Getting around Chicago & Renting a Car
June 23, 2014 11:05 AM   Subscribe

We (two adults and one rambunctious toddler) will be visiting family in Morton Grove, IL this coming week (Jun 28–Jul 4). Although we will be spending a few days with the family, we also want to make a number of trips into the city to see the sights. Since we are outside of Chicago we're wondering about the logistics of getting around.

Assuming that we do rent a car for one or more days, which sights would require the use of the car, and which would work with public transportation? Note that we are around 10 minutes from the nearest bus stop and 20 minutes from the train station.

So far, none of the sights we're interested in look ideal for public transportation. For example, the Museum of Science & Industry is at least a 1.5–2 hour haul on a variety of public transportation, but just 30-40 minutes by car. In fact everywhere I look in Chicago it seems there is a 3-4:1 ratio of public transportation time to car travel time.

I would like to take the L at least once or twice, and ideally other forms of public transport as well. Is there somewhere inexpensive where we can park all day, and then use buses/trains/etc to get around?

Finally, any car rental recommendations apart from the standard airport rental options? Particularly since renting from an airport location makes it inconvenient to rent the car for only part of the trip?
posted by Deathalicious to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There are places that are Park and ride for the CTA. So you can do that. The cta website has information. Travel times generally estimate ideal conditions and holiday travel will be worse and the may or may not be doing construction on the Kennedy that weekend. Mid day During the week will be pretty fast though especially if you know your way around.

Also check parking prices. You're looking at between 20 and 30 dollars for all day downtown parking. It may not be worth the cost and availability of parking spaces can be difficult to the point you may have to take a bus from where you park anyway. Tourist places are notorious for high parking rates.

It all depends on what you want to do. The Mexican Art museum is pretty cool and has free street parking. But it is not downtown.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:27 AM on June 23, 2014

In general, and especially with regard to the suburbs, Chicago's public transportation is geared toward hub and spoke commuter usage. It works pretty well if you're staying downtown, or need to get downtown, but for other uses it can come up a bit short.

Parking in the loop is pretty pricey, but just outside it the rates are more reasonable ($10 for the day).

For car rental, I think most companies will have branch locations throughout the suburbs. I checked Enterprise, and they have a Morton Grove location, I would guess others would too.
posted by borkencode at 11:55 AM on June 23, 2014

One thing you should take into account when you're debating taking public transit vs. driving is traffic. Chicago traffic is, uh, pretty uniquely intense (read: terrifying beyond measure), and a combination of construction projects, the time of day, and other folks' generally unpredictable driving patterns can sometimes add upwards of an hour to a trip that should only take 15 minutes according to your GPS, whereas if you're on the El, you don't have to worry about that stuff at all. I've lived about 90 miles north of Chicago all my life, and it can take me anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 to 4 hours to get there in a car... which is why I always take the train.

I'd recommend grabbing a rental car at the airport and parking at the Morton Grove Park & Ride Lot ($1.75/day), then taking the Metra to the end of the line at Union Station, which will put you smack dab in the middle of downtown.

Once you get there, head out the Jackson Street exit, walk east on Jackson for about half a mile -- you'll be heading over the bridge, past Willis (Sears) Tower -- turn south on State, and go 2 blocks south to Congress. From there, hop on the southbound #10 bus, which will take you on a scenic trip down Lake Shore Drive and directly to the front door of the Museum of Science & Industry. The #10 bus will also take you to the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Ave), the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum Campus (home of the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and Soldier Field), so you can hop on and off at various points, which will help make the trek feel shorter than it is.
posted by divined by radio at 12:13 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Kayak will let you search for both airport and non-airport rental car locations as well as distance from city center. So you can search for Morton Grove and see what is close/affordable. Airport rentals include alot of extra fees and taxes so it is usually cheaper at non airport locations (although sometimes the airport ones are more competitive so it makes sense to check both.

When looking for the best price, I start with Kayak (who just collects the best prices from many sites, including the rental agencies themselves) and then hunt for a better deal. If you are a member of Costco, their on-line travel services often offers good deals. PriceLIne and Hotwire can be very good but you need to pay in advance so they can be a problem if your plans change. Be sure to check the reputation of any unfamiliar rental agency. Some of them are not very professional or efficient. Also check the hours for drop-off/pickup especially on the weekend - some have rather limit hours.
posted by metahawk at 12:16 PM on June 23, 2014

Also, if you're talking about going from the far north of the city, to the mid south of the city, that will take a while on mass transit.

The Metra will be the fastest way to get downtown, and from there you can take the loop to the neighborhoods, like divined by radio says. From her directions, if you take Jackson east, you can hop on the El at Quincy and Adams, the most beautiful station downtown and take the loop over to Adam's and Wabash to get off to check out the Art Institute. Just north of there is Millenium Park, with beautiful outdoor sculptures (like the Bean) and the Pritzker shell, which has music and all sorts of fun stuff going on this summer.
posted by garlic at 12:23 PM on June 23, 2014

Forgive the tangential answer to your question, BUT - Do the architecture boat tour on the Chicago River! You can get to it from the El.

