutal. The wind howls down the City’s concrete canyons it can feel like -40 with Freezing water from the lake coating rails, trees, and walls in an icy blanket. Of course, if you are inside museums and taking in the views then winter can be a fantastic time to visit those crisp winter days when the skies are clear is really beautiful, but damn it’s cold! And there is no guarantee, you could just as easily be hit by winter storms or driving rain, with zero viz and howling winds.
Summer, on the other hand, can be stiflingly hot, and humid and hotel prices begin to soar, crowds build and the city really packs out. It’s a fun time to visit but not cheap and escaping the summer heat can be a chore.
The best times to visit are the shoulder seasons Spring and Autumn/Fall. During Spring prices are still low and the weather is fairly safe, as far as Chicago goes, you may get a storm or other unpalatable weather but you might also get fresh but warm spring sunshine. Once the kids are back to school the temps begin to fall off from their summer highs but remain well above the impending winter freeze.
October and early November offer the best days while prices are low. The Holidays are a great time to visit the City but often Prices are bumped. But you can get bargains on those couple of weeks before the big day!
Getting Around Chicago on a Budget
The “L” Trains (Elevated Trains)
The EL Trains system is the City’s main source of transport and can get you around to most parts of the City relatively inexpensively. Fares are $2.50 for any journey and only $0.25 cents if you need to transfer, a day pass is $10, a 3-Day Pass is $20, and a 7-Day only $28.
The Train will get you to just about anywhere in the City and are regular and reliable! It is not the most modern transport system but it works incredibly well and is used extensively by locals and savvy tourists alike!
One big advantage is the L-Train is not affected by Traffic so at rush hour it can actually be a lot faster than a taxi! The L train is also really awesome to travel on, as the name suggests the trains run on an elevated track above the cityscape, and simply riding the loop and the brown line can be considered a tourist attraction in itself.
Uber and Lyft
Sometimes though, you just don’t want to be on a pack commuter train. Maybe you have dressed up for dinner and your Shoes just demand door to door! In this case, Uber and Lyft are the best budget options. These Ridesharing Apps can save you some pretty big money but we always advise you to be up to speed with them before arriving in a big new city.
Rental Cars and Parking
Rental Cars in the City are reasonably priced especially from the busy and competitive Airport locations, however, that is where the budgeting stops. Parking in the city is a nightmare, limited and expensive. Overnight at your hotel will run from $50-$100+ and hourly rates in the City are $4-7 an hour, with Garages running at $30-40 a Day, but these are pay at the exit so if you are coming and going you will pay multiple times. At least at your hotel, it is a Day rate and you can come and go as you please.
Really unless it is completely unavoidable we do not rent a car in Chicago. The Transport system is fantastic and we stick to that. If we are heading out of the City and need a car we just rent for the day. Chicago is the best place to begin your Route 66 Road trip and if that is the case, fly in, explore the city for a few days then head to the airport and pick up your car to begin the Road trip that way!
Things to do for FREE or Cheap
Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park and its incredible Zoo are one of Chicago’s Must-see attractions and a place everyone should take time out to see. The Stunning Park is 1000+ Acres of rolling pathways, lakeside beaches, manicured gardens, and stunning views of the City. The Zoo itself covers 49 Acres and has hundreds of exhibits with over a thousand animals ranging from Tiny Poison Dart Frogs to Giat Polar Bears, humble Mole Rats to majestic Lions, and Domestic Chickens to the Endangered Black Rhino!
It is an incredible collection and one everyone should enjoy, and to top it off…it is completely FREE!
Chicago’s Fabulous Parks
As well as Lincoln Park there are several other stunning parks in the City. Grant Park and Millenium Park take up a prime waterfront position in the heart of the city. Occupying land that is worth Billions in real estate. With the incredible City skyline to the rear and beautiful views out of Lake Michigan to front, these are fantastic places to while away the days in the summer, enjoy the autumn leaves, or take in the spectacular blooms of spring. The Icy winds that blow in from the lake in winter will make you keep moving and take in the art installations and an energetic pace.
