How do you get around Chicago without a car and on a budget? In this blog, I share how to use public transportation in Chicago, Illinois and how to get around Chicago without a car based on my recent trip to the Windy City.
Quick Overview of the System
So, where is Chicago, exactly? Chicago is in the State of Illinois in Cook County (and a little DuPage). The city has 200 neighborhoods and 77 community areas that are often organized by “sides”: North Side, West Side, South Side. If you read my eight things you need to know before going to Chicago, then you’ll be prepared to traverse across the city.
Thankfully, Chicago operates under a Grid system, where every 8 blocks = 1 mile. Madison Street divides the city north and south, while State Street divides it east and west. The State and Madison intersection in downtown Chicago marks the starting point of Chicago’s grid system. Addresses are relative to the distance from this point, with eight blocks to every mile. So, an address of 3600 N. Clark St. means that it is 36 blocks north of Madison Street.
Remember: no matter where you are in Chicago, the lake is always east.
Before I jump into how to get around Chicago without a car, I first need to explain a few key acronyms that you will see throughout the city.
- RTA– Regional Transportation Authority. Owned by the State of Illinois, coordinates public transportation for Chicago.
- CTA – Chicago Transit Authority. Provides elevated and underground rail AND bus services (routes 1 to 206) for Chicago. The CTA is responsible for the popular “L”, or “elevated train” rail system, which has 8 rapid transit routes (listed by color) at 145 stations, including Chicago O’Hare airport. This service also reaches Midway Airport. System maps are available, so download copies before you go!
- Pace – Pace is a network of regional buses (routes 208 and above) that travel to Chicago’s suburban areas, specifically Cook, Will, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties. They operate over 200 fixed bus routes on a set schedule.
- Metra – Chicago’s suburban rail system. The Metra only makes limited stops in downtown Chicago: Ogilvie, Union Station, Millennium Station, and LaSalle St. Fares range from $4 – $8.25 or a $10 unlimited Sat & Sunday pass. The system has 11 color-coded lines and over 240 stations.
- South Shore Line – Commuter train service that operates between downtown Chicago and South Bend Airport, Indiana.
- NICTD – Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District. The NICTD runs the South Shore Line trains.
Hours of Operation
- CTA: Daily service every 10-20 minutes for buses and 7-10 mins for rail (10-15 min for evening rail rides), with limited Sunday and holiday schedules. The Night Owl CTA service operates 24hrs/day, 7 days/week on only two lines – the red and blue rail lines- and on 18 bus routes from midnight to 2-5am.
- Red CTA rail line is the most popular. It will take you to some of the best Chicago attractions: Wrigleyfield, Comiskey park, Chinatown, Art Institute of Chicago, Navy Pier.
- Blue CTA rail line is the only rail line that will connect you to Chicago O’Hare airport.
- Pace: Operated daily, roughly from around 5am – 9:30/11pm depending on the route, every 30-60 min.
- Metra: Midweek rush-hour service is frequent, otherwise runs every 1-2hrs, 24hrs/day.
- Ride-share Apps (Uber, Lyft, Etc.): run all hours (or as long as there are available workers).
- Water Taxi – available during Spring & summer months only, from May – September from around 10am-6:30pm. Generally, the water taxi runs every 15-30 minutes.
- South Shore Line – Runs select times – one early morning express and a few afternoon and early evening trains.
Before you leave, navigate to the CTA website, Transitchicago.com website to plan your routes.
Chicago transit maps (called “brochures”) are available to download at any time. I highly recommend printing or downloading a map or Pace brochure to your phone. For the downtown Loop area, check out the special downtown insert in the CTA System Map brochure.
How to Get From the Airport to Downtown Chicago (Loop)
My first question to you is, which airport are you coming from? There are three airports to choose from when trying to get to the Chicago city center.
- Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), Illinois: Chicago’s biggest and busiest airport (could also be the cheapest to fly to). From the terminals, follow signs that read “Trains to City – CTA”. Once you pay for your tickets, take the Blue Line “L” CTA rail towards “Forest Park” or “UIC-Halsted”. Exit at the Clark/Lake, Washington, Monroe, or Jackson stations. Trains from O’Hare Airport to Forest Park run all day every day. Total travel time is 45-60 mins.
- Midway International Airport (MDW), Illinois: Take the Orange Line CTA rail to any of the downtown stations: Harold Washington Library, LaSalle/Van Buren, Quincy, Washington/Wells, Clark/Lake, State/Lake, Washington/Wabash, or Adams/Wabash stations. Total travel time is 35-45 mins.
- South Bend International Airport (SBN), Indiana: Take the South Shore Line to Millennium Station. Total travel time is 55min – 1.5hrs. The Westbound train to Millennium Station operates during limited hours during the week and weekends, so check the schedule and plan accordingly.
My hun and I flew into ORD – along with what seemed like everyone else in the world – and rode the L trains. We were a little rusty due to the pandemic, but we got there safely and securing.
