Help us troubleshoot our vacation to Chicago, April 1-5:
March 9, 2013 10:14 AM   Subscribe

This will be the biggest vacation yet for our family of four (son age 10, daughter age 12). Our vacations tend to run unsmoothly--some ugly surprise always pops up--and I'd like to get opinions from people who know Chicago before we set out. This will be a kid oriented trip.

We are quiet nerdy types and the main attractions we're looking forward to are the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. Here's our plan so far:

Tues, Apr 2: drive from KS to Springfield, IL (maybe Bolingbrook) and stay in a hotel there

Wed: drive into Chicago, visit to Lincoln Park Zoo (park in the zoo lot), drive back to Bolingbrook hotel

Thurs: take the train from Bolingbrook into the Loop, visit the Field Museum, take train back to Bolingbrook hotel

Fri: drive into Chicago, park in a muni lot, visit Shedd Aquarium, drive back to Springfield and home from there

We're lukewarm on the zoo. If there's a better kids' activity we might swap it out. Our kids put a lot of energy into fantasy medieval adventures (play acting, reading Terry Pratchett, FRP video games, etc) particularly.

Sometime in all of this we might try to hit Millennium Park.

Is there anything wrong with this plan? Examples:

* We picked Bolingbrook because it's close and hotels are much cheaper there. We're assuming it's basically family friendly and safe, but we'd like confirmation on that. (Maybe there's a better option for keeping lodging costs down.)

* I'm assuming we can drive from Bolingbrook into Chicago in about half an hour. If that drive is really 90 minutes because of traffic or current detours, we want to know.

* I'm assuming we'll be able to find parking (i.e. actually available spots) in the Loop for around $20/day. If this is way off, maybe we should think about taking the train every day instead.

* Anything bad specific to the zoo, museum, or aquarium, e.g. the best exhibit in the museum is going to be closed that week, they're opening a flashy new thing at the aquarium on Fri and it will be mobbed.

Any general Chicago advice also appreciated.
posted by mattu to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (36 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Why are you driving to the Shedd Aquarium and taking the train to the Field Museum? They're 100 yards apart. The parking is not cheap, though it may be cheaper than four train tickets plus the bus (if those free trolleys aren't running).

AFAIK, you'd have to drive to Naperville or somewhere for the train. I'm not really familiar with that area, so I don't know if that's your best option Metra-wise, but there's no station in Bolingbrook.
posted by hoyland at 10:28 AM on March 9, 2013

If you're meh on the zoo, consider the Museum of Science and Industry. It's huge, with lots of space of run around inside, and has a real train that you can go inside as well as a real airplane (Boeing 767 maybe?). It's maybe geared towards kids a little younger than yours, but my boyfriend and I (in our 20s) went and had a lot of fun, so they might like it. It's also close to a metra station, although I don't know if there's a train from there to Bolingbrook.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 10:31 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, there is street parking between the Field Museum and the Planetarium, before you give up and park in the Soldier Field garage, but it fills up. There's a slim chance your children aren't too old for the Planetarium, but I think it skews even younger than Science and Industry. (My mother basically hates both Science and Industry and the Planetarium, so I never went to either as a child, except on school trips to Science and Industry. The Planetarium is pretty terrible as an adult. I didn't like Science and Industry as a teenager, but it's not so hopelessly aimed at kids.)

It's also close to a metra station, although I don't know if there's a train from there to Bolingbrook.

There isn't. I'm about 90% sure that line goes out of the Randolph Street station (which has been rebranded Millenium Park?). Everything westbound is out of either Union Station or Ogilvie. It's not an unreasonable distance to walk between them, but it's not a direct connection. (I have no opinion about the best way to get to Hyde Park from downtown. Or Bolingbrook.)
posted by hoyland at 10:36 AM on March 9, 2013

I would rethink Bolingbrook. It's too far out, driving back and forth will suck. Why not look for an airbnb apartment in a pleasant Chicago neighborhood, and buy weekly cta passes to get around? The museums are interesting, but swooping in from a distant suburb will make your whole experience sterile and generic. Stay in the city so you can walk around, eat in local cafes, and really enjoy Chicago.
posted by bonheur at 10:38 AM on March 9, 2013 [15 favorites]

You should be able to find free street parking near the Lincoln Park zoo -- on the streets just west of Wells. You don't need a permit before 6pm.