A lot of Chicago’s attractions are a little serious, Museums, architecture tours, Observations decks, they are all great but a little heavy. Navy Pier is a place you can let your hair down a little. It is free to get on the pier but then rides and attractions are paid, but you can just soak in the setting and enjoy the atmosphere of the victorian era pier.
During the Summer there are twice weekly Firework Displays from the Pier which are great fun and free to all, so an evening enjoying the pier and taking in the sights and sounds while watching the fireworks is a very cost-effective date, and even if you jump in the Centennial wheel it will only cost $18-16 and offers some staggering views of the City.
The Magnificent Mile
Hmm, this could be the most expensive attraction in the City, easily setting you back several thousands of dollars! That s because this shopping mecca is home to some of the worlds biggest luxury brands, Tiffany, Gucci, Luis Viton, etc, we cannot think of a brand that does not have a presence, there are also much more attainable shops too, the Gap, Bloomingdales Macy’s, etc… It really is just a shopping mecca.
While shopping can obviously be expensive, you don’t have to spend, and simply exploring the shopper’s paradise of the Magnificent Mile is a fun half-day experience, There are naturally hundreds of cafes, restaurants, and Bars to enjoy as well.
The L – Brown Line
for $2.50 you can jump on the Brown line of the L-Train. To locals, this is not exactly hugely exciting but the elevated line runs right around the central loop before heading out into the historic neighborhoods of the City, out as far as Albany, where you can simply ride the L back. it is a really unique and fun perspective on the City as the Brown line is completely above ground and mostly elevated above the city.
Chicago has some genuinely world-class attractions available from its incredible Museums to the mindblowing views from its observations Decks, and the incredible Shedd Aquarium. It also has a host of fun tourist-orientated things to see and do such as Bus and River Cruises, Escape Rooms, and the Rides down at Pier Park on the Navy Pier.
First, let’s take a quick look at what you might want to do, and then we can have a look at how to save money on these attractions as doing quite a few will really take a big chunk out of your budget.
Chicago has some incredible Museums, The Stunning Field Museum is a world-class Natural History Museum while the Museum of Science and Industry is a fantastic interactive wonder, with hundreds of hands-on exhibits and experiments, and the Art Institute of Chicago contains some of the most famous art pieces in the world along with over 300,000 other works of art from right across the spectrum of human history! Anyone Looking for a bit of Culture will have no trouble indulging themselves in Chicago.
The Shedd Aquarium is one of the biggest and most visited aquariums in the United States. We rank it number 3 just behind the sublime Monterey Bay Aquarium and the jaw-dropping spectacle that is the Georgia Aquarium. This 6million Gallan aquatic wonder is housed in a stunning building down in the Museum campus right by lake Michigan and houses over 32000 creatures including Beluga Whales, Dolphins, Sealions, Sharks, Turtles, Phirana, Stingrays, Sawfish and Penguins, and many more. Not to be Missed!
Chicago’s Towering Skyline is a sight not to be missed and one of the best ways to really take in the breathtaking size of the city is from up high on one of Chicago’s amazing Observation Decks. Either head up to the 103rd floor of the Willis (previously the Sears) Tower with its gut-churning Ledge. The Glass floor of which juts out over the plugging drop to the streets below. Or try the 360 Chicago, not as high but still towering the 360 offers a better overall view of the skyline as it is a little way back from the center, offering views of the Willis Tower and 4 different States with stunning views down the coast. You can also try out the Tilt” experience as your window tilts you out over the drop!
Getting a birds-eye view of the City is a must-do and the only hard choice is whether you see the city at day or night…or both!
Big Bus Tour
The ultimate in touristy tourist attractions, open-top bus tours around a city, it doesn’t get any more cliche than this. However, they are great fun and a fantastic way to see the City. These Tours are great eye-openers to the city and help you get orientated. The Hop-On Hop-Off nature means you can use the tour to get around the different parts of the city to link up attractions, but don’t rely on them as transport, they are definitely a tour, just one you can do in chunks while seeing a few other things on the way!
River or Lake Cruise
Another fantastic way t see the City is with a cruise either along the Lake shoreline or down the Chicago River, the city is seriously stunning as you carve through the Concrete canyons of head out into the lake to fully appreciate the awe-inspiring Skyline.
