Getting around Chicago
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) (tel: +1 312 836 7000; www.transitchicago.com) operates trains and buses within the city. The trains are referred to as the 'El' or 'L' (the name is derived from the elevated rail that circles around the main downtown business and shopping district). Each train line is identified and named by a different colour. CTA services run 24 hours. Overnight or Night Owl services operate between approximately 0000 and 0500.
Passes for one, three, seven and 30 days are available. There is a transfer charge of US$0.25 between routes, whether train or bus. Tickets and passes are available from machines and ticket offices at the stations, as well as from visitor information centres and directly from the CTA. You can also load fares and passes onto Ventra smartcards or use your contactless bank card (international cards are likely to incur additional bank charges however).
Metra (tel: +1 312 322 6777; www.metrarail.com) is a commuter rail system serving the suburbs and surrounding cities.
The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) (tel: +1 312 913 3110; www.rtachicago.com) oversees Northern Illinois public transportation and includes the CTA, PACE suburban bus line (tel: +1 847 364 7223) and Metra.
The Navy Pier free trolley (http://navypier/trolley) travels between State Street and Navy Pier, with stops along the way. Buses run from late May until early September and then again during the holiday season (late November until after New Year's Day).
An underground system of 'pedways' (pedestrian walkways) is especially useful for escaping bad weather and crowded downtown streets. From this network, which links over 40 blocks of streets, there is access to many buildings, stations and shops in the Loop. Maps are available, free of charge, from hotels and around the various points of the system, including the Illinois Center.
These are easy to hail on the streets, especially in the Loop and Wrigleyville. A tip of 10 to 15% is usually expected. Major companies include Checker Taxi (tel: +1 312 243 2537) and Yellow Cab (tel: +1 312 829 4222).
If you're new to the city, driving is not recommended. The traffic is hectic during rush hours (0700-0930 and 1600-1900) and confusing because of the one-way street systems in downtown areas. Local drivers are sometimes impatient with those who do not know where they are going, so it is best for visitors to get into the main areas by train, bus or taxi and continue on foot.
If driving is the only option, be aware that the city streets are largely based on a grid pattern, the central point of which is the crossroads at Madison Avenue and State Street, in the Loop district. From here, the naming of a street as 'north' or 'south' or as 'west' or 'east' is taken for granted.
Street parking meters take coins (usually quarters and dollars) and many also take credit cards (all meters are gradually being upgraded). In many areas, you can also pay using your mobile phone. The more congested the area, the higher the meter rate. Major attractions may have limited parking but, in general, downtown parking is difficult and expensive. From 1 December to 1 April, Snow Parking regulations apply on many streets, making fewer spaces available, and cars parked on snow routes are likely to be towed.
The minimum age for hiring a car varies from 21 to 25 years. Car hire agencies charge an extra premium to drivers under 25. A valid national driving licence is required. If your licence isn't in English, it's a good idea to bring a translation. Costly insurance can be part of the hire arrangement, but you should check your own car insurance to see if your policy covers rental cars.
Recommended car hire companies include Alamo (tel: +1 888 826 6893; www.alamo.com), Avis (tel: +1 800 633 3469; www.avis.com), Budget (tel: +1 800 218 7992; www.budget.com) and Hertz (tel: +1 800 654 3131; www.hertz.com).
For visitors, cycling on the streets is discouraged; however, biking the lakefront cycling paths is pleasant. Bike and Roll Chicago, at Navy Pier, Millennium Park and Riverwalk (tel: +1 312 729 1000; www.bikechicago.com), has a good range of bicycles for hire. Divvy (tel: +1 855 553 4889; www.divvybikes.com) is a bikeshare scheme; as a visitor, your best bet is to buy a 24-hour membership, which allows unlimited 30-minute trips.