Getting around Chicago on public transit is easy for visitors and tourists, and can really save you money as you explore the Windy City. Be a good trip planner and take the time to learn how the public transit works. Then read about Things to do in Chicago to plan the rest of your trip.
This guide makes it easy to use the subway “EL” trains and buses, and gives you all the information on how to buy and use the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), and how to read the maps.
All transit (subway 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 (see below for information on the free Ventra app).
All train stations have a Ventra machine for purchasing these passes located just beside the entrance gates.
WHAT YOU PAY
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.
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!
The map can be intimidating, but if we look at it one step at a time, it is actually pretty easy to track:
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:
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.
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 (they do a loop, get it?). This makes it easy and fast to go anywhere in Chicago from hotels to popular attractions from Downtown! 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 and 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.
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. Luggage is allowed on trains with you.
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. Luggage is allowed on trains with you.
GETTING AROUND BY BUS
Sometimes the fastest way from one destination to another is by bus. Here’s what you need to know about CTA buses:
Remember payment for bus fare in Chicago can be done through a Ventra ticket or cash only (exact change needed). NO credit card payment on the bus, and NO change from the driver.
GETTING AROUND BY BIKE
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 $9.95 and offers unlimited 30 minute trips. There are hundreds of stations in Chicago, and you’ll find many riders on our streets!
Here is a list of free apps we recommend you download during your stay in Chicago to help you get around the city easily.
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!
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.
First, Chicago-people 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 like the famous Al Capone’s hangout “The Green Mill”jazz club (Red line; Lawrence Stop) or to check out Wrigely Field (Red line; Addison Stop). 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).
Metra Commuter Rails
The high-speed Metra commuter train 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 commuter rails servicing 241 different stations throughout the city can take you to all sorts of attractions Chicago has to offer. From your seat on the train you can see the beautiful lakefront, ride pass the many museums, zoos, and sporting events and even stop along the way to take in some of the cultural sites of the city including concerts, theaters, orchestras and art exhibits.
The base fare for the commuter rail starts at $2.75 for adults and can go up from there depending on the distance you plan to travel and the number of zones you expect to cross. You can purchase a 10-ride pass that starts at $27.50 and up.
+++Check out our pay-what-you-like walking tours of Chicago. All tours start downtown and can be easily reached via CTA!+++