If you are traveling from O' Hare to downtown the cheapest and often quickest way is to take the Blue Line el also known as the CTA. As of January 1, 2013, it's $5 per person, the only fare in the whole system that has an upcharge. There's no extra charge for luggage. Or if you plan on using the el and buses a lot in Chicago you can get a visitor pass (1, 3 or 7 days) and the ride from O'Hare is included. The trip takes about 45 minutes to downtown Chicago.
The CTA station is located at the lowest level of the Main Parking Garage next to elevator center 4. You should be able to follow the signs that look like a subway car. But don't get on the remote parking train by mistake.
Clark/Lake is the most central stop, you can walk to some loop hotels or take a cab from there to the Mag Mile or River North, the cab fare should be less than $5 to most hotels. Or you can transfer to the red line at Washington and take it to Grand or Chicago which will get you closer to the Mag Mile hotels. If you are staying in the south loop you can get off at Washington or Monroe on the blue line without transferring.
The blue line el is a regular commuter train, like the tube in London, so there isn't extra room for luggage like on some airport trains. But O'Hare is the first stop on the line and patrons are used to seeing folks with luggage so as long as you can manage your luggage on and off the train, you should be fine.
Visitors to Chicago may find it convenient to use the el or buses to get around, especially if they are traveling to and from the airports or going outside of the city center frequently.
You can purchase a Chicago Card or a transit card which makes each ride $2.25 on the train, $2 on the bus. The 1st transfer is 25 cents and the 2nd transfer is free within a 2 hour period. The only ride that costs more is from O'Hare which is $5. Getting a transit card is much easier for a non local. You can see more about these options here.
If you pay cash, the fare is $2.25 on the train or the bus, no free transfers.
Or if you plan on using the El and/or buses frequently while you are here, you can look into getting a visitor pass good for 1, 3 or 7 days or a monthly pass and save some money. Every so often I see them offered at a discount on Groupon or Living Social, most recently a 3 day discounted from $20 to $9. If you are arriving at an airport, you can buy a day or multi day pass at either one, they are not sold at all stations, you can find where to buy one on the Transit Chicago website
Chicago's city trains can not at all be legitimately called "subways" as they are in certain cities. While there are a smattering of underground sections they are unabashedly positioned above ground in most locations and indeed the term "L" train is a shortened form of "elevated". Chicago's famous area known as the "loop" is just that: a loop of elevated structure on which dozens of trains per hour circulate above the city streets. The sound of the "L" is loud, earsplitting, and part of the personality of Chicago as annoying as some may find this noise.
The good news is that having the lines elevated above city streets makes it very easy to find stations: see photo two of a typical station on the "Loop" smack in the middle of downtown Chicago. The underground stations are not necessarily so obvious, as the maps may show a station location but due to the tangle of passageways between the underground station and the surface it isn't quite clear which direction one is headed once one's head arises above the ground. The stations are far less obvious if trying to locate one (see photo 3).
Because the trains are elevated in so many locations it is possible to get a fairly good views of the city and the surrounding areas from the trains. If sightseeing from the trains is your goal it is best to keep away from those lines built down the middle of expressways as much as possible due to the nature of those lines being somewhat below city streets and therefore not having much of a view compared to those lines that are truly elevated - for example, the Orange Line to Midway Airport gives a few good views of the city skyline as does the Pink Line, but the red line going south is mostly in a freeway median (see photo 4) and below the level of surrounding streets.
Some station areas are covered while others are not (see photo 5) and modernization efforts are underway. Some stations are not yet fully accessible by wheelchair but many of them have had elevators added and special turnstyles for wheelchair access. A nice touch for winter is that some of the stations are equipped with radiant heat above some of the waiting areas.
Fare vending machines dispense magnetic card tickets to which one can add value at other vending machines. Some locations (O'Hare Airport, for example) accept credit card transactions while others only take cash.
Unlike certain systems, where the card is taken by the turnstyle machine and spit out at the exiting end, the turnstyles in Chicago spit the card out the same slot into which they were put. After going through the turnstyle you must reach back behind you and grab your card from there.