I suggest this because if it works for you, you could repeat this on following days and quickly take the train (Sedgewick stop) or bus downtown from there.

(That will work great for millennium park; Field and Shedd will require you to change lines so it may be altogether too much.)
posted by wyzewoman at 10:39 AM on March 9, 2013

Best answer: It'd be helpful to know your hotel budget. What's the max you're willing to spend per night?

I'd personally re-think the Bolingbrook location. I don't think it's a dangerous area or anything, it's just kind of far from the city. I think you'll be looking at more like 45min to an hour by car, especially if you're traveling at rush hour. Public transit isn't really an option from Bolingbrook. The Amtrak commuter rail runs from Naperville (near Bolingbrook) into the city, so you could possibly drive to Naperville, park at the train station, and ride in. However, I'd recommend just staying in Naperville or another town with commuter rail or CTA access.

My husband and I have generally had good luck with Hotwire for getting hotels in Chicago. If you see a good price right in the loop, there's a good chance it's the Palmer House, which is lovely (though the rooms can be somewhat small).

You can also look at hotels in Naperville, Evanston, Skokie, or other areas with train service. Look at maps and schedules before booking anything, though--for instance, the CTA Yellow Line in Skokie has limited hours, etc.

I haven't used airbnb in Chicago, but that could be a really cool option. Some neighborhoods have easier street parking (and varying permit requirements) than others, so be sure to ask before you book anything.

Parking for $20/day in the Loop... this may be possible if you find a lot with early bird rates, but you'll have to know what time to arrive. You may also need to re-park after 5. If the car isn't critical to your plans in the city, I'd recommend you find a way to take public transit into and around the city. Definitely don't bother driving to the museums--if your kids were younger, I could imagine the hassle of bringing strollers, etc. on buses, but I think that given their ages, you're better off taking public transportation.

The Art Institute is really lovely, and is free Thursday evenings. The Museum of Science and Industry is fun--my dad took me there a lot when I was your kids' ages. If you go to the MSI, you'll be near the University of Chicago campus and can check out the Oriental Institute as well as the campus, which is gorgeous in the spring. The aquarium and Field Museum are also great, though if memory serves, the aquarium can be pretty expensive.

Don't underestimate the fun of a springtime walk up Michigan Ave if the weather is nice. Oh, and the Chicago Cultural Center (at Michigan and Washington) is a beautiful building, open to the public, and usually has some cool (free!) art exhibits going on.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:42 AM on March 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding the Museum of Science and Industry, I would bet good money that you will love it. I first went when I was your kid's age, but then again recently as an adult and loved it both times.
posted by mhp at 10:43 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

One other thing: if you're thinking of booking a hotel in the city using Hotwire, be sure to check and see if parking is included in the rate. Sometimes it's not, and hotel parking can run $50/day.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:43 AM on March 9, 2013

If you do decide to do airbnb (which I think is a great idea!), the neighborhood I just suggested you park in, Lincoln Park/Old Town near the zoo, is awesome; very safe and easy to get into the city.
posted by wyzewoman at 10:44 AM on March 9, 2013

(Although seconding to check about permits for parking, wherever you stay.)
posted by wyzewoman at 10:47 AM on March 9, 2013

Stay in Chicago, the place you want to visit. Don't mess around with driving into the city everyday.
posted by barnone at 11:04 AM on March 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

Despite the fact I went to the Lincoln Park Zoo roughly every other week between the ages of 12 and 15 (my dad lived within walking distance and has no idea what to do with children), you should probably skip it unless your kids love animals and you never go to a zoo. However, if your kids do like animals (and plants), the Nature Museum is near the north end of the zoo. Throw in the Chicago History Museum (which is the renamed Historical Society) and you've got a good day out all within walking distance of each other. I've not been to the Nature Museum, but I liked the Historical Society as a kid and went as an adult and it was good. (I played tour guide for three weeks for my cousin, who'd never been to the US before. She liked it as well, so it's not dependent on knowing anything about Chicago.)

