CTA (city trains & buses, the EL), Chicago
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!
One of the best things is their trip planner function which I found very easy to use & comparable to Les Pages Jaunes Itinéraire function. However, I'd recommend adding at least 15 minutes to any estimates. Of course, I did visit Chicago during the weekend they were having a rate hike changeover (Sunday) and they were making changes to their schedules (I understand they may be dropping some El lines or stops) so that may have had something to do with it. Using the system for 3 days, though, didn't really give me a chance to get used to the system. And of course, if I'd been closer to downtown any glitches would've been lessened.
It would've been okay if I could've depended on the Chicago Transit System but I couldn't. I found it to be grossly unreliable & I was late for all 3 dinners/brunches with my friends.
Saturday on my way to meet shrimp56, the red line was held up in transit (we sat for 20 minutes), an announcement came over the intercom that the train would be made an express line through the next 6 stops stopping just past where I wanted to go. I opted to stay, got off at the next stop, got lost, figured out my way, & backtracked to the Art Institute stop making me 30 mins late meeting shrimpie. She was gracious stating that'd given her a bit o' time to shop (she's a sweetie).
Sunday on my way to meet Callavetta & Dabs, thought THIS time I'd given myself plenty of extra time but still managed to be 10-15 minutes late. The line had been shut down somewhere north of us. We waited in frustration as we saw the Red Line going north 3 times before we finally got ours. Of course it was full. Thank God for cell phones so you can call your friends.
I have to say I'm pretty spoiled as far as subways go. My only previous experience is with London's Tube & Paris' Métro which are both relatively clean compared to Chicago's El system.
Photos: June 2009, September 2007
I purchased a 7 day cta pass for $23 which you can use on both the El & the buses there is no zone system so you can travel anywhere on the 7 day unlimited pass. Also please note that it is 7 24hrs from the first time you use it so it may be good for your journey the day after you think it expires. There is also a 3 day pass for $14 & a 1 day fun pass for $5.75, these prices are excellent considering a single bus or train ride will cost you $2.25.
My advice to you is purchase your pass for the whole period of your stay at the airport before you leave as it is a hassle to find anywhere that sells just 1 day passes. Believe it or not you cannot purchase these CTA passes at the El station but are rather sent to Walgreens or Jewel-Osco. After a long search to find a 1 day fun pass we finally found one at Jewel-Osco at State and Grand (red line).
Put your pass in the reader at the turnstyle gates with the cta picture facing you clipped corner upwards the card is then recorded and given back remember to take the card out of the reader before going through the turnstyle, no need to tap out.
If you are arriving from O'Hare & staying in the downtown area the easiest cheapest mode of transport is the blue line El which will take you direct to downtown in only 40min. Downtown stops are cnr S Dearborn & W. Washington, W.Monroe or W.Jackson or at Lake you can interchange onto the brown, yellow purple or green line.
Be advised that there are usually steep stairs to disembark the platform which runs above street level so if you have lots of luggage it may not be so practical - another area to investigate for those with plenty of luggage is those stations with disabled access have elevators to platform level.
Please check previous tip for prices & passes. I enjoyed travelling on the El as it is a very simple system with stops clearly marked in the trains & on the platforms. It is however extremly limited in terms of outside downtown area & you would need to catch buses to areas such as grrek town, Pilsen & little Italy your hotel should be able to help you catch the correct bus. When catching the buses remember the streets are usually one way so the return bus will be on the next road North or south.
One of the best places I've found to buy the Visitors Pass is inside Chicago's Union Station. From the entrance, go downstairs and take a right. Walk a few feet and around the corner to where you can buy train tickets. However, they cannot help you with metro passes at the windows; you'll need to go to the machine (see 1st photo).
You'll see the machine (yellow on the left/green on the right - see 2nd photo) with a sign at the top "Buy Visitor Passes Here".
You may purchase:
or weekly passes ($20)
debit card, or
cash (see 3rd photo).
