Ticket to Ride -- Visitors who plan on taking a lot of train or bus trips should consider buying a Visitor Pass, which works like a fare card and allows individual users unlimited rides on the El and CTA buses over a 24-hour period. The cards cost $5.75 and are sold at airports, hotels, museums, transportation hubs, and Chicago Office of Tourism visitor information centers (you can also buy them in advance online at www.transitchicago.com or by calling tel. 888/YOUR-CTA [968-7282]). You can also buy 3- and 7-day passes. While the passes save you the trouble of feeding the fare machines yourself, they're economical only if you plan to make at least three distinct trips at least 2 or more hours apart (remember that you get two additional transfers within 2 hr. for an additional 25¢ on a regular fare).
By Train (the El)
The Chicago Transit Authority, better known as the CTA (tel. 836-7000 or TTY 836-4949 from any area code in the city and suburbs; www.transitchicago.com), operates an extensive system of trains throughout the city of Chicago; both the below-ground subway lines and aboveground elevated trains are know collectively as the El. The system is generally safe and reliable, although I'd avoid long rides through unfamiliar neighborhoods late at night.
Fares are $2.25 per ride, regardless of how far you go. For an additional 25¢, you can transfer to the bus or take a different El ride within 2 hours. Children 6 and under ride free, and those between the ages of 7 and 11 pay $1. Seniors can also receive the reduced fare if they have the appropriate reduced-fare permit (call tel. 312/836-7000 for details on how to obtain one, although this is probably not a realistic option for a short-term visitor).
The CTA uses credit card-size fare cards that automatically deduct the exact fare each time you take a ride. The reusable cards can be purchased with a preset value already stored, or riders can obtain cards at vending machines located at all CTA train stations and charge them with whatever amount they choose (a minimum of $2.25 and up to $100). If within 2 hours of your first ride you transfer to a bus or the El, the turnstiles at the El stations and the fare boxes on buses will automatically deduct from your card just the cost of a transfer (25¢). If you make a second transfer within 2 hours, it's free. The same card can be recharged continuously.
The CTA operates seven major train lines, identified by color: The Red Line, which runs north-south, is most likely the only one you'll need, since it runs parallel to the lakefront and past many tourist attractions. The Green Line runs west-south; the Blue Line runs through Wicker Park/Bucktown west-northwest to O'Hare Airport; the Pink Line branches off from the Blue Line and serves the southwest side of the city; the Brown Line runs in a northern zigzag route; and the Orange Line runs southwest, serving Midway airport. The Purple Line, which runs on the same Loop elevated tracks as the Orange and Green lines, serves north-suburban Evanston and runs only during rush hour.
I highly recommend taking at least one El ride while you're here -- you'll get a whole different perspective on the city (not to mention fascinating views inside downtown office buildings and North Side homes as you zip past their windows). While the Red Line is the most efficient for traveling between the Magnificent Mile and points south, your only views along this underground stretch will be of dingy stations. For sightseers, I recommend taking the aboveground Brown Line, which runs around the downtown Loop and then north through residential neighborhoods. You can ride all the way to the end of the line at Kimball (about a 45-min. ride from downtown), or hop off at Belmont to wander the Lakeview neighborhood. Avoid this scenic ride during rush hour (before about 9am and 3:30-6:30pm), when your only view will be of tired commuters.
Study your CTA map carefully (there's one printed on the inside back cover of this guide) before boarding any train. Most trains run every 5 to 20 minutes, decreasing in frequency in the off-peak and overnight hours. The Orange Line train does not operate from about 11:30pm to 5am, the Brown Line operates only north of Belmont after about 9:30pm, the Blue Line's Cermak branch doesn't run overnight and on weekends, and the Purple Line operates only during the morning and afternoon rush hours on weekdays. (The Red Line runs 24 hr.)
The best way to get around neighborhoods along the lakefront -- where the trains don't run -- is by public bus. Look for the blue-and-white signs to locate bus stops, which are spaced about 2 blocks apart. Each bus route is identified by a number and the name of the main street it runs along; the bus that follows Grand Avenue, for example, is the no. 65 Grand.
Buses accept the same fare cards used for the El, but you can't buy a card onboard. That means you have to stop by a train station to buy a card in advance, or pay $2.25 cash when you board. The bus drivers cannot make change, so make sure that you've got the right amount in coins and dollar bills before hopping on.