The Art Institute is really lovely, and is free Thursday evenings.

It's only free for Illinois residents, according to the website. I have no idea if this is enforced.

There are some hotels along the expressway in Niles and/or Skokie, which would make the driving not so bad. Downtown Evanston has some hotels because of Northwestern and the Purple Line has a full schedule (though it only goes downtown during rush hour, but changing at Howard is not burdensome). There's a chance (though perhaps slim) that that would save you money over staying in Chicago proper and central Evanston is at least walkable and reasonably interesting.
posted by hoyland at 11:19 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Best Western River North has free parking and is relatively well-located, easy highway access and walking distance to bus lines and Red and Brown CTA lines and is in a bustling, safe area. I would certainly price out your various scenarios, but compared to the cost of Metra fares, driving in and out of the city every day and paying for parking, it may come out very close to equal. Check for AAA discounts, etc.

If you really want to stay out in the suburbs, here is a map with the Metra commuter rail* lines overlaid on a Google map so you can see the service. Do be careful to check the schedules of the lines you pick: not all Metra lines run off-peak or weekend service. For instance, there is actually a Metra station near Bolingbrook, in Lemont, but the line (Heritage Corridor) that it's on only runs three inbound trains in the AM and three outbound trains in the PM on weekdays. Not ideal.

It doesn't really sound like your kids are set on a zoo, but if for some reason they are I would recommend the Brookfield Zoo, in the burbs, over the Lincoln Park Zoo. Brookfield has entry fees ($55.50 total for your family) versus the free LP Zoo, and is obviously not in the city, but it's much, much bigger and better. I certainly wouldn't drive in to the city from the suburbs just to visit the Lincoln Park Zoo unless it was part of a bigger Lincoln Park/lakefront plan.

(*Minor nitpickiness: there is no "Amtrak commuter rail" in the Chicagoland region. Amtrak runs intercity and long-distance trains, Metra runs commuter rail, and CTA runs city rail transit and buses.)
posted by andrewesque at 11:20 AM on March 9, 2013

Some museum advice for you: general admission to the Field Museum is a days worth of looking at really cool stuff. The special exhibits are great, but if you are on a budget skip them and just walk through Our Evolving Planet which is the best museum exhibit I have ever been through (dinosaurs! natural selection! the entire history of life on earth plus pretty awesome introductions to stuff like island biogeography!). The early Americas stuff is brilliant as well and covers early cultures of the Midwestern region as well as cool Aztec stuff as well as the lives of native peoples in the present.
The Shedd is expensive and packed in the summer. If you are picking one, go for the shark exhibit instead of the dolphin show, which was awful the last time I went.
posted by velebita at 11:34 AM on March 9, 2013

Definitely don't stay in Bolingbrook. You'll spend 80% of your vacation stuck in traffic. It routinely takes my mother an hour to get to me, in the city, from her much-closer suburb.

If you're absolutely determined to stay in a suburb, Naperville is actually really nice in itself--has a nice little downtown with cafes and a riverwalk--and has a train direct to the city.

$20/day parking? Not easily. Median daily parking is $32/day, and we've easily spent $40 when stuck there with a car.