One word of caution, though, is that the machine does not dispense change so you need to input the correct amount (not easy when it's a $9 2-day pass - see 5th photo). Unfortunately, my credit card had been eaten in an ATM back home and the new one hadn't arrived yet so I visited Chicago on a cash only basis (should've gotten the AAA TravelMoney Card).
I went out into the station and tried my luck at a stand where they sold breakfast sandwiches & doughnuts (out into the main area and to the right). The lady gave me change for a $10. But as luck would have it, some of the bills she gave me were fakes (do they really have fake $1 bills in Chicago?). You could tell which ones were fake because the borders weren't even at the top and bottom (some sort of printing issue; hopefully, the counterfeiter is reading this and will correct the problem). These were spit back by the machine. Took them back to the lady at the breakfast stand and she gave me good ones.
Also of note, is that the machines had Braille and audio info for the blind, while instructions were doled out in Spanish as well as English (see 4th photo).
Photos: March 6, 2008
Like most major cities the best ways to get around are with public transportation. Chicago's "L" trains do a Loop around the downtown section of the city, but also connect both airports (O'Hare and Midway) to downtown and you can actually get between both airports this way also. Most of the time when we go downtown we will park our car at one of the stations in the suburbs (usually Forest Park) and then take the 20 minute ride from there into downtown.
You can also take the train the Wrigley Field (really the best way because parking is difficult in this neighborhood) or to US Cellular (only for Sox fans). The trains also are about a 2 block walk to the United Center which is the home of the Chicago Bulls (Basketball) the and Chicago Blackhawks (Hockey).
Many people will tell you not to travel on the el alone at night, and some will tell you not to travel on it at night at all. I live in Chicago and before that was a frequent visitor. While its generally not a great idea to walk/ride the trains alone in most any city I've been in, there are some things that can make you a bit safer doing it in Chicago if you must. I have generally found the busses to feel a little safer late at night (though many of them don't run late at night) and with so little traffic at that time of day, they won't be much slower than the el. If you are going to ride the el alone (which I'll admit to doing frequently), keep in mind that you can ride in the first train car, right behind the conductor. There is also a blue button in each car which you can use to contact the conductor in case of an emergency, so look for it and try to get a seat near it. People will probablly move around between the cars and ask for money. This happens at most times of day, even rush hour, but is more prevelant at night. This is not unusual, but if you feel unsafe, use that blue button to contact the conductor. Be alert to your surroundings and try to avoid carring a lot of valuables, including large purses ladies. Also, keep in mind which line you are riding, the Green line is notoriously unsafe at night.
Unrelated to safey, if you are new to the area and riding the el, keep in mind not only that the lines are color coded, but that the front of each train as well as signs on the side will alert you to which direction the train is going. The way this works is, the name of the last stop on the line is posted. So, look at a map, see the last stop IN THE DIRECTION YOU WANT TO TRAVEL, and be sure you are getting on a train with that stop's name. Good luck and happing traveling.
When we were planning our trip to Chicago, I was shocked at the hotel rates in the downtown area ($300-400/night). My friend in Chicago advised me to stay instead in a hotel near O'Hare airport then drive to the nearest CTA Blue Line station where "park&ride" is available. Aside from contending with the traffic, parking is atrociously expensive and hard to find in downtown Chicago. So we stayed at the Holiday Inn in Cumberland Ave. last November 2008 , great hotel, which is walking distance to the Cumberland CTA station so we did not even need to use the station's park&ride facilities. The $5 CTA one-day fun pass,valid for 24 hours from first use, is very convenient since we covered much of Chicago by just hopping on and off the EL or the bus. To compare, the New York MTA pass costs $7.50 and it does not even bring you to JFK airport, you need to pay $5 more for the JFK SkyTrain. Once the EL train door closed before we could get off our station, no sweat, we simply got off the next station and doubled back. CTA fun-pass, great way to go!