Museum of Science and Industry is much better with a car, yes.
posted by amaire at 12:56 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I live here downtown. I love the CTA and all, but with a rambunctious toddler and staying in Morton Grove, I'd go for the car. Just don't park in River North or in the middle of the loop and it's not that expensive. For short zips from the Loop to River North or whatever, take the bus (or a cab... you're on vacation with limited time. Cab for 2 from Loop to River North (again, for example) is no more than 7-10 bucks.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 1:20 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sounds like a great use-case for car sharing! In Chicago, you've got both Enterprise Car Sharing and Zipcar. You can check to see if there are locations near where you will need to depart from and whether there are any special join deals or pricing.
posted by reddot at 1:53 PM on June 23, 2014

Morton Grove is next door to Glenview, where there is a rail station serving both Metra and Amtrak. Running about every two hours during the day, the Amtrak trains are a fine way to get to Union Station in about thirty minutes, though this will be a bit more expensive than the Metras.

Especially during rush hours, you are unlikely to find a faster way from Morton Grove into the Loop than the Amtrak Hiawatha. The Metras provide a great backup alternative.

This will not help too much with destinations such as MOSI, but there are plenty of fantastic things in the area of the Loop to see, including the Willis Tower, which is across the river and just one block from Union Station. A bit of a walk (highly recommended as I consider Chicago a visually interesting city) or a bus trip will get you to Museum Campus or to Navy Pier, both of which are great destinations. There are tour buses that provide great tours of the city, with a stop on the south side of the Willis Tower.

Parking in the Loop area tends to be extremely expensive - can run up to $30-$40/day.

As a bit of further information, note that there are several Metra stations downtown. They are not connected, but sometimes you can arrange a trip that takes you into someplace (like Union) and then walk to another station (like Millennium) which takes you to your destination (like MOSI). This involves a long walk across the Loop, but you can see lots of stuff by walking down Randolph, and then going indoors at Macy's to take the pedway the rest of the way.
posted by jgreco at 2:35 PM on June 23, 2014

I'll just throw in that Chicago Botanic Gardens are ideal for car drivers (what with it being well outside of the city).
posted by srboisvert at 3:38 PM on June 23, 2014

I would drive to Science and Industry. Ask your family, but I might contemplate taking the Outer Drive down there and avoiding the Dan Ryan, though it'll cost you a bit of time. Be warned that Science and Industry is not that exciting for adults.

The Field Museum/Shedd Aquarium/Planetarium should all be fairly reasonable by public transit. Metra to downtown then the 130 bus to the so-called Museum Campus. I think it depends on what you think your kid's stamina is for public transit whether it makes sense to drive or not. There's a parking garage under/next to Soldier Field, though finding street parking is often surprisingly doable (it's worth looping out to the Planetarium once before giving up).

The Chicago History Museum (the renamed Historical Society) is a couple of blocks from the Brown Line. I'm sure I went as a toddler, but it's not an obvious small child destination. If you can get a ride to Skokie, it's the Yellow Line to Howard and change to Brown. (There's parking at the Dempster station too.)

The Kohl Children's Museum is... somewhere. Apparently it's now in Glenview (nearish the Costco? it's at the old Naval Air Station).

I'll just throw in that Chicago Botanic Gardens are ideal for car drivers (what with it being well outside of the city).

And surprisingly enjoyable for small children. (I think it's probably technically reachable by public transport, but I wouldn't want to try.)

It's non-obvious, but Union Station and Ogilvie are actually across the street from each other, but you have to go out the back of Union Station (towards Madison). This is possibly useful for finding buses. If there's an open ticket office in Morton Grove, you need to buy your tickets there rather than on the train to avoid a $2 surcharge. (If the office is closed, then you buy your tickets on the train.) If you're making two round trips on Metra, you should run the numbers and see if it's to your advantage to buy a 10-ride. (The two adults can share the 10-ride, if nothing has changed recently.) Morton Grove is the Milwaukee District North Line (to Fox Lake) from Union Station. Be advised that there's also a Union Pacific North Line (but out of Ogilvie to Kenosha).
posted by hoyland at 3:57 PM on June 23, 2014

Oh, yeah, Metra has historically had $5 weekend passes. I'm not sure if kids under 12 are officially free with an adult, but they're always running that as a promotion.
posted by hoyland at 4:00 PM on June 23, 2014

For parking all day cheaply and then taking trains:

- There is a Morton Grove Metra station, and you can park there all day very cheaply and then take the train downtown.

- Or, take Dempster to the Dempster Skokie Swift L station in Skokie, just east of M.G., all day parking there is also cheap and plentiful. From the Skokie Swift (yellow line), you can transfer to the red line at Howard and then get to the entire rest of the L system. But yes, it'll take a good bit longer than driving. Also, being unfamiliar with the city and with a toddler, I'd avoid the transfer at Howard after dark. Wrigley Field would be a fairly easy trip on the L. While you're at the Skokie L station, be sure to stop nearly next door at Kaufman's for corned beef, smoked fish, bagels, etc.