It would be really helpful to know your hotel budget. But if you stay in the Loop, the Gold Coast, the Mag Mile, Near North...these are all really quite safe and family-friendly areas. I mean sure, you're gonna see a couple of homeless people, and it'll be a little bit loud. But really-- your kids, at their ages? They're gonna love it.
posted by like_a_friend at 11:36 AM on March 9, 2013

I second Hotwire or Priceline for hotels. I live in Chicago but have booked three-ish-star Loop hotels (think Sheraton, Hyatt, etc.) for people on Priceline for under $100/night easy (including taxes). Granted, those were weekend rates; weeknights may be a lot more, but you can at least give it a try.

You will have to leave really early every day if you want to beat rush hour and get early-bird parking rates downtown. It's not worth it. Just look at how focused most of your questions are on the driving and parking situation.

You could drive to the airport and leave your car in long-term parking, then take the train into the Loop. You will save a couple hours per day compared to driving in and out of Bolingbrook, and really, after a long day sightseeing when everyone is hungry and cranky, the last thing you want to do is get in a car and sit in traffic before you can go back to your hotel, right? Everywhere you want to go is easily accessible by public transportation so having a car in the city is more of a liability than a convenience (traffic, parking, etc.).
posted by payoto at 11:46 AM on March 9, 2013

This guest house in Andersonville (Swedish neighborhood in North Chicago) is an excellent option. They're affordable (200ish a night), beautiful and homey 3 bed condo spaces with free parking. Andersonville is a lovely neighborhood and you would be able to take buses and the el to all the destinations you listed. In fact, the 22 Clark bus south has a station right in front of the building. You could take that right into the middle of the Loop--it'd be about a 30 minute journey.
posted by Lieber Frau at 11:49 AM on March 9, 2013

Best answer: Don't stay in Boilingbrook. There are crapload of hotels in Chicago so you can probably find something cheap on priceline or hotwire. If you absolutely can't stay in Chicago stay Evanston or Skokie or Downer's Grove, or something. All closer to Chicago.

Here is website of the Metra map. Like the commenter stated above, no Metra goes to Boilingbrook, so there is your first big surprise avoided. You can also see what suburbs are on a Metra line. If you end up staying in a suburb, make sure you check how time it will take you to get to Chicago.

Also, skip the zoo and go to Navy Pier. You got a Ferris Wheel, a carousel, miniature golf, Chicago Children's Museum, Imax Theatre, SightSeeing Cruises, all kinds of stuff.

Chicago Kids is about places to go and things to do with kids.

Since your kids are into medieval things, there is a Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament in Schaumburg, which is around 45 minutes away from Chicago.
posted by nooneyouknow at 12:05 PM on March 9, 2013

Another vote for staying much closer to the city, especially since you're going to be there on weekdays. Traffic is godawful in Chicago and the drivers are more aggressive than anywhere else I've been. See the big red line on this map? That's you in the car with a couple of possibly cranky kids who just want to see the damned zoo/museum already. That's your "ugly surprise that always pops up."
posted by desjardins at 12:14 PM on March 9, 2013

Response by poster: Wow. I'm persuaded we don't want to drive in from the suburbs daily. We're taking another look at staying in the city. AirBNB is an option I wouldn't have thought of, thanks bonheur.

Stashing our car in long term parking at the airport makes sense (assuming our hotel doesn't have parking or wants $50/day for it).

It sounds like we're going to have to learn a little about the Chicago public transport system. I'll take a look at this and maybe post some follow up questions later.

Thanks everyone, I think we'll have a nicer trip.
posted by mattu at 12:52 PM on March 9, 2013

I disagree with nooneyouknow's suggestion of Navy Pier over the zoo because Navy Pier is basically a tourist trap. The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is there, if that's up your alley, but you'd be going for the theatre, rather than Navy Pier, if that makes sense. (Ditto the Children's Museum, but 12 is almost certainly too old for it.) Depending on your kids, you might want to investigate the Steppenwolf and the Goodman.

Minor nitpickiness: there is no "Amtrak commuter rail" in the Chicagoland region. Amtrak runs intercity and long-distance trains, Metra runs commuter rail, and CTA runs city rail transit and buses.)