How to Get Around Chicago Without a Car
Now that we know where Chicago is, the different forms of transportation you can take, acronyms, and the hours of operation, here’s where I get into how to get around Chicago without a car.
The short answer: use public transportation in Chicago. Let me explain how.
What is it: Ventra is a contactless payment system that allows you to pay for public bus and metro system rides on the CTA or Pace networks throughout Chicago. There are three Ventra products that you can use: 1) an app that you download to use on your mobile phone, 2) a disposable paper farecard, or 3) a reusable plastic farecard. Whether using the app or one of the farecards, you can choose to load value (ie- money), a single ride ticket, or an unlimited pass.
Ventra is, in my humble opinion, how to get around Chicago without a car!
Cost: $5 fee for the card plus the cost of whatever value or pass you want to load. Checkout transitchicago.com for the most recent pricing.
- Single Ride
- Single ride ticket (includes one transfer within 2hrs) = $2.50 flat rate, regardless of destination on CTA bus or rail systems. The Pace fare is $2.25 cash, $2 using Ventra, mobile wallet, contactless card, or app, and $2.80 for a premium route.
- Disposable paper single-ride ticket = $3
- Transfers (2 rides within 2 hrs) = $.25 for CTA; $.30 for Pace w/ Ventra or contactless payment (can’t transfer with cash payment)
- Unlimited Passes (don’t have to pay the $5 fee
for the card!)
- 1-day CTA unlimited pass = $10
- 3-day CTA unlimited pass = $20
- 7-day CTA unlimited pass = $28
- 7-day CTA/PACE unlimited pass = $33
- 30-day CTA/PACE unlimited pass = $105
- From May 28 – Nov 25, 2021 the 1, 3-, and 7-day passes will be $5, $15, and $20!!
Fares apply to Adults 12+. Children ages 0 – 6 years old are free with a fare-paying customer. There are no refunds, and your card can’t be replaced (unless you register your card and are mailed a replacement).
Note that if you choose to ride the CTA Bus only, you can pay in cash with exact change only.
There’s also a special airport fare if you plan to take the “L” train from O’Hare airport that is $5 each way in addition to the single ride tickets. However, this fee is NOT charged if you get an unlimited pass.
Let me put these amazing prices in perspective. Driving is fine, but parking fees are expensive in Chicago; we’re talking $16-$20 per hour and up to $30-$70 overnight! At these rates, it’s so much cheaper to take public transportation and much easier figuring out how to get around Chicago without a car!
Where to Buy: At rail station CTA/Ventra vending machines before you enter the station, the airport, download the App, online at ventrachicago.com, phone (1.877.NOW.VENTRA (1 (877) 669-8368), on the 2nd floor of the CTA HQ customer service center at 567 W. Lake Street, or certain retail locations. You can pay using cash or a credit/debit card.
How to Use: Simply tap your farecard or app on the center of the card reader as soon as you enter the bus or at the CTA rail turnstiles. A green “Go” message will appear, you’ll hear a chime, then continue along your journey.
Validity: From the first time you use it up until the length of your pass. For example, if you purchase a three-day pass and use it at 1pm on Tuesday, it will be valid until 1pm Friday. The Ventra card has a 20 year expiration date listed on the back of your card, but the app doesn’t expire.
Pros: You can load passes AND monetary value at the same time (passes credited first, then value). In addition, you can pay for up to 6 additional riders with you (must have enough value loaded on your card for everyone). Reduced fare programs up to half off are available for Children ages 7-11. There are also reduced fare programs for Illinois residents who are seniors, disabled, or active military, but you must submit an application and meet certain conditions in advance to take advantage of these discounts.
Cons: First, it takes time and research to determine how much money to load. Second, if you lose the pass without registering, there is no replacement. Finally, even if you do register your card and lose it, you have to wait to obtain a new card via mail or visit one shop with limited hours. This doesn’t work if you’re only going to be in the city for a few days.
Special Tips: The $5 Ventra card fee can be returned to you as value if you register within 90 days! The fee can also be waived it purchased online or by phone. Card is activated if purchased at a vending machine, retailer, or app, but if received via mail, you have to activate it.
Contactless Bank Card/Mobile Pay Apps
What is it: Use your personal credit or debit card, or mobile payment app (Apple, Samsung, or Google pay) to pay for each ride. Look for the contactless symbol on your bank-issued card.
Cost: Each single ride ticket is $2.50 for CTA trains, $2.25 for CTA buses, and $2 non-premium Pace buses. Each time you tap your card or device, you will be charged for a single ride.
Where to Buy: Cards are issued by your bank. Mobile payment apps can be downloaded to your Apple, Samsung, or Google phone.
How to Use: Use the same as the Ventra card, just tap your card or mobile payment app on the card reader, wait for the green “Go” chime and message, then go about your business.
Validity: For singles ride only. This method is valid as long as your credit card is active.
Pros: Easy, convenient, simple. You don’t have to worry about navigating a confusing farecard system or calculating how much you need. Just pay as you go.