In terms of safety, I have heard some people talk about how unsafe the trains are while others don't seem to be bothered by taking them. People on the trains today are a very diverse set of people from all age ranges, and so the trains aren't the hangout of the poor and homeless that have been portrayed sometimes in the movies. That seemed to be much more the case in the 1970s, but even then my father took me as a child onto a huge number of the trains.
As a comparison for interest: My less than 24 hour period of taking the trains around Chicago cost $12.25 ($2.25 per trip), and would have been even less if I could have found a place selling the day tickets (apparently you have to go to a grocery store retailer or other such location to get these - you can't get them at many of the station machines - though apparently the airport machines do sell them). For the same period in a rental car it would have cost me $77 in basic charges (no insurance fees included) plus $40 parking at the hotel, plus whatever parking elsewhere for places I wanted to visit. Plus, on the CTA trains I was completely separated from traffic.
Downtown (the Loop, Miracle Mile, etc.) Chicago is extremely car unfriendly. But that's okay, but riding one of the CTA routes is extremely easy and inexpensive. Contrary to popular (okay, my) belief, the Chicago train system isn't just limited to the overhead, elevated train system. The system is a combination of overhead and subway tracks with one track moving between the two seamlessly.
During my recent trip, we exclusively took the CTA or Metra system. Commuting from Midway Airport to our hotel in the Loop via CTA's Orange line, the Metra to the Museum of Science and Industry, and out to Wrigley field on another CTA line was all made easy. So skip the car!
Getting around the city of Chicago is easy, especially when accompanied by locals who actually know where they are going - thanks David and Kristi.
Almost every bus or EL train will take you downtown for $2.00.
P.S.Be prepared to get off quick as the train doesn't stop long. (I almost got stuck on the train as I was too busy yakking with Martin).
Update: June 17, 18 and 19, 2011
While attending the VT Meet in Chicago, we had the opportunity to take the EL, to get us from the Cultural Center to Old Town. Our Chicago Greeter, Jeff, led the way. Sharon prepaid our tickets at a cost of $2.25 US each.
Chicago's EL is the rapid transit system that services the city and some surrounding suburbs. It is operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).
The oldest sections of the EL started operating in 1892, making it the second oldest Rapid Transit System in the U.S., after New York City.
Although the EL got its nickname because large parts of the system are elevated, portions of the network are underground and ground level.
I do not about you, but I quite often have to look for a bus/train route.. So, I was glad when I found this website where you can quickly find all the stops where every CTA bus/train stops and time when it does so.
Here is a website where you can find any CTA bus route map and timetable.
Here is CTA train schedule and map.
And here are 6 systems maps (Northwest, North, Dowtown, West, Southwest, Far South).
You can take a tour of Chicago sights using public transport, which is very affordable and fun. The best way to do it is using CTA buses, but you can also use the 'L' especially if you are staying away from the downtown. Staying close to the 'L' line, but not in downtown area can be cheaper. You can take the 'L' into downtown and then visit the sights using buses. If you buy one of the CTA passes, you can use public transport all day for one low price. There is a website that shows all the main sightseeing sites and the bus routes that can take you there. Its address is http://www.greeenurbantours.com/ChiDtown.html
this is the Subway Part of the Chicago Transport Authority (which manages trains and buses and the L) otherwise known as the "L" It is the second longest rapid transit system in total mileage in the United States, after the New York City Subway, and is the third busiest rail mass transit system in the United States, after New York City and Washington, DC's Metrorail. The 'L' consists of eight rapid transit lines laid out in a spoke-hub distribution paradigm focusing transit toward a central loop. Although the 'L' gained its nickname because large parts of the system are elevated, only 56.4 miles (90.8 km) of the 106.1-mile (170.8 km) system are elevated. Of the remainder, 35 miles (56.3 km) of it are at grade, and 11.4 miles (18.3 km) are underground. Rapid transit trains run every five to fifteen minutes during the day and every fifteen to sixty minutes all night. Lines are color-coded and denoted by route rather than destination. The Howard-Dan Ryan is the Red Line; Lake Englewood-Jackson Park is the Green Line; the O'Hare-Congress-Douglas is the Blue Line; the Ravenswood is the Brown Line (whose trains circle the Loop, giving the area its name); the Evanston Express is the Purple Line; and the Skokie Swift is the Yellow Line.
