How to See Chicago on a Budget

When I visited Chicago this summer, I was a little nervous about how much money it would cost. Traveling in the U.S. can add up quickly, and I didn't want to come home feeling like more of a broke college student than I already am.

However, with some careful thought into where my money was going, I was able to see Chicago on a budget and still have a good time.

Below are the ways I saved money and other budget-friendly advice for your trip to the Windy City.

Do all the free things

The flamingo wall at the Flamingo Rum Club in Chicago - free to pose with :p

The flamingo wall at the Flamingo Rum Club in Chicago - free to pose with :p

The best part about a big city like Chicago is there's plenty of free things to do and see. When I visited, I asked my friends for recommendations and got a list of activities which all cost $20+. That stuff adds up!

Instead, I took to the internet and googled 'Free things to do in Chicago.' Here's what I found and later tried:

  • Cloud Gate (The Bean)
  • Buckingham Fountain
  • Lurie Garden
  • Lincoln Park Zoo
  • Ohio Street Beach
  • North Avenue Beach
  • Navy Pier
  • Magnificent Mile
  • Riverwalk
  • Lakefront Trail
  • Maggie Daley Park

If you tackle this entire list, you'll have enough activities to keep you busy for at least 2 days (3 days if you take your time and spend a few hours lounging on the beach or having a picnic at the zoo).

Chicago's also a great place to take photos and build up your Instagram gallery. Check out my post on the Most Instagrammable Places in Chicago for ideas on where to go to get the perfect shots.

Shop at super markets and convenience stores

While a beautiful place to ride, water and food along the Lakefront trail cost a fortune!

While a beautiful place to ride, water and food along the Lakefront trail cost a fortune!

Yep - shop to save money. In Chicago, restaurants are incredibly expensive; meaning eating out can take an expensive toll on your wallet.

After you check into the place you're going to be staying, scope out Google Maps for a nearby grocery store. If you do it right, you shouldn't spend more than $10 on a meal at one of them.

Another thing I discovered was how expensive water bottles can be at Chicago cafes. While walking along the Lakefront Trail, I bought the cheapest bottle of water I could find and it was still almost $4.

After that, I got smarter and started buying water bottles from stores like Walgreens. In convenience stores, you can get a water bottle that’s twice as large as the expensive one I bought, and spend only a $1 or so.

Stay at a hostel

Freehand Chicago is a hostel located near the Riverwalk in an area known as River North

Freehand Chicago is a hostel located near the Riverwalk in an area known as River North

Staying in a hostel instead of a hotel will drastically cut down your spending. For $33/night, I stayed at the Parthenon Hostel - one of the cheapest Chicago options I could find on HostelWorld. Once thing to keep in mind with prices at hostels is they often fluctuate.

The staff there were friendly though, my bed was clean, and they offered free breakfast in the morning. While this meant sleeping in a dorm room, my roommates were friendly and there was a hot shower down the hall.

If there was one thing I may have done differently though, it would've been getting a hostel a bit closer to the city center. The Parthenon is located just west of The Loop, however this area is pretty dead outside of the 9-5 work day during the week.

The best hostels location wise are Freehand Chicago and HI Chicago.  

Take public transportation to and from the airport

The Lincoln Park Zoo is another place to consider taking public transportation to as it's a ways away from downtown Chicago

The Lincoln Park Zoo is another place to consider taking public transportation to as it's a ways away from downtown Chicago

No matter which airport you're flying into, public transportation is the most affordable way to get downtown.

During my visit, I bought a single ride ticket for the CTA Blue Line (a.k.a. 'L'). For $5, this ticket took me directly from the O'Hare International Airport to a station near the Parthenon Hostel. The ride took about 50 minutes total, and felt safe enough during the day time for a solo, female traveler.

Besides affordability, public transportation also offers the promise of being on time usually. Since trains like the 'L' run on their own tracks, you won't have to worry about rush hour traffic or accidents on the highway.

Rent a Divvy Bike for the day

I rented a Divvy Bike for the day and road ALL over Chicago

I rented a Divvy Bike for the day and road ALL over Chicago

Divvy Bike is a Chicago bike-share program with stations scattered every few blocks or so.

Each station is self-serve, and allows riders to pick-up and drop-off their bikes at different locations around the city.

On my first full day in Chicago, I decided to try the Divvy Bike out. For $9.95, I purchased a 24-hour pass which granted me an unlimited amount of 30-minute rides.

BEST DECISION OF MY TRIP.

Chicago is huge and the main sights are a bit spread out. With a bike, I could quickly jet between one stop and the next; dropping off my bike whenever I was ready to walk around.

This saved me a ton of time and helped my blisters heal from the day before (I walked so much before I got the bike).

If you're interested in hearing more about my experience or about the bike program itself, check out my post on Why Divvy Bikes are the Best Way to See Chicago.

 

Thanks for reading!

What are your go-to budget solutions for big cities like Chicago?

Let me know in the comments below