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Chicago Public Transportation

Updated: November 3, 2023
 By Mel

Getting around Chicago on public transit is easy for visitors and tourists, and can really save you money as you explore the Windy City.

Our Chicago tour guides have provided thousands of tours in the past few decades, so they are very well-versed in how to get around the city, and we'll be providing some of their suggestions in this post.

We'll also include helpful tips and tricks from members of our Chicago Travel Tips Facebook Group.


OVERVIEW

The ‘L’

Chicago residents call their train the ‘L’, not the subway or the tube, or the metra. We call it the L because it is short for “elevated.”

The majority of our train system is elevated above ground which means it is great to ride to enjoy the view of the city.

Taking the ‘L’is really handy especially to get to certain destinations.

You definitely need the ‘L’ to enjoy Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous work (Green Line; Oak Park Stop) or if you are actually a Sox fan and want to cheer for them (Red Line; 35th Stop).

Although some feel there is a risk of crime on the L and other public transportation in Chicago, most of the travelers on our Facebook Group insist it is entirely safe to ride these trains.

Some visitors even note that while they didn't trust this service before, they have since used the L and found it much easier than driving through the busy streets of Chi-town.

Other members on our Chicago Travel Tips group recommend that if you're still nervous, you can always ride in the first car of the train with the conductor, where there will always be someone to address any concerns.

While Chicago's transit system doesn't operate around the clock, CTA buses and trains typically run from around 4:00 AM until 1:00 AM daily.

Even if you stay out extra late, chances are you won't have too much trouble getting home!


Metra Commuter Rails

The high-speed Metra commuter rail service can take you from the downtown area to any of the surrounding suburbs quickly and safely.

For tourists visiting the city, the 495 miles of Metra rail servicing 241 different stations throughout the city can take you to all sorts of attractions Chicago has to offer.

By Russell Sekeet - Flickr: Metra 614, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14853423

From your seat on the train, you can see the beautiful lakefront, ride past the many museums, zoos, and sporting events, and even stop along the way to take in some of the cultural sites of the city.

Tips From Tourists:

If you're concerned about the safety of Metra trains, our Chicago Travel Tips group notes that there is nothing to fear.

Local users report that their experience on even the latest train of the night was entirely safe, and that you'll probably experience more problems during rush hour at Union Station!


TICKET - VENTRA CARD

All transit (subway trains, CTA trains, buses, Metra Trains) operate through one payment method, called a Ventra Card.

These cards can be purchased at all subway stations for a single ride, or re-loadable pass.

All train stations have a Ventra machine for purchasing these passes located just beside the entrance gates.

Chicago transportation pay station machine

CONTACTLESS PAYMENT

While the Ventra Payment Cards aren't technically contactless, there is one way to pay for the fare which won't require you to make contact with anyone else.

The Ventra App now allows you to pay for digital passes called Metra Mobile Tickets you can use to board trains.

All you need to do is show the ticket on your phone to the conductor when asked.

The Ventra Pass now includes contactless payment. Source: Ventrachicago.com.

You can also purchase digital Ventra Payment Cards using this app. The conductor won't need to touch your phone, so this method of payment is essentially contactless!

This mobile ticketing option is available on most Android phones, iPhones, and even the Apple Watch.

The Ventra App also includes tools such as up-to-date arrival and departure information and a trip planner.

This is probably the easiest way to purchase tickets or passes for Metra Commuter Rails, and it's also one of the safest options.

The prices listed below are the same on the Ventra App as they are for traditional tickets and passes.

Tips From Tourists:

Many users on our Chicago Travel Tips Facebook Group recommend using this app to make traveling around the city much easier, some even indicating it's better than hop-on hop-off bus tours.


FARES

You have several options when it comes to buying a Ventra Card.

Below are the base fare costs, meaning a one-way, one-time ride.

It’s important to compare a base fare/single ride cost to the cost of the passes, to determine which option is right for you.

Base Fare

  • “L” Train: $2.50
  • Bus Ride: $2.25
  • Transfer (within 2 hours): Free

Passes

  • CTA 1 Day Pass | $5
  • CTA 3-Day Pass | $15
  • CTA 7-Day Pass | $20
  • CTA/Pace 7-Day Pass | $25
  • CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass | $75

Cash vs Credit: While buses will take cash (exact change needed), in order to ride a train/subway you will need a Ventra ticket.

The Ventra machines are located at all train stations and accept cash or credit card.

Pro Tip: The cost of a reloadable card is $5, but you can register that card to receive $5 free ride credit, which gives you your money back!


CTA MAP

The map can be intimidating, but if we look at it one step at a time, it is actually pretty easy to track:

Click the map to enlarge it.

Chicago CTA Color-Coded Lines Sign

Chicago uses a color-coded Rail (‘L’) train system that operates on street level, underground, and on an elevated track.

Each color track on the map represents a different subway route:

  • Red Line
  • Blue Line
  • Orange Line
  • Brown Line
  • Pink Line
  • Green Line
  • Purple Line
  • Yellow Line

It’s best to first figure out which of the above lines you are taking, and then look at which stop on that line is closest to your destination.


The Loop

You’ll notice a magnified portion of the map called The Loop.

Trains coming from outside the city enter Downtown Chicago’s “Loop”, and then circle back out to cover the rest of the city in a loop pattern.

This makes it easy and fast to go anywhere in Chicago from hotels to popular attractions from Downtown Loop!

The Loop is the busiest and most exciting part of the city, and we offer a pay-what-you-like Loop Tour all year long!