I nearly said this because it was making me twitch. I consoled myself by concluding they were referring to the Chicago-Quincy service, which does stop in Naperville. Whoever the Quincy equivalent of Joe Biden is might commute on it, I guess.

Swedish neighborhood in North Chicago

There's actually a town called North Chicago, by the way. Where they very much don't want to stay. Unless they know someone at Great Lakes, but, if they did, they'd not be proposing to stay in Bolingbrook.
posted by hoyland at 12:56 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Good lord, don't stay in Bolingbrook. Find something near the Loop. There's a gigantic, ancient Hyatt just south of the Loop easy walking distance from the museums. Look around, but money you save by staying in the suburbs will get you stupid horrible traffic, paying lots for gas, wasting time, etc. The suburbs of Chicago mostly suck, with a few exceptions.

Also, it's often cool and rainy that time of year. Think of some more indoors things you might want to do as back up. Then again, it was mid 80s last March, so just prepare for unpredictable weather.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 1:42 PM on March 9, 2013

As others have said, definitely don't stay in Bolingbrook. I used to work out there, and even at odd hours it'll take you at least an hour. If you're going at normal times it's a nightmare. (On the bright side, there's an IKEA?)

Serious recommendation: get a hotel room by O'Hare. You can get crazy deals at O'Hare airport hotels (definitely under $100 a night), and taking the blue line into the city is no thing - unlike the Metra, it runs every few minutes, all day and all night. Look for something near the Rosemont blue line stop. Downtown hotels would be ideal obviously, though they do tend to be pricey. But there's definitely no reason to go all the way out to Bolingbrook.

Seconding the Brookfield Zoo. I love the LP Zoo, but it's not worth a whole trip if you're coming from out of town. The Brookfield Zoo is fabulous. If you've got nerdy-ish kids, the Museum of Science and Industry, as others have mentioned, is a can't-miss. It's an amazing museum, and Hyde Park is a fun neighborhood to wander around.

Also Medieval Times is awesome :x and if you're staying by O'Hare it's right down the street.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 3:16 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

If your family likes "heights" there is the Skydeck.
posted by oceano at 7:28 PM on March 9, 2013

When i take my kids to Naperville to visit my parents - we stay in a hotel in Naperville (make sure to get one with an indoor pool). The kids love taking the train in (and then cab) to the Field Museum. They also love the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville. I also recommend the Brookfield Zoo (also on the train from Naperville - the Hollywood stop if I remember correctly).

My tip on the Field Museum (which is a full, long exhausting day for me and the kids) - plan on getting there just before it opens and then go to the Corner Bakery (in the great hall) BEFORE noon - you will get decent food, decent place to sit before it gets horribly crazy.

I love the Museum of Science and Industry also, but have not yet taken my kids there - maybe next time.

Memail me if you want any info on Naperville (my hometown!)
posted by nightwood at 8:09 PM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Millennium Park is better in the summer, when kids can run through the fountains and maybe the orchestra will be practicing or there is a free show at night.

Any of the museums are great, but the Adler was so-so last time I was there (but the view of the skyline is unbeatable). The Shedd is much less crowded on weekdays. The Field Museum is seriously great! This exhibit will be there at that time.

The Lincoln Park Zoo is no great shakes, but being free, sometimes it's nice just to take a few hours, walk through the zoo, and then have a picnic in Lincoln Park or on the lakefront. That's a nice day in the city. The nearby History Museum is awesome and gives you a great overview of the city, but parts of it can just be reading a lot of placards.

This was years ago, but we went to Medieval Times on a field trip in middle school and it was actually a really great time.