Cons: The costs can add up quickly and be more expensive than a pass if you’re not careful, especially coming from O’Hare airport with the $5 surcharge. In addition, your card statement may be confusing if you use this method. For example, you may take two rides on the L ($5 total) but only see one $2.50 charge on your statement…and it may show a transaction date that doesn’t correspond to your trip! Payments are batch processed, meaning your bank may take a few days to process the correct amount on the correct day because they consolidate billing into one (or a few) mass transactions – so be patient and wait a few days before calling customer service to demand accurate billing.
Special Tips: The first time you use a bank card or digital wallet app (not Ventra app), you will see a $5 pre-authorization hold that will automatically adjust in 24-48hrs on your bank statement. Also, if you have multiple contactless cards, be sure to you take out the one you want to use, or else all of your contactless bank cards could be charged.
Still, if you’re still wondering how to get around Chicago without a car and Ventra isn’t to your liking, using a contactless or mobile payment method is a great option for single trips.
Divvy Bike Rental
What is it: A bike share/rental system (powered by Lyft) that offers classic and eBike rentals. Divvy operated 600+ stations and 6,000 bikes spread across Chicago.
- Classic Bikes = $3.30/30 mins. After 30 minutes, it’s an extra $.15/minute up to 3 hrs. For an unlimited day pass it’s $15/24-hrs.
- eBike prices = $3.30 + $.05-.25 per minutes based on the length of time and zone. Annual membership available for an upfront fee of $108.
Where to Buy: At various Divvy stations across Chicago.
How to Use: Download the Divvy Bikes App or buy a pass from a station kiosk. Unlock the bike with your dedicated QR code, then ride. When your trip is finished, dock the bike at an appropriate station and wait for the green light.
Validity: under 30 minutes without a membership and 45minutes with up to 3hrs. Unlimited passes valid for 24hrs.
Pros: Biking is a fun, fast, eco-friendly, and cool way to get around Chicago without a car. Why? You have the freedom of zipping past traffic and don’t have to return classic bikes to their original location. You can park on sidewalks without paying the crazy parking fees charged to vehicles, what’s not to love about that?!
Cons: There is a $3.30 “Unlock fee”. There are rules on where to park the bike and an additional $25 fee if you park outside the service area. Lost or stolen bikes will cost you $1,200. Ouch.
All in all, if the weather is pleasant, taking a bike is a viable option are you consider how to get around Chicago without a car.
Cost: Varies by company, but ranges from $6-10/one-way for adults, ½ price for children. All-day passes may be available for around $10.
Where to Buy: At the dock or online.
How to Use: Purchase tickets and show your pass to get onboard.
Validity: Based on the ticket purchased. Passes generally do not expire.
Pros: A beautiful, fun, relaxing, and unique way to see more of the city. There is little to no traffic on the water with seating available inside and out. In addition, some stops are wheelchair accessible and have restrooms onboard. If you think about it, a water taxi would be cheaper than using a ride-share service, with the minimum rideshare cost being around $9-12. Water taxis drop you off at a select major sites, so it’s an inexpensive way to sightsee by boat and explore new attractions at each dock.
Cons: Water taxi’s operate with limited service hours and capacity – there may be only 5 or 6 stops available with spaces for 30-40 people. These are water taxis, of course, so the service is weather dependent. If the weather is bad there will be no taxi – and the decision is made by the captain on the spot. In keeping with the weather, services are only offered during the Spring and Summer months. For larger families this may not be the cheapest way to get around and for those who get seasick – don’t use this option. Lastly, not all water taxis are wheelchair accessible and some may require patrons to walk up and down stairs to get to the dock.
Special Tips: The water is generally colder than land, bring a light jacket. Check the website for the day’s schedule before you go – some water taxis do not make all stops or may not be in operation all days of the week. Pay with a credit or debit card – not every stop accepts cash. Finally, this is a taxi service – not an attraction. Many people are disappointed because they expected the water taxi’s to be a cheaper form of the river architecture cruise when in fact the two services are vastly different. There will be no tour guide, narration, libation for purchase, or other special service. If you understand it is just a taxi on the water with great views – you’ll be just fine.
Walking is always free! Most Chicago attractions are within one mile and the parks are beautiful, so walk! Walking is always my preferred method when determining how to get around ANY city without a car.
- There is a smaller CTA rail system for the downtown loop area that literally runs in a circle, hence the name “loop”. According to UChicago’s Chicago Studies site, “Not all trains go around the Loop in the same direction! Of the trains that go around it (the red and blue lines go under it as subways), the pink, orange, and purple lines run clockwise, while the brown and green lines run counterclockwise.”
- Some rail lines are elevated above grounds, others are below. Check the direction of the stairs (down = underground, up = elevated) and jump on the train.
There you have it! This blog break down the Chicago transportation system (prices, city, metro rail, bus, airport transportation, maps, hours, etc.), Divvy, and the Ventra pass so you can navigate the Chicago transportation system with confidence on your first, or next, visit.
So, how are you going to get around Chicago without a car? Leave your preferred method, below!
Antoinette | Frolic & Courage