Here's an obvious statement: exploring Chicago can be expensive. But it doesn't have to be, and just because you're on a budget, doesn't mean you have to miss out on all the fun things to do. There are many, many ways to save money, including discounted attractions, half-price tickets to the theater, food and drink specials, and finding cheaper places to stay. There's even discounted parking. We've listed tons of tools to help you find cheap things to do in Chicago and have fun in the city on a budget.
How to Save Money in Chicago
Want to skip spending a dime? Check out our list of free things to do in Chicago.
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If you live in Illinois, you're in luck. Many of Chicago's museums that charge admission offer free days for Illinois residents. Chicago residents also get discounted admission at several attractions, including Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry.
If you don't live in Illinois or Chicago, or if you can't visit during one of the free days, you're not out of luck. There are still ways to visit these attractions on a budget.
CityPass gets you tickets to five of the city's biggest attractions:
- Adler Planetarium OR Art Institute of Chicago
- Field Museum of Natural History
- Skydeck Chicago
- Museum of Science and Industry OR 360 Chicago
- Shedd Aquarium)
You can get your CityPass any time, and it's valid for nine days from the date of your first use.
With the Go Chicago Card you pay one price and receive free admission to more than 25 Chicago attractions. When you're visiting Chicago on a budget, this is definitely a great way to save money. There are three options, so you can find one to fit your interests, and your budget:
- All-inclusive pass
- Explorer Pass
- Build your own
That last one is particularly helpful if you've got limited time and money, because you can be specific about the attractions you know you want to see.
Save money on tickets with a Go Chicago Card. Save up to 55% off Chicago attractions - get this virtual pass on your smartphone now!
Viator is known the world over as a place to buy tickets for attractions, tours, and all sorts of sightseeing fun. While the ticket prices aren't necessarily discounted, you can see many of your options in one place and how they've been rated by verified users. For example, a quick glance of what they offer in Chicago includes a Chicago architecture boat cruise, admission to Skydeck Chicago, and a couple of hop-on hop-off tours.
Another way to find multiple things to do based on your budget and user ratings is to use TripAdvisor. They own Viator, so when you book directly through TripAdvisor, you're booking through Viator. We tested it out on a visit to San Diego and it was easy-peasy.
TLTip: If you've got a Chicago Public Library Card, you can check out the Kids Museum Passport, which gets you into several attractions for free.
Sure, you could spend $100 and up - per person - at Chicago's best restaurants, but when you're on a budget, that's not really an option. You're not stuck with fast food or bologna sandwiches. Several bars and restaurants offer great food and drink specials. You can get $1 tacos on Tuesday, half-price bottles of wine, $5 pizzas, and 50-cent wings.
Some specials are all day, and some are just during Happy Hour. Taking advantage of these means you can get some pretty tasty food and some drinks to go with it for a lot less than you think. Click here to find Chicago food and drink specials
Another way to save at Chicago bars and restaurants is to buy certificates through Restaurant.com. These certificates are sold at a discounted rate. For example, you can get a $10 certificate at La Taberna for just $4. There are restrictions, of course. There's almost always a minimum purchase required ($20 at La Taberna) and they're usually for dine-in only. They're often restricted on the weekends, too, so make sure you read the fine print.
There are nearly 400 participating restaurants within 20 miles of Chicago and nearly 250 in Chicago itself, meaning there are plenty to choose from. Like using TripAdvisor and Viator to save money, Restaurant.com is another good resource for travel outside of Chicago, too.
There are more than 240 theaters in Chicago, These range from tiny storefronts scattered throughout the city's neighborhoods to the gorgeous venues in the downtown Chicago Theatre District. There are theaters that consistently produce critically acclaimed plays, like Steppenwolf and Goodman. There are short runs of a week, and long-running shows including the vibrant Blue Man Group and the fun Tommy Gun's Garage.
With so many theaters, and so many performances, you could see a show every day of the year, but that would get pretty pricey, pretty quickly. Fortunately, there are two services that offer discounted tickets to Chicago theater.
HotTix is run by the League of Chicago Theaters and offers half-price tickets. Similar to the TKTS Discount Booths in New York City, HotTix operates booths that you can visit to pick up day-of tickets. However, you can also purchase tickets online. While most of them are for the same day or the next day's performances, you can also find half-price tickets for future dates. Click here to see what's on sale at HotTix
Goldstar is another service that offers half-price tickets. Not only do they have discounts for theater, you can also find cheap tickets to cruises on Lake Michigan, walking tours, and special events like the One of a Kind Show, or the International Gem and Jewelry Show. The Second City's UP Comedy Club frequently offers discounted tickets through the platform, as does City Winery and Winter's Jazz Club. All-in-all, signing up with Goldstar is a great way to save money on tickets.
Whether you're visiting Chicago as a tourist, or you're a local taking a staycation, one of the biggest expenses will be where you stay. You can make it less expensive, though, by trying these resources:
If your dates are flexible, check TravelZoo first. They find deals all over the world, and there are always some great discounts in Chicago. You just plug in where you want to go and the number of people and search for their current deals. You can keep the dates open, or you can choose specific days.
Some deals are discounted rates, and others are included add-ons, like parking or room service. Examples of deals include $79 at the Warwick Allerton near the Magnificent Mile and $50 of extras at the Gold Coast's Ambassador Hotel. While you're on the site, you can also find deals on attractions, shows, restaurants, and more.
If you're really flexible and price is a big consideration, check Priceline Express Deals. You plug in where you're going and when, and Priceline searches for deals up to 60% off. The only catch is, you won't know which hotel it is until you book it. However, you will see how many stars a hotel has, what brands of hotels are included in that category, how other travelers have rated it, and what kinds of amenities you can expect. We've used this service a lot, and have had good experiences. It's always exciting to see where we end up!
For more certainty in your hotel planning, use TripAdvisor. They search more than 200 booking sites to find the best deal. You can plug in your dates, and also narrow your search by type of property (B&B, hotel, etc.), the specific neighborhood, and amenities like free parking, wifi, or breakfast.
This one's a biggie. It's such a pain, and can be so expensive, we've written a whole guide on parking in Chicago. While the easiest thing to do, especially if you're staying downtown, is just to park at the hotel, it's also the most costly (by far).
Instead of paying full price or trying to find street parking, sign up with a discounted parking service. You can then search for and book your parking in advance and you'll end up saving a ton of money. Parkwhiz and Spothero both operate in downtown Chicago.
There you have it! Our top ways to save money in Chicago. Do you have some favorite tips you'd like to share, or have you used any of ours? Let us know on Twitter and Facebook! And, before you go, be sure to pin this so you can always access these budget tips.