Chicago – The Second City

Chicago offers many great adventures for travellers. The city boasts tantalizing cuisine from around the world, beautiful and architecturally significant buildings, a multitude of world-class museums. In fact, there are so many possibilities that people may have a hard time fitting everything into their itinerary. Like any large city, however, the shear size and pace is stressful at times. Driving and parking in the city is a great example of a potential stressful situation. The city boasts a population close to 3 million people, which results in busy streets and limited parking. Fortunately, the city’s various public transit and tips that I will share in this article will reduce stress when travelling to the city and save you money.


The Problem

Chicago's most popular tourist attractions are located in areas of the city with lots of traffic and limited parking. For example, parking garages near Millennium park charge $30-$35 per day. Most hotels in downtown Chicago offer parking, but many charge more than local parking garages.


The Solution

 The key to parking for free in Chicago or at a lower rate is to park away from downtown, and then rely on the city’s public transit to transport to your final destinations. There are a few options available to you to accomplish this.


Option 1: Park on the outskirts of the city

Many residents of the city who live in the outer suburbs drive from their homes to the nearest Metra train stations and then ride the train into the city. This allows them to quickly reach the busier parts of the city without getting stuck in traffic. You can do the same thing by driving to Metra stations and then taking the train the rest of the way into the city. Many of the stations offer free parking or there is street parking nearby the station. You can visit the Metra web site and look at the system map. You can then click on each station on a Metra line and lookup what the parking availability is at the station. Fares for the Metra depend on what station you are travelling from, but range from $2 to $7 for a 1 way ticket. If you are staying multiple days in the city, then you can also choose a hotel near a Metra station. The hotel fare is cheaper than staying in the city, the hotel is more likely to offer free parking, and you are able to walk to the nearby Metra station.


Option 2: Park in areas of the city that are less busy

 Contrary to popular belief, there is free street parking in certain parts of the city, such as the West Loop and South Loop. Look for side streets near major streets and make sure there are no restrictions for parking. As long as there are no parking restrictions and there are no parking meters, then you will be fine to park for free. If there are no cars parked on the block, then there is probably a good reason for that and you should try to find another place. Once parked, you can ride the “L”, a city bus, or take a taxi into downtown Chicago. If staying multiple days, then try to find a hotel in one of these locations. There might be free parking with the hotel or you can use any free street parking you find.

The bus costs $2.25 per ride (exact change required), the “L” costs $2.50 per ride (only accepts transit cards), and taxi prices will depend on travelling distance. You can buy transit cards at “L” stations. The transit cards can be used on both the “L” and buses. If using a transit card, then a transfer on a bus or “L” within 2 hours of the first ride is 25 cents. You can also buy 1 day or 7 day passes at various locations around the city. For example, CVS and Walgreens both sell the passes. You just walk up to the front counter and ask for the pass you want. For more information on the “L” and busses, visit the CTA website.


Useful Tips

  • Your best chance of getting free street parking is during the weekday when everyone is at work.
  • If you are not comfortable walking in the area, then don’t park there.
  • If you are unsure about the safety of an area, then look for a local and ask them.
  • Even if you are parking in a safe area, make sure there is nothing left visible in your car. If you have a GPS make sure it is out of view as well and no suction marks are left on your windshield.
  • Watch out for no parking zones. Some signs say no parking, but then list times when parking is acceptable. Use these to your advantage. For example, there are some areas where parking is not acceptable during the winter months so snowplows can clear the streets. If you are in the city during the summer, then you are fine to park there.
  • Watch out for residence zones. Some neighborhoods have free street parking, but if the sign mentions a residence permit, then you will run into issues. Residents buy stickers for their cars, so they are fine to park on the streets, but if you do, then you will likely get a ticket.
  • Expect to walk. Chicago is a great city and as long as you are prepared to walk a little you can enjoy a cheaper and less stressful trip. Ditch the car and enjoy the scenery. Safe travels.