A few buses that are particularly handy for visitors are the no. 146 Marine/Michigan, an express bus from Belmont Avenue on the North Side that cruises down North Lake Shore Drive (and through Lincoln Park during nonpeak times) to North Michigan Avenue, State Street, and the Grant Park museum campus; the no. 151 Sheridan, which passes through Lincoln Park en route to inner Lake Shore Drive and then travels along Michigan Avenue as far south as Adams Street, where it turns west into the Loop (and stops at Union Station); and the no. 156 LaSalle, which goes through Lincoln Park and then into the Loop's financial district on LaSalle Street.
PACE buses (tel. 836-7000 from any Chicago area code or 847/364-7223; Mon-Fri 8am-5pm; www.pacebus.com) cover the suburban zones that surround Chicago. They run every 20 to 30 minutes during rush hour, operating until midevening Monday through Friday and early evening on weekends. Suburban bus routes are marked with nos. 208 and above, and vehicles may be flagged down at intersections where stops aren't marked.
By Commuter Train
The Metra commuter railroad (tel. 312/322-6777 or TTY 312/322-6774; Mon-Fri 8am-5pm; at other times, call the Transit Information Center at tel. 312/836-7000 or TTY 312/836-4949; www.metrarail.com) serves the six-county suburban area around Chicago with 12 train lines. Several terminals are located downtown, including Union Station at Adams and Canal streets, LaSalle Street Station at LaSalle and Van Buren streets, the Ogilvie Transportation Center at Madison and Canal streets, and Randolph Street Station at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue.
To view the leafy streets of Chicago's northern suburbs, take the Union Pacific North Line, which departs from the Ogilvie Transportation Center, and get off at one of the following scenic towns: Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, or Lake Forest.
The Metra Electric (once known as the Illinois Central-Gulf Railroad, or the IC), running close to Lake Michigan on a track that occupies some of the most valuable real estate in Chicago, will take you to Hyde Park. You can catch the Metra Electric in the Loop at the Randolph Street Station and at the Van Buren Street Station at Van Buren Street and Michigan Avenue. (Both of these stations are underground, so they're not immediately obvious to visitors.)
Commuter trains have graduated fare schedules based on the distance you ride. On weekends, on holidays, and during the summer, Metra offers a family discount that allows up to three children 11 and under to ride free when accompanying a paid adult. The commuter railroad also offers a $5 weekend pass for unlimited rides on Saturday and Sunday.
Taxis are a convenient way to get around the Loop and to reach restaurants and theaters beyond downtown, in residential neighborhoods such as Old Town, Lincoln Park, Bucktown, and Wicker Park.
Taxis are easy to hail in the Loop, on the Magnificent Mile and the Gold Coast, in River North, and in Lincoln Park, but if you go far beyond these key areas, you might need to call. Cab companies include Flash Cab (tel. 773/561-4444), Yellow Cab (tel. 312/TAXI-CAB [829-4222]), and Checker Cab (tel. 312/CHECKER [243-2537]).
The meter in Chicago cabs currently starts at $2.25 for the first mile and costs $1.80 for each additional mile, with a $1 surcharge for the first additional rider and 50¢ for each person after that. You will also have to pay an additional $1 fuel surcharge whenever gas prices are above $3 per gallon.
One of the great things about visiting Chicago is that you don't need to rent a car to get around: Most of the main tourist attractions are within walking distance of downtown hotels or public transportation. If you do drive here, Chicago is laid out so logically that it's relatively easy for visitors to find their way around. Although rush-hour traffic jams are just as frustrating as they are in other large cities, traffic runs fairly smoothly at most times of the day. Chicagoans have learned to be prepared for unexpected delays; it seems that at least one major highway and several downtown streets are under repair throughout the spring and summer months. (Some say we have two seasons: winter and construction.)
Great diagonal corridors -- such as Lincoln Avenue, Clark Street, and Milwaukee Avenue -- slice through the grid pattern at key points in the city and shorten many a trip that would otherwise be tedious on the checkerboard surface of the Chicago streets. On scenic Lake Shore Drive (also known as Outer Dr.), you can travel the length of the city (and beyond), never far from the great lake that is Chicago's most awesome natural feature. If you're driving here, make sure you take one spin along what we call LSD; the stretch between the Museum Campus and North Avenue is especially stunning.