I would definitely make sure you set aside time to just walk a neighborhood, get some pizza or a hot dog, and see what you come across. And, if you have a chance, take them to a show or to see some live music. It always felt cool when my parents would take us to see shows, let us stay up late, take us to fancy restaurants, etc. Sometimes just being in the city, riding trains, taking cabs, is the best part.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 9:49 PM on March 9, 2013

Best answer: The thing about the LP Zoo is that it's a very nice, but little, urban zoo. Unless you or your kids are wholly unfamiliar with the zoo experience or conversely wholly immersed in it, it's not a full day excursion -- more like a morning or afternoon, plus exploring the city.

and Hyde Park is a fun neighborhood to wander around

... as long as you know where Hyde Park is and the rest of the surrounding area isn't. There's a lot of severe urban blight nearby and some pleasant-looking streets that are nonetheless a bit dicey, e.g. street dealing. Hyde Park itself my birthplace is very much an oasis, very generally safe, but it and the campus periodically have incursions of a concerning nature (not, generally, in broad daylight, of course). Basically, stay close to the lake and the Hyde Park business district if your urban instincts aren't in full flex.

A couple of cheap things to consider Loop-wise: If you take the Metra or your car in, then be sure to block out some time for a ride around the "L" Loop which is not actually the namesake of the Loop but whatever -- it's a single fare, you get a great view of the skyscrapers, and don't have to struggle with traffic. The other thing you can do (but costs more) is take one of the boat rides on the Chicago River, with great views, including under the famed bascule bridges. I would assume your kids aren't old enough for the walking architectural tours, though. Another is walking from the Adler/Shedd/Field Museum Campus up the lakefront along the path. Great views of the city and urban lakefront hubbub. Continue over to see the Bean. Opinions vary but I suspect your kids will love it. There's also a good chance that Buckingham Fountain will be open by then.

Pizza and hot dogs, definitely. Find a place you can enjoy traditional Chicago-style pan pizza, like Pizzeria Uno's/Due's, and look (preferably for any old hole-in-the-wall) for a Chicago-style hot dog with all the trimmings (and no ketchup). Hot pretzel carts, taquerias, etc. will all be hopefully somewhat novel to your kids and instill in them the excitement of the big city even if any individual part isn't the ne plus ultra. Hit State Street and Michigan Ave, Macy's (*cough* Field's) and maybe one of the urban malls like Water Tower Place (which will take you by the iconic Water Tower itself).

I would just generally try to mix and match as many things about the city as possible in a trip like this rather than doing it like a carefully managed theme park. Part of the fun is the unexpected.
posted by dhartung at 1:27 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it's too expensive or you don't want to stay in the city, maybe consider staying in Oak Park. It feels suburb-y but is right on the Green Line and could probably get you downtown in... 20-30 minutes or so? Plus it's way more fun for kids to get to ride the El with all the locals than have to drive into the city every day.
posted by jabes at 9:38 AM on March 10, 2013

I've done downtown with kids about the same age as yours. We stayed at the Essex Inn, which was cheapish and though not luxurious, certainly worth it. (Kids like the pool, too.) The location was fantastic.

I wouldn't do the zoo. Let the kids decide, but the Art Institute is worthwhile, as well as the Museum of Science and Industry. We ended up going to the Shedd, as well, though I thought it was pretty pricey. The Field Museum if you've got kids into dinosaurs.

Just walking from the hotel to the various museums and Millenium Park and Buckingham Fountain was lovely. We left the car in the car park the whole time. (I don't think it was included in the price of the hotel, but this was years ago.)
posted by RedEmma at 10:26 AM on March 10, 2013

If it's too expensive or you don't want to stay in the city, maybe consider staying in Oak Park. It feels suburb-y but is right on the Green Line and could probably get you downtown in... 20-30 minutes or so?

Oak Park is mostly a safe place, but the Green Line is definitely not. I would not recommend it for a family of out-of-towners who may not have the same street smarts as an urban dweller.
posted by desjardins at 11:31 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Navy Pier is bland and touristy, but it can be fun for kids if you're willing to let them "off leash" in a safe environment. I have fond memories of being allowed to roam around by myself or with a sibling at that age, and then joining back up with parents at a certain time. Navy Pier is also home to the Chicago Children's Museum, which has an awesome exhibit up right now, Tinkering Lab.

