Seeing Chicago on a Budget

Chicago isn't just an important cog in the global economic system; it's also a hot tourist destination for people around the world. With a wealth of luxurious hotels, fine dining, and impeccable culture, it's easy for individuals and families alike to spend a lot of money while visiting. However, there's plenty to see and do in Chicago without emptying your wallet. Is vacationing in Chicago cheap? With a little planning and this handy guide, you'll soon be on your way to seeing and enjoying Chicago on a budget.

Flying to Chicago on a Budget

While taking the train or driving into Chicago makes sense for many people, even budget-conscious travelers know that flying to the city is an excellent option. Finding cheap flights to Chicago is now easier than ever with the Internet. The Internet has bred fierce competition among carriers, allowing you to take advantage of deep discounts on flights. Discount travel sites like Hotwire, Orbitz, and Priceline are useful in helping you get to Chicago on a budget. The city also boasts three different international airports: O'Hare, Chicago Midway, and General Mitchell. It's often possible to save on airfare by going though Midway and General Mitchell rather than O'Hare. Don't forget these other airports while searching for cheap flights to Chicago.

Cheap Accommodations in Chicago

As with most major cities, a wide variety of options exists for those looking for a place to sleep in Chicago. There is no shortage of elegant four- and five-star hotels with great reputations in the city. But for those who want to stay in Chicago on a budget, comfort and service need not be sacrificed. In fact, you'll likely find it very easy to find quality accommodations without breaking the bank.

Sorting through the wide variety of Chicago hotels and finding a good deal can be a daunting task for many travelers. Fortunately the previously mentioned discount travel sites exist to assist you with your search. For best value in the three-star range, consider Club Quarters in the Central Loop area. Single-person rooms start at $119, a veritable bargain for downtown Chicago. You'll find even better hotel deals if you're willing to stay outside of the downtown area. Chicago's excellent public transportation makes this a more attractive option.

For the truly budget-conscious, staying at a hostel cannot be dismissed. The fine folks at Chicago's Hostelling International offer a clean room and friendly service (including free breakfast and free Internet access) for as low as $29 per person, per night. The hostel also has planned excursions and activities nearly every night of the week to help you see more of Chicago on a budget.

Cheap Eats and Drinks in Chicago

With so many options for food and beverages in Chicago, it can be a little bit overwhelming to find tasty food that doesn't bite deeply into your wallet. The best thing to do is talk to the locals or go online to discover which Chicago restaurants fit your budget. Most will tell you that ethnic food typically offers the best and most frugal options.

One such example that Chicagoans go to for tasty Middle Eastern food is the Oasis Café at 21 N. Wabash Avenue in Downtown. The tasty falafel, shawarma, and hummus come at dirt cheap prices, and the entrance through a jewelry shop (yes, you pass through a jewelry shop to get there) gives it the feel of being a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.

The Oasis Café is also friendly to Chicago's somewhat unusual "bring your own beverage" (BYOB) policy. This policy means that restaurant and café owners can choose to allow patrons to bring beer, wine, and in some cases liquor to be consumed during the meal. You're not allowed to leave such establishments with an open container, however, and most will charge you a small corkage fee. But in many ways this policy works to the frugal traveler's advantage, potentially saving you significant money. If you're at a more upscale restaurant, consider adding a little extra to the tip if you BYOB; it's considered good etiquette.

Strangely enough, Chicago's odd liquor laws also make it illegal for businesses to have happy hours in Chicago (much to the chagrin of frugal drinkers), but it's still possible for businesses to post daily drink specials. AOL contributor Valerie Anderko has compiled some of those drink specials to bring happy hour in Chicago to life again.

Enjoying Chicago on a Budget

There's a lot to see and do in the Windy City. Here's a small checklist of additional things to consider when experiencing Chicago on a budget:

• Check the website of museums and other popular tourist destinations to find out when their free days are. Most will offer free admission on certain days of the week or month. Take advantage of them.
• Chicago boasts a wide variety of always free attractions.
• If you have a car, leave it parked. Parking is limited and expensive with fees easily exceeding $10.
• Chicago's rapid transit system, the "El", is cheaper than taxis and is extremely easy to use. To save money, buy a 1-, 3-, or 7-day pass online, at currency exchanges, or select Jewel and Dominick stores.
• Get out of downtown to save money on restaurants and accommodations. Using the "El" makes this easier.
• Consider buying a Chicago CityPass or a Go Chicago card, especially if you plan on visiting numerous locations. You can easily save more than $50, and it may help you plan your trip to Chicago on a budget.

Photo by Daniel Schwen, from Wikimedia Commons
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