The Windy City is a place everyone should visit at least once in their lives. As an RVer, you’re probably an adventurer and traveler at least to some extent. For this reason, you should be making a point of seeing this amazing city. So why aren’t you?
Well, for many people the reasons are financial. Chicago is a big city after all, and in my own experience, the bigger and more popular a city is, the more expensive it tends to be. Still, as is the case with nearly any destination, there are ways to see Chicago on the cheap, and the fact that you have an RV makes this even more possible.
My little tribe and I recently got to visit this wonderful place for the third time, and as a family on a tight budget, we got to experience first-hand the best ways to see the city without breaking the bank.
Where to stay
First and foremost, those who are trying to save money will want to avoid staying in a downtown Chicago hotel. Trust me when I say the benefits will likely never be worth the price you pay for this luxury. Besides, you have an RV, meaning you can sleep for next to nothing in your very own bed and save your hard-earned cash for something better.
Believe it or not, you can actually stay downtown even if you don’t splurge on one of those pricey hotels. To do this, find a parking lot that allows overnight bus and RV parking—like this McCormick Place lot—and do some good old-fashioned dry camping. The cost to do this may seem a bit steep considering the lack of amenities, but it’s still a good deal because you won’t have to pay the outrageous Chicago daily parking rates, and you can walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation everywhere you need to go.
Of course, if dry camping just isn’t your thing, there are some campgrounds located outside of Chicago. If you go the campground route, be prepared to drive an hour or so to get into the city.
Here are the least expensive campgrounds in the area:
If you have a campground membership or discount program, you may also be able to find something a bit cheaper in the area.
If you’re staying outside of the city, you will have to pay to park every day. I highly suggest you do your research when it comes to parking. Many garages in the city will not accommodate large trucks, so keep that in mind if you drive a dually or something of similar size.
Additionally, lot rates are not all equal. During our recent trip, we found that we could save quite a bit by staying in metered parking rather than the official museum lot. We learned this by doing a quick Google search, and it was well worth knowing.
The easiest way to find the best parking for you is to search the internet for “cheap parking near” and add your destination at the end. This will bring up several options, and most will allow you to reserve in advance.
Just like most other big cities, Chicago is easy to get around once you’ve gotten rid of your vehicle. I know that sounds backward, but it truly is the way things are in these crowded, busy places.
Personally, I prefer to park in a place that is central to where I plan to be that day and walk everywhere from there, leaving my car parked the entire day. However, some might prefer to bring a bike in order to get around more quickly. If you do this, be sure to bring a good bike lock!
Of course, walking and biking alone won’t get you to the other side of the city. If you need to travel a longer distance, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the bus and train systems in the city. Just know that while this public transportation is convenient and likely cheaper than paying for a second parking place, they aren’t necessarily budget friendly. So, if you can plan your days around one area of the city at a time, you’ll be better off.
Things to see
Before your visit to Chicago, I highly recommend investing in an Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) reciprocal museum membership. These reciprocal benefits can be acquired by purchasing a pass to a museum in the network.
The pass can then be used to receive free admission to numerous museums across the country, including three of the most popular attractions in Chicago.
You could also choose to invest in a North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM) pass, which will allow you access to a few other Chicago museums as well as hundreds more around the country. Want both ASTC and NARM? Check out the Kern County Museum traveler membership, which gives you access to these plus a couple of others.
Besides these ASTC museums, I also recommend seeing these free things:
Lastly, you’ll need to consider food. Obviously, cooking in your RV and packing lunches is the most budget-friendly option, but no trip to the Windy City is complete without a Chicago-style pizza and a Chicago dog.
Luckily, both of these options are fairly inexpensive, meaning you can dine out in true Chicago style while still keeping your wallet happy.
Try these locations for delicious Chicago-style foods:
- Chicago’s Dog House
- Hot “G” Dog
- U.B. Dogs
- The Art of Pizza
- Tano’s Pizzeria
- The Happy Camper Pizzeria (they even have vintage Airstreams)
What are you waiting for? With these budget tips and your RV, you should be able to plan the trip of a lifetime without blowing the budget.