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Downtown Chicago is packed with hotels, thanks to the city's position as the business center of the Midwest. The majority are tucked amid the high-rises of the Loop and North Michigan Avenue, so staying here offers the pros and cons of any urban destination: Your room may look out onto a stunning cityscape, or no farther than the building next door. Lake Michigan views are highly prized -- and therefore command the highest prices. Although every hotel caters to business travelers, this is not a city where luxury hotels have dibs on all the prime real estate; casual, family-friendly properties are scattered throughout downtown. Affordable rooms, unfortunately, aren't so easy to find: Chicago hotels are among the most expensive in the country.

The Big Picture -- For the most part, Chicago hotels offer a quintessential urban experience: Rooms come with views of surrounding skyscrapers, and the bustle of city life hits you as soon as you step outside the lobby doors. Every major hotel chain is represented here, from the traditionally luxe Ritz-Carlton and Peninsula to the more casual, family-focused Embassy Suites or Best Western River North. But many hotels here have their own unique character, from the industrial-chic look of the Dana Hotel and Spa to the vibrant in-room art at the Hotel Indigo.

Chicago has its share of places that tout themselves as "boutique" hotels, such as the Hotel Felix and The James Chicago, but these aren't quite the same as their New York, Miami, or Los Angeles counterparts; the so-called beautiful people who frequent these spots on the coasts aren't likely to stop off in Chicago. No matter where you stay in town, you'll likely find that your fellow guests are business travelers or vacationing families, though the boutiques attract a generally younger crowd.

A note about smoking: A number of Chicago hotels, such as The Drake Hotel and the Renaissance Chicago, are completely nonsmoking. If you want to make sure you can light up in your room, check the hotel's policy when making your reservation.

Reservation Services -- The Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau's website (www.choosechicago.com) allows you to book hotels as well as complete travel packages. Check out the "Immersion Weekends," trips planned around a particular theme (such as fashion or museums) that include behind-the-scenes tours and meals at distinctive local restaurants. For a free copy of the annual Illinois Hotel-Motel Directory, which also provides information about weekend packages, call the Illinois Bureau of Tourism at tel. 800/2-CONNECT [226-6632].

Alternative Accommodations -- If you'd prefer to stay in a private home, a centralized reservations service called At Home Inn Chicago, P.O. Box 14088, Chicago, IL 60614 (tel. 800/375-7084 or 312/640-1050; fax 312/640-1012; www.athomeinnchicago.com), lists more than 70 accommodations in the city. Options range from high-rise and loft apartments to guest rooms carved from a former private club on the 40th floor of a Loop office building. Most lie within 3 miles of downtown (many are located in the Gold Coast, Old Town, and Lincoln Park neighborhoods) and will run you about $150 to $300 per night for apartments, and as low as $105 for guest rooms in private homes. Most require a minimum stay of 2 or 3 nights.

A group of local B&B owners has formed the Chicago Bed and Breakfast Association, with a website that links to various properties throughout the city: www.chicago-bed-breakfast.com.

What You'll Really Pay

Chicago hotel rates vary widely throughout the year, making it difficult to pin down the average price for any given property. For each hotel listed, I've provided a range of rates that reflect the city's seasonal price fluctuations (cheaper in the winter, more expensive in the summer). The highest rate, known as the rack rate, is the maximum a hotel charges.

You can typically find discounts of up to 20% for rooms when booking through websites such as hotels.com or expedia.com. The hotels' own websites are also a good place to check for specials. During slow times, it's not impossible to obtain a room at an expensive property for the same rate as a more moderate one. Rack rates at the W Chicago City Center start at $279 but in March 2011, just a cursory search of the usual Web discount sites revealed that the going rate was actually closer to $179. Note: Quoted rates do not include Chicago's hefty hotel tax; at 14.9%, it can add significantly to the cost of your stay.

Getting the Best Deal -- Because Chicago's hospitality industry caters first and foremost to the business traveler, rates tend to be higher during the week. The city's slow season is from January to March, when outsiders steer clear of the cold and the threat of being snowed in at O'Hare. If you're not doing a lot of outdoor sightseeing, it's a great time to take advantage of the lowest room rates of the year.

Hotels charge premium prices during major conventions, most notably the International Home & Housewares Show in early March and the Restaurant Show in late May. Other conventions gobble up desirable rooms periodically throughout the year.

The best rates tend to show up on the hotels' websites, which often tout special deals. The only downside to booking online is that you often can't be sure what kind of room you're getting (at older properties in particular, room sizes can vary widely, as can the views). Follow up with a call to the hotel if you want to make sure your windows don't look out on an alley.

A local service, Hot Rooms (tel. 800/468-3500 or 773/468-7666; www.hotrooms.com), offers discounts of 25% to 50% off standard rates at more than 30 downtown hotels. (The rates here aren't always cheaper than the hotels' own websites, but it's worth checking out.) The 24-hour service is free, but if you cancel a reservation, you're assessed a $25 fee.

Most hotels offer discounts of roughly 10% to individuals who are visiting Chicago on business. To qualify for this rate, your company usually must have an account on file at the hotel. In some cases, however, you may be required only to present some perfunctory proof of your commercial status, such as a business card or an official letterhead, to receive the discount. It never hurts to ask.

Chicago Hotels Go Green

With their large-scale heating and cooling costs -- not to mention all those loads of laundry -- Chicago's hotels suck up a considerable amount of energy. Now the city's hospitality industry is taking a leading role in lessening that environmental footprint. About two dozen local hotels have signed up for a city-wide Green Hotels Initiative, signaling their commitment to recycling and energy conservation.

Hotel Allegro, Hotel Burnham, Hotel Monaco, and Hotel Palomar -- all part of the Kimpton hotel chain -- print all material on recycled paper using soy-based inks. Though all three hotels are located in historic buildings, they've been fitted with energy-efficient lighting and air-conditioning systems.

At the Talbott Hotel, automatic sensors adjust the lighting, heating, and air-conditioning in low-traffic areas when they're not in use, and unused in-room soaps and shampoos are donated to a charity that recycles them for the needy. The hotel also purchases wind energy credits to offset 100% of the property's carbon footprint.

The InterContinental Chicago was the first hotel in the city to receive an Energy Star rating from the Environmental Protection Agency, thanks to its use of water-conserving toilets and sinks and motion-sensitive thermostats in the guest rooms (which lower the heat or air-conditioning when there's no one inside).

Then there's the Hotel Felix, the first hotel in the city to be built from the ground up with environmentally sensitive practices in mind. Sustainable or recycled materials were used throughout the property, from the flooring to the bedding. Guests who arrive in a hybrid car can even park free.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.