I think the Museum of Science and Industry would be good for that age kid as well. There's lots to see, and an Omnimax theater, too. Afterwards, walk through the Wooded Island and/or the University of Chicago campus. Give the kids cameras and devise a photo scavenger hunt, or see if you can find some geocaches. Eat at the Medici. Relax. Have fun.

Do not miss Millennium Park! It's amazing in any season (and free). Check out the Herald Washington Library, too. Beautiful space.

If it's not horrible outside, walk or bike along the lakefront for a ways. Chicago's lakefront trail is a treasure and a great way to see the city. I also enjoy walking up and down Michigan Ave. and State st. downtown. Buy popcorn from Garrett's and gape at the tall buildings. Ride the train around. The kids will love it.
posted by bonheur at 1:40 PM on March 11, 2013

Response by poster: For anyone still following the thread, thanks again.

We did pick up a Loop hotel via Hotwire at a reasonable rate (it was the Palmer, Meg).

We're planning on parking long term at the Cumberland Station near O'Hare on Wed morning, and taking the Blue Line into the Loop. If there's a better idea, please share.

We nixed the zoo. If the weather on Wed is nice we'll probably just walk around or ride the train as several people have suggested.

This is almost getting into new question territory, but I've never stayed in a hotel with wait staff before. When should I expect to interact with and tip bellhop type people? How much should I tip?
posted by mattu at 8:32 PM on March 11, 2013

When you arrive, they might ask if you want help with your bags. You can decline if you're fine carrying them to the room yourself. If you want help (too many bags with little kids) say yes, and they'll put them on a cart for you. Once you're checked in, they'll ask for your room number, and walk with you to the room. After they drop the bags in the room, you can give them a tip. A dollar a bag, or $5, is roughly the going rate.

You can also decline, and carry the bags to your room yourselves.

When you check out, you can do so over the phone, or on the TV, or in person at the front desk. They may ask if you need help with your bags, which you can accept or decline as needed.

If the bellhop hails a cab for you, it's customary to give him a few dollars.

I'm so excited for you to stay in a hotel in the city! Go with the flow, try a few new things, get some sleep and you'll have a great time. You can always post with another question about restaurants in that area if needed :-)
posted by barnone at 3:28 PM on March 13, 2013

Here's a thread on accepting help from a porter or bellhop. Consensus: Absolutely not required and you can decline politely. If you do accept their help, $1-2 a bag seems to be standard.
posted by barnone at 3:36 PM on March 13, 2013

If you haven't already, check out the pricing for your definite destinations online. Shedd has a LOT of different prices, and one of the options is only available for that price if you pay for it ahead of time.

MSI woke a 12-year-old from his ennui last summer and we all enjoyed it so much we went back the next day. There are are a lot of wow-factor displays at MSI, plus demonstrations where they blow things up.

Both Field and MSI would take more than two days to see everything good, so I suggest that you don't save your most-anticipated museum for the last day. That way if you get there and realize there's so much cool stuff you won't have time to see, you just go to the membership desk and they will apply what you've already paid towards a membership. I think with almost all membership levels at Field and MSI, it's cheaper to buy a membership than pay for two days. You will also get access to the member lounge (MSI has one, I don't know about Field) and discounts on food and merchandise.

There are hot dog carts between Field and Shedd and towards the backside of Field (that one has veggie dogs!) in case that will help with an easy Chicago hot dog fix.

If you are in Millennium Park around dinnertime there's a Giordano's just north of the park (for Chicago-style pizza). Look at a map ahead of time or it will be hard to find.

I think staying in the city is a much better idea than Bolingbrook. Have fun!
posted by Anwan at 7:29 PM on March 14, 2013

Response by poster: For the long term record: we got back today, the trip went well, Chicago is a cool city.

Thanks to everyone who encouraged us to stay in the city. So, so much better than driving in every day would have been.
posted by mattu at 7:28 PM on April 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

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