GETTING AROUND BY TRAIN

The Red Line train is one of the most popular and frequent trains, as it runs north and south through Downtown along the coast.

It stops at the most popular attractions and busiest neighborhoods of Chicago.

The Red Line operates at all times, every day.

The Blue Line travels West to popular neighborhoods such as Wicker Park/Bucktown, and North to O’Hare Airport.

The Blue Line operates at all times, every day.

Chicago cta train

From O’Hare International Airport

The Blue Line arrives/departs from O’Hare Airport and enters “the Loop”, making it the most convenient way to get to your Downtown Hotel without needing to transfer. 

We go into more detail in our post titled: How to Get to Downtown Chicago from O'Hare Airport.


From Midway International Airport

The Orange Line arrives/departs from Midway Airport and enters “the Loop”, making it the most convenient way to get to your Downtown Hotel without needing to transfer.

We go into more detail in our post titled: How to Get to Downtown Chicago from Midway Airport.


GETTING AROUND BY BUS

Navigating Chicago's vast landscape can be quite a task.

But thanks to the Chicago Transit Authority's extensive bus routes, you can traverse from the bustling streets of State Street to the scenic beauty of Lake Michigan effortlessly.

Utilizing the CTA bus tracker, you can plan your day, whether you're heading to the Chicago suburbs or exploring nearby communities.

The grid system of the city is seamlessly connected, offering convenience for both weekdays and weekends.

For those who like nocturnal adventures, watch out for buses with the Owl symbol for late-night journeys.

Sometimes the fastest way from one destination to another is by bus.

Here’s what you need to know about CTA buses:

  • Every Bus is Accessible
  • Every Bus has a Timetable Schedule
  • Buses run daily every 10-20 minutes (holiday hours vary), stopping every 2 blocks.
  • Buses that run late at night will have an Owl symbol at their bus stop.
Chicago bus public transportation transit

Remember payment for bus fare in Chicago can be done through a Ventra ticket or cash only (exact change needed).

NOTE: NO credit card payments and NO change from the driver on buses. If you use the new Ventra App, you can present your digital pass to the driver and get on board that way.

TIP: If you'd rather not deal with figuring out Chicago's timetables and maps, why not utilize a hop-on-hop-off bus tour? You'll get interesting commentary on the city and simple routes to keep up with.


GETTING AROUND BY WATER TAXI

Chicago's water taxi system is another convenient way to get around and includes docks close to major attractions like the Navy Pier and Museum Campus, where you can find The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium.

However, the water taxis work on a separate ticket from the rest of the city's transport system. 

If you're just looking for an excuse to get out on the water, why not try a riverboat tour or cruise? These fun tours provide commentary about Chicago, and some of them include meals.

NOTE: This service will return in Spring 2023.

Tips From Tourists:

One of the members of our Facebook Group recommends this service as an excellent alternative to a river cruise, as it's much cheaper and they provide a similar service without the additional tour.

They also noted that if you do want a tour, we actually offer them for free!


DIVVY BIKE SHARE SYSTEM

This is separate from the CTA and your Ventra card, but well worth mentioning when discussing how to get around the city.

If the weather is nice, you may consider using the convenient bike share system, Divvy.

A 24-Hour Pass costs just $15 and offers unlimited 3-hour rides. There are hundreds of stations in Chicago, and you’ll find many riders on our streets!

Chicago public transportation bike

HELPFUL APPS

Here is a list of free apps we recommend for your stay in Chicago.

Navigate seamlessly through the Chicago Transit Authority's extensive network, keep updated on bus routes, or make your way around the Chicago River.

Whether you're hopping on a Chicago Water Taxi, understanding the city's grid system, or exploring suburbs and communities like Evanston, these tools are invaluable.

They ensure smooth journeys across Chicago, whatever the day of the week or the weather conditions.

Chicago public transportation apps

Google Maps

We recommend downloading the Google Maps app on your smartphone.

Unlike some map applications, this one tells you which bus or train line to get on, as well as the arrival/departure times and the name of your stop.

You can watch in real-time as you move toward your destination. Useful!


Ventra App

The Ventra App is free and gives you fast/easy access to “Transit Tracker” to see the up-to-the-minute schedule of CTA subway “L” trains, buses, and Metra Trains.

You can also re-load your registered Ventra Card or buy Metra tickets directly from the app.

Fares and passes can also be purchased on the Ventra App, allowing you to save time and wallet space.

As long as you have your phone, you'll never be stuck without transportation in Chicago!


Rideshare Apps

There could be times when it is much safer to use a rideshare service such as Uber of Lyft. For instance, if it's after dark and you need to get around, it might make more sense to use one of these services.

Even our Facebook Group members recommend this, but they also note that most fears over using CTA public transport are unfounded.


Spothero App

It can be very difficult to find parking in Chicago, but this app makes it very easy to find the best parking spots in the city.

Even if you're just looking for a place to park so you can use public transport for the rest of your journey, this is one of the easiest ways to get the job done.

You might also want to check our Chicago Travel Tips Facebook Group, as our members frequently offer suggestions of some of the best and most affordable places to park.


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About The Author

Mel

Mel loves to be a tourist in her own city. With a background in performing arts, tourism, and photography, giving tours and being a story-teller comes naturally to her. She loves traveling, food, and theatre. Mel splits her time between Chicago and Los Angeles (#theatrelife) and leads tours and manages both cities!
Updated: November 3rd, 2023
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