Driving Rules -- Unless otherwise posted, a right turn on red is allowed after stopping and signaling. As in any big city with its share of frustrating rush-hour traffic, be prepared for aggressive drivers and the occasional taxi to cut in front of you or make sudden, unexpected turns without signaling. Chicago drivers almost universally speed up at the sight of a yellow light; you'll most likely hear some honking if you don't make that mad dash before the light turns red.
Gasoline (Petrol) -- Over the past few years, the price of gas in Chicago has fluctuated between $3 and $4 per gallon. Taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons. In general, you pay more within the Chicago city limits than you will in the suburbs (the city adds an extra tax into the price), so if you're planning a day trip, it pays to fill up once you're out of town.
Parking -- As in most large cities, parking is at a premium in Chicago, so be prepared to pay up. Throughout downtown, street parking is limited to 2 hours (if you can find a spot); you must purchase a receipt from a designated pay box and display it on your dashboard.
Read signs carefully, because parking regulations are vigorously enforced throughout the city. Many streets around Michigan Avenue forbid parking during rush hour -- and I know from bitter firsthand experience that your car will be towed immediately. If you're visiting in the winter, make note of curbside warnings regarding snow plowing. Many neighborhoods also have adopted resident-only parking that prohibits others from parking on their streets after 6pm each day (even all day in a few areas, such as Old Town). The neighborhood around Wrigley Field is off-limits during Cubs night games, so look for yellow sidewalk signs alerting drivers about the dozen-and-a-half times the Cubs play under lights. You can park in permit zones if you're visiting a friend who can provide you with a pass to stick on your windshield.
A safe bet is valet parking, which most restaurants provide for $8 to $12. Downtown you might also opt for a public garage, but you'll have to pay premium prices. Several garages connected with malls or other major attractions offer discounted parking with a validated ticket.
If you'll be spending an entire day downtown, the best parking deal in the Loop is the city-run Millennium Park garage (tel. 312/742-7644), which charges $19 for up to 3 hours and $21 for up to 8 hours (enter on Columbus Dr., 1 block east of Michigan Ave., between Monroe and Randolph sts.). A little farther south are two municipal lots underneath Grant Park, with one entrance at Michigan Avenue and Van Buren Street and the other at Michigan Avenue and Madison Street (tel. 312/616-0600). Parking costs $14 for the first hour and $27 for 2 to 8 hours. Other downtown lots (where prices are comparable or even higher) include Midcontinental Plaza Garage, 55 E. Monroe St. (tel. 312/986-6821), and Navy Pier Parking, 600 E. Grand Ave. (tel. 312/595-7437). There's also a large lot next to the McCormick Place Convention Center, 2301 S. Lake Shore Dr. (tel. 312/791-7000).
Car Rental -- All the major car-rental companies have offices at O'Hare and Midway, as well as locations downtown.
If you're visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, keep in mind that foreign driver's licenses are usually recognized in the U.S., but you may want to consider obtaining an international driver's license. International visitors also should note that insurance and taxes are almost never included in quoted rental car rates in the U.S. Be sure to ask your rental agency about additional fees for these. They can add a significant cost to your car rental.
The city of Chicago has earned kudos for its efforts to improve conditions for bicycling (designated bike lanes have been installed on stretches of Wells St., Roosevelt Rd., Elston Ave., and Halsted St.), but it can still be a tough prospect to compete with cars and their drivers, who aren't always so willing to share the road.
The Active Transportation Alliance (tel. 312/427-3325; www.activetrans.org), a nonprofit advocacy group, has been at the forefront of efforts to make the city more bike-friendly. Their website lists upcoming bike-focused events, including the annual "Bike the Drive," when Lake Shore Drive is closed to cars.
Bike Chicago rents all sorts of bikes, including tandems and four-seater "quadcycles," as well as in-line skates, from three locations: North Avenue Beach, Millennium Park, and Navy Pier (tel. 888/BIKE-WAY [245-3929]; www.bikechicago.com). Bike rentals start at $10 an hour or $30 a day. Helmets, pads, and locks are provided free of charge. The shops are open daily from 9am to 7pm, weather permitting.
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.