Saving on Attractions
The simplest way to save on attractions is with an attractions pass. Some of the passes can save you well over 50% on a selection of Chicago’s BEST attractions. The Official CityPASS is $108 and includes 5 of the Cities 7 best attractions. The Go Chicago Pass is a little more varied and has over 29+ Attractions to choose from and prices start at only $79.
We think these Passes are a GREAT idea we rely on them for most of our City Visits, However, Choosing one can be tricky and we fully understand they are not for everyone so we put a comparison page together to help you decide if am Attractions pass is right for you and which to choose.
Group-On often has select activities at really low prices and some of these can be really wild and “out there”. Group-On is designed mainly for Locals to find fun and quirky things to do but there is no reason you cannot make the most of this!
Most attractions offer good discounts if you buy online beforehand, so definitely DO NOT wait until you are there. IF you are only looking to do one o two of the above-paid attractions then just buying online before you travel may be the best best, but the passes start to pay for themselves after only 3 attractions!
Cheap Eats and Happy Hours
Chicago has an incredible food culture and has developed its own cuisine over the decades as the City has grown, similar but distinct from New York the mainstay of this cuisine is street food. Good honest food for the working man. It has developed along the way but it is still really easy to grab a cheap bite to eat.
Chicago’s Pizza is legendary and There Hotdogs blow New Yorks out the Water, The Amazing Italian Beef Sandwich is also a cheap eat that is a Chicago Legend. Check out more info along with some really good places to eat in our Chicago Food Guide.
The Food scene is far from limited to cheap eats though! And with over 25 Michelin Starred Restaurants the City is abound with world-class restaurants, do not expect to get much in the way of Budget eating at those! But you can still eat at some really good higher-priced restaurants for much less than you would expect, How? Happy Hours!
Happy Hours used to be all about getting smashed, cheap drink prices so you could get boozed up without paying too much, much has changed and while many happy hours still have cheap drinks or discounted cocktails we gravitate to the restaurant happy hour menus. These cut-price offers give you a taste of the restaurant without the heavy price tag, normally offering a sample menu or reduced appetizers and are often limited to bar seating or certain areas of the restaurant. Make use of these to get a great deal while dining at some of the higher-end restaurants in the City
Parson’s Chicken and Fish – This is a great joint regardless of Happy hour serving some fantastic drinks and great Fried Chicken at pretty reasonable Prices, but Mon-Fri 3-6 pm these prices become rock bottom. Food specials are around $4 and vary but expect Hush Puppies, Wings, and Popcorn Chicken, wash these down with 1$ Cheap Beers (PBR) $2 Whiskey & Tequila Shots, or $5 Cocktails! That’s a Happy Hour!
Dos Urban Cantina – Tuesday – Friday 5-7 and 5-9 on Sunday heralds this upmarket Mexican joints awesome Happy hour. $6 Margaritas and $3 Beers along with some great bites from $3-$8. But for us, it’s about Taco Tuesday, Two tacos for $10!
Way Down – Rooftop Bar with an outdoor terrace giving great views of the city, with Mondays being given over to a $6 menu featuring a burger, cocktails of beer+Chasr all for $6 each all day, with the rest of the week’s happy hour being 4-6 pm (Tue-Fri) with $6 Rose wine or Cider $3 Beers and $3-4 Snacks.
Lone Wolf – $10 for a slice of Pizza a beer and a Chaser in this upscale tavern, Mon-Thurs 4-6 PM and 11 AM -4 PM on Friday for those long Boozy lunches!
As with attractions, there are loads of fun food offers available to locals that you can take advantage of, we especially like the Beer, Whiskey, or wine tasting tours.
Have Your Say
Got a great money-saving tip to share with our readers? or maybe you have tried one of ours and can testify to its effectiveness, or not? Have you got a hot Happy hour or bargain hotel? Or maybe a fantastic quiet park no one else knows about? Whatever it is you would like to share just fire away in the comments, or if you have any questions again just drops a comment, we would love to help.