Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Trip Budget: the cost to visit Chicago?

Wanderlust Wednesday-Week 29
Ah budgeting! The most important part of travel happens to be the one part that no one wants to talk about. But budgeting plays such a big role in traveling that it can really hold people back from visiting the places they want to see. Because Chicago happens to be one of the most expensive cities in the country for travelers, I thought I'd share our tips for how to save and show exactly what we spent during a long weekend in the city. 

Use Rewards Points
As you will see from our budget below, I am a big fan of these. More details here, but I'm not sure how we would be able to afford travel right now without them.

Arrive Early and Leave Late 
It's a common practice of mine to take the earliest flight possible when leaving home. That way I arrive at my destination early and still get to enjoy a full day there. And when we head home, we normally take a red eye. Financially, it doesn't make sense to pay for a hotel room, only to wake up the next day and fly home. Just go home the night before and save on flights (red-eyes are the cheapest flight time) and accommodation costs.

Spend where it Matters
Decide what's most important to you and pick one or two places to splurge, while budgeting everywhere else. 

Skip the Tourist Traps
Tourist traps are everywhere and they will cost you. A prime example in Chicago would be the Architecture Tour. This is such a popular activity with tourists who happily shell out 30 to 40 bucks a pop to cruise down the Chicago River. Meanwhile, you can do the exact same thing with a self-guided tour on a water taxi for only $4. Basically, do your research and ignore those spots (ahem Navy Pier) that will unnecessarily nickel and dime your budget into the ground. 
And just to show that I practice what I preach, here's our exact budget for 3 days and 2 nights in Chicago.

Getting to Chicago is of course relative to your starting point. If you're close enough to drive, I say do it. Otherwise budget airlines like Southwest and JetBlue are your best bet. 
Once you're in the city, ditch the car completely. Everywhere you go will charge astronomical parking fees. Plus, the public transportation system here is one of the best I've seen. It's all you need for getting around the city. I'd recommend buying the Venture Pass, which gives you unlimited rides on Chicago's L-Train and city buses. We hopped right off our plane, then onto the subway and used the Venture Pass non-stop for the rest of our trip. Added bonus of Chicago's transport system includes taking a water taxi or biking along the LakeFront Trail to get gorgeous city views while traveling between your destinations. 
And here's a peak at just how much it cost us to get into and around the city.

One of the biggest budget concerns is where to stay. The hotel rates in Chicago are outrageously high, not to mention that the city has a 16% hotel tax. Yikes! And because we visited during peak season, mid-level hotels were starting around $300/night. NO THANK YOU! We decided to get a little creative and stay in a hostel.
Some people have negative views/stereotypes towards hostels, including my own Husband. It took a little convincing since this was his first hostel stay, but there was no arguing with saving hundreds of dollars on a room we would almost never be in.
And staying in a hostel doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay in a dorm room with 7 other travelers. We booked a private room at Holiday Jones Hostel, for only $82/night...well actually it was $100/night thanks to Chicago's pesky 16% accommodation tax. Our room was tiny, but it was spotless and more than adequate. We had access to luggage storage, laundry, Wifi, a full kitchen, rec room, and free breakfast. Plus there was a restaurant and bar right inside the hostel. Pretty much all of the amenities of a hotel (and more) without the big price tag. 
By the way, this place was a 10 on the hipster scale, making it one of the coolest places we’ve ever stayed. And now, Husband is totally on board for future hostel stays.

The best way to have a good time without bursting your budget in a city like Chicago is to take advantage of the FREE Things. Spend a day along Lake Michigan. Stroll Millennium Park and see the famous CloudGate aka The Bean. Pop into the Chicago Cultural Center for a tour and a glimpse of the city's famed architecture. All of these are FREE and WONDERFUL! So don't discount the free stuff.
If you're interested in visiting Chicago's museums, I'd recommend checking out the Chicago CityPass. We were fortunate enough to be gifted a set of passes and they truly helped us to see so much of the city on a budget.

Food and Drinks 
It just so happens that the foods Chicago are most famous for are pretty inexpensive. Chicago Style HotDogs and Deep Dish Pizza were definitely at the top of our menu. Don't worry, there are healthy options too. But in general, we found it pretty cheap to eat well in Chicago. Even with adding in drinks every night and fancy coffees every day, we only spent $41/person on food per day. 

Grand Total: $352 
We ended up saving thousands on this trip. First, we booked budget airlines and inexpensive accommodations as these two are always the big ticket items for any trip. Then we took advantage of rewards points to get all the free things. And from there it was easy to control our spending. You can see our original costs compared to what we actually paid out of pocket below. 
Hopefully, this shows just how affordable it can be to travel. Even if it's to one of the most expensive cities in the country, it can totally be done on a budget. 
More on Chicago!
Snapshots of the Windy City
Biking Chicago
Is the Chicago CityPass worth the Cost?

**Check back later this week for our Southwest Road Trip Budget

Linking up with thinkingoutloud//


  1. This was a very interesting read, especially with the budget breakdowns! That hostel actually looks really cool! We have never stayed in one, but now that I have heard good things, I wouldn't skip over the option if we had to in the future.

    1. We get asked a lot about how we "afford" all our travels a lot since we're both in grad school and not really making a bunch a money. So I always like to share budgets when I can to show how doable travel can be. Plus I know I'm always wondering about how things cost and I guess others do to as these budget posts end up being so popular for me.
      I am a big fan of hostels, I've always stayed in them in Europe so I'm glad they are becoming more popular in the states now. We stayed in a hostel during last weeks Seattle trip too and we loved it even more than this Chicago one. I definitely recommend it

  2. Omg such great tips! We were able to fly for free with our Southwest points. I'll have to remember the water taxi for the next time we come visit

  3. Ok I love how you've broken out the costs in a spreadsheet! And I love even more what great discounts you got. It sounds like we fell for the tourist traps hook, line and sinker with going on the architecture river tour AND the Ferris wheel, but we did at least check out the cultural centre and the bean as well. I think hiring bikes is an excellent idea. I loved Chicago and I'm keen to go back - especially to investigate some more budget options!

    1. Ha! It's totally ok to fall for the tourist traps now and then, especially if that's what you want to do. We definitely did this particular trip on a shoe trip budget so we stayed away. I'm glad you liked the tables, I was trying to make it visually easy to explain all the cost/savings