Most attractions in Chicago are located within very easy walking distance, so during the week I spent in the city, I didn't even have to use public transportation. However, when it came time to return to the airport to catch my flight back home, hopping on the "L" seemed like the best option to avoid all the traffic. The blue line takes you straight to the aiport (O'Hare is the last station on the line) and tickets only cost $1.75. The trains are relatively clean and seemed pretty safe, at least on the section I was on. To get downtown from the airport is also very easy: from the baggage claim area, just follow the little train symbols to the O'Hare station. Once you're on the train, your best option probably is to get off at the Clark/Lake station and from there walk or take a cab to your hotel.
The subway in Chicago looks more civilized than the one in NYC.
Again, these train services is a very good means of transportation to explore Chicago.
You can get day passes too, see my day pass tips.
For my first ride into Chicago, I decided to use the Chicago Transit Authority train from O'Hare, instead of taking a more expensive taxi. However, after following the signs to the CTA departure area and paying $2 to obtain a ticket from a vending machine, things seemed to go a bit wrong from there.
A string of cars was sitting in the departure area and they had a few people already sitting in them. Despite this, the doors did not open when several of we new passengers walked up to them, so we did not know for sure what was going on. In the end, the doors did open on one of the cars so we all hustled down to it and boarded. It was so crowded that I had to make my way through a couple of heavy doors to the next car, all the while manhandling my suitcase, laptop and carry-on bag! I found a spot and had to use a second seat as a place for my suitcase because there really is not any free space except the aisles themselves.
Finally, we were underway but only went past two stations before the train came to a halt and we were told to disembark and to board a bus because track work was taking place - no mention had been made of this when I obtained my ticket. The first bus filled quickly but another came along not too much later and this one took us on a 20-30 minute ride to another station as we bypassed the work area. Once again, it was a crowd on the platform struggling to get in the next train while I man-handled my three pieces of luggage! From there on it was a nice ride as we made our way past several more stops before reaching the downtown Loop area. I didn't know exactly where my hotel was located but figured this was close enough and left the train - I took a taxi from there for the short ride to my hotel. After this experience, I decided to take a taxi back to the airport at the end of the trip!
Overall, the CTA seemed to be a cheap and efficient way to get around Chicago - but it would be quite a hassle if you are dealing with luggage!
A cab direct from the airport will of course be the fastest and most expensive way to get directly to your hotel. Taking the train and walking will be the cheapest and slowest method. Taking the train and short cab ride will be somewhere in between. For comparison, in my experience a cab ride into the loop from O'hare is roughly $20 while the train is $2 (you can also buy weekend or 7 day passes, which will come in handy if you plan to use the trains during your stay). Good Luck!
About the middle of March, 2008, anyone who is 65 or oder who lives in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Will, or McHenry County is eligible to ride FREE on transportation operated by the Chicago Transit Authority [CTA], Metra, and Pace. If you already have the Reduced Fare Permit [as I do], then within a few months a transition to the new "RTA free-ride ID Card" [the new "smart card' ] will take place.
If you want to be elgible, you must sign up during normal business hours at the RTA's CUSTOMER SERVICE CENTER that is located at 165 North Jefferson Street in Chicago or a suburban site [270 of them]. For a list of the registration sites, you may call 836-7000 [from any local area code].
Once you receive your card, you are able to show it to the bus driver, the train conductor; or, you can use it at a farebox or turnstile.
This is a fabulous free service for seniors, especially low-income seniors. I personally think that this will give older people the opportunity to "get out and about" without financial burdens.
All roads in Great Lakes Area lead to Chicago.
Have a safe and a pleasant trip there, dear fellow travelers! Happy traveling!
It's too hard to find parking places in the city, so you can use the rapid transit: subway and elevated. The cost is $1.50 one way, bills are accepted.
The bus is also $1.50, exact change is needed, no bills.
The 'L' is three lines that run on elevated tracks, i.e., 'the el'. I'm just loading pictures and place holders until I can get back and add some text. Come back in November and see what's been added. I'll add details of these three later.