Between parking, tolls, and a 10.25% sales tax, a vacation in the Windy City can add up in a hurry. Still relatively inexpensive by East and West Coast standards, here are some ideas for saving money in Chicago.
Knowing many downtown hotels charge anywhere between $10 and $40 extra to keep a vehicle in the hotel parking ramp, we booked a room at the Homewood Suites in the popular Chicago suburb of Schaumburg (parking is 100% FREE). Conveniently located near O’Hare International Airport, Schaumburg is a haven of high-end shopping, dining, and recreation. Arriving at Homewood Suites on a Thursday night, our first evening meal was on the house in the hotel dining area. A full complimentary dinner with adult drinks is offered to hotel guests Monday through Thursday (hot breakfast is complimentary every day of the week). This is standard practice at Homewood Suites across the country. Stocking our full refrigerator with food purchased at the nearby Whole Foods grocery store, we enjoyed a home-cooked spaghetti dinner as well as a trip down the block to the affordably-priced IKEA Restaurant (Meatballs for Less is now $2.99). Packing snacks and filling water bottles from home helped combat impulse purchases at overpriced museum cafes.
Located within five miles of four different stops on the METRA commuter transit system, catching a train ride downtown not only saves gas and time (Chicago is notorious for commuter traffic jams), Weekend Family Fares allow up to three kids under age 11 to ride FREE with a fare-paying adult. Families serving in the military receive additional discounts (see all of the fare discounts here).
Planning to visit many of the popular downtown museums and attractions, we used the Chicago CityPASS for discounted admission prices over the course of the long weekend. In many cases the Go Select Chicago pass allowed us to bypass long lines (anyone with young— already excited and growing impatient—kids will appreciate this perk).
If your Chicago itinerary calls for a visit to Navy Pier, make sure to ask for a Chicago-Style Fun coupon book from the concierge at the main Information desk. The coupon book has dining and shopping discounts, as well as coupons for the attractions, rides, and aquatic sightseeing tours. The Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier (incidentally one of the best children’s museums we’ve ever been to) offers reciprocal admission for eligible members of participating ACM (Association of Children’s Museums) institutions, valid for up to 4 people per membership.
Along the lake shore on the north end of “The Loop” is Lincoln Park, Chicago’s version of Central Park. Always FREE (and open 365 days per year), the Lincoln Park Zoo is a fantastic place to pass an entire morning or afternoon (alas, zoo parking is not free, so plan ahead). With a balance of indoor and outdoor exhibits, the zoo offers breaks from both heat and windchill. Feeling somewhat rushed during our two hour speed walk through the zoo, we’d detour to downtown just for the chance to visit again.
Back in Schaumburg, we enjoyed an afternoon at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center (again, three cheers for FREE parking). An indoor attraction for LEGO fans of all ages and genders, our visit included two different rides, a model builder workshop,and touring the LEGO MINILAND (we visited during the cleverly-named Brick-or-Treat, and the entire museum embraced a G-rated spooky Halloween theme). Spending the majority of our visit building and testing LEGO Racers, a trip through the 4-D cinema was almost as big of a hit as our LEGO souvenirs. Hint: If your child subscribes to LEGO Magazine, check the back cover for discount admission coupons to Discovery Center locations nationwide.
As an aside, Chicago newbies may want to take advantage of the FREE Chicago Greeter program offered by the Chicago Office of Tourism. Other personal FREE museum recommendations are the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and the Chicago Cultural Center.