Fares depend upon the method of purchase. You can pay CTA fares with Chicago Card, Chicago Card Plus, Transit Cards, or 30-Day, 7-Day or Visitor Passes, or cash. Purchase CTA fare media at more than 600 sales outlets throughout the Chicagoland area and at 144 rail stations. A single ride costs $ 2.25 so better to do 1 day pass at $ 5.75 or 3 day pass at $ 14 or 7 day pass at $ 23 and it includes rides to the buses and trolleys too.
the public buses offer very cheap and convenient travelling to the different tourist destinations around chicago and the best deal is that you wont need to find parking and pay for parking but still the best mode of transport here is having friends to drive for you hehehe. Pick up a CTA System Map, available at most subway stations and visitor centers or from the CTA office on the seventh floor of the Merchandise Mart. Buses run every five to fifteen minutes during rush hours and every eight to twenty minutes at most other times and the bus stops are color coded and bus fare for Single Ride: $2.25 per ride for either bus or train (bus is $2 if using transit card) and it is better to get a day pass if you plan to use the bus for a few days and the prices are: 1-day: $5.75, 3-day: $14, 7-day: $23 (incuded also are the subways and train fares!). you can buy them at many locations around the city.
The easiest way to get around is on the "L" or commuter trains. Costs are continually going up, and has more than doubled in last 15-20 years. Naperville commuter to downtown is now $10 round trip, and a bus locally about $1.50-2.00 a trip.
You can purchase a daily, 2 day, 4 day or 7 day subway pass. It's much cheaper than buying single rides as long as you use it 3/day. 1 ride is $2.25. A $5.50 daily pass pays for itself after 3 rides. 2-day is $10???
Now the hard part, finding somewhere to buy it. I was told Jewel sells it, but when you visit a city do you really want to run around (probably using a subway ride at $2.25 a pop) finding a grocery store? No, of course not, what are they thinking? There are a few very select places that sell it. Cumberland train station on the blue line sells it, though the machine was broke when I wanted to purchase it. You can pick one up supposedly at O'Hare airport. I know you can buy one at the huge hostel downtown on Congress Parkway--though it didn't accept cash or my atm, only my credit card when I was there. It's a separate machine than the ones you use to buy the single cards from.
Chicago is a great city to ride the metro, it's easy and it's near just about every major attraction... the ride are $2.50 per ride or you can buy a pass that you can add whatever amount you wish too....From the airport it takes 40 minutes to reach downtown.
The CTA is a great way to get to the city from Midway Airport and around the city. The system includes both the 'EL' and city buses. They run frequently and get you to where you want to go. The trains were clean and even smelled good. :-)
To save some money, you can buy 1, 3 and 7 day passes. Our 3 day passes cost $14 each and allowed us to ride the subway and buses without having to pay anything additional. Over the three days we easily got our money's worth. A regular full fare single ride is $2.25.
Fares for single adult users are $1.70, the plastic strip allows you to add as much fare as you like, useful if you do not have the correct change.
Please note: The shops in the airport are not allowed to give out change, so try to avoid having to purchase something unnecessary.
The trains are referred to as the ‘El’ or ‘L’ – the name is derived from the elevated rail that circles around the main Downtown business and shopping district. The seven train lines are identified and named by a different colour.
If you're coming from O'Hare and looking to go downtown (or vise versa) I would suggest taking the Blue Line to or from the airport. Its very easy and cheaper than taking a cab or renting a car. One cash fare will cost $2.25, reduced fares are available as well. Tickets can be purchased at kiosks in the station.
The Blue Line runs north to O'Hare and south to Forest Park. Schedules vary depending on the day but usually trains run no more than 15 minutes apart. A detailed schedule is available on the website.
And remember the EL is a Chicago institution. Just by getting to/from the airport you can check of a Chicago must do!