But when we go downtown from the same area with a rambunctious toddler, we nearly always drive and just pay up for downtown parking. The toddler is generally going pretty nutso well before the train arrives downtown. But YTMV.

In the area, our toddler loves the Kohl Children's Museum north of M.G. in Glenview and the Exploritorium east of M.G. in Skokie.

While you're in Morton Grove, you should eat at Burt's Place, the best pizza place in the whole world. Just be sure to call ahead. Like a day or two ahead.
posted by voodoochile at 6:34 PM on June 23, 2014

We live in Skokie, and my wife works in Morton Grove. For MSI, we usually drive because of the time factor, but for most anything else in the city, we use transit. The museum campus and Navy Pier (which has a really fun Children's Museum) are pretty easy to get to on transit. Parking for the Morton Grove metra station is $1.75 for 24 hours. You know your kid, so the novelty of train travel and the ability to actually get up and move around a bit may be worth the time difference (Metra has bathrooms on-board, look for the cars with the larger windows), but then our son has been a train commuter since he was 6 months old.

I'm going to disagree strongly with hoyland about MSI not being fun for adults. Spaceships and submarines and coal mines and trains and tornadoes and lightning (actually, the lighting (a giant tesla coil) still freaks out my son, so YMMV on that one) and a giant doll house... I love it. We got to eat liquid nitrogen-frozen ice cream too.

Seconding the Exploritorium as well. However, I wasn't impressed with Burt's, but we were there like a week before they closed because Burt had to be admitted to the hospital, so they may have been off their game.
posted by Morydd at 9:08 AM on June 24, 2014

You might also try the Spot Hero app for cheap parking downtown. Last time I used it, I parked at the Palmer House (near Millennium Park, the Art Institute, State Street, Michigan Avenue and within walking distance of the Willis Tower) for $13. Plus $2 tip for the valet. The app will give you several options to choose from.

But what everyone else said about traffic is true. Your best bet might be Metra and a mix of public transit and cabs.

Enjoy your visit!
posted by Work to Live at 5:43 PM on June 24, 2014

Well, day 4 and so far we have managed to avoid renting a car! It looks like we will be able to make the whole trip without one. Would not have been possible without the help of our relatives who have given us rides to the train station. Also we spent most of Saturday and Sunday in the Highland Park area which would have been unnavigable without them.

On Monday we went to one of the free concerts at Millennium Park and braved the storm, getting completely drenched. Our toddler got soaked to the bone but came out unscathed and was a very good sport about it. On the drive back from the station, we ended up having to go through water that nearly reached beyond the height of the tries — scary as heck, and another good reason for us to have taken the train; I can't imagine what it would have been like driving the whole way from the city.

Took the train in today and was very glad to have chosen it instead of the car; half of the intersections we saw were out due to power outages from the night before and were flashing red instead of the normal signals, leading to confusion for nearly all the drivers.

Tomorrow we're getting a ride to Addison where we will take the L to Monroe-Red, then take the # 10 from State & Monroe to the Museum of Science and Industry! Thanks to the ride into town the pubic transport part will be less than an hour, which should not be a problem.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:59 PM on July 1, 2014

So we just finished a week of Chicago and family with no cars of our own and it worked out fine. We relied heavily on rides to and from both the Metra and the Skokie swift stations. We went everywhere by public transport and although we did spend a fair amount of time on trains and buses, our son loves trains and buses and/or loves sleeping on them. I think the trip to the Museum was fairly long (and maybe a bit too advanced for our son, who loved the model train layout and the Idea factory but not so much the rest of the museum) but I'm not sure the saved time (assuming we would not have gotten lost or stuck in traffic) would have been worth the cost of both parking *and* car rental which wasn't cheap.

We ended up getting Ventra cards. We used a day pass the first day which was probably overkill ($10/per person for unlimited trips). The rest of the time we just loaded one card with $10 for both of us, which is all you need for 1 ride & 1 transfer each way (most trips we took were on transfer or less).

We did run into a problem where our relatives dropped us off at a station with no ticket booth when we didn't have enough cash for tickets (conductors only take cash on the train). Fortunately they were understanding about the issue and we were able to resolve the problem. But I would recommend checking whether a station has a ticket office if you were planning on buying the tickets before boarding the train!

And, sorry for this derail:
You guys, no one told me how darn friendly people from Chicago are. Seems like people were falling over themselves to help us. Transit workers and commuters actually going up and asking us if we needed directions or knew where we were going. All of the transit workers seemed really informed about the whole network and how to get from one point to another.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:14 PM on July 4, 2014

I'll add that Chicago is incredibly scenic, especially from the L. So if you make a point to look out the window, taking the L is not really a waste of time in terms of sightseeing.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:15 PM on July 4, 2014

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