How to vacation in Chicago without breaking the bank

How to vacation in Chicago without breaking the bank
If you’re looking for a quick getaway, Chicago is an excellent choice. (Source: Liz Adelberg/WAVE 3 News)

CHICAGO - If you're looking for a quick getaway, Chicago is an excellent choice. Non-stop flights are reasonable and if you decide to hit the road, It's an easy five-hour drive from Louisville.

My family decided to hit the Windy City for spring break this year. A flight for four of us would have been around $600, so we decided to drive. We didn't want to be burdened with a car in the city, so we rented a van at Louisville International Airport and off we went. The van rental was around $132. Lots of room for two boys, 8 and 12, so we didn't hear a lot of, "Mom, he's touching meeee!" Well, there was some of that, but that's to be expected.

The drive from Louisville to Chicago is not the most scenic, but we were fascinated with the windmill farms near Fowler, Indiana. They looked like massive alien structures and really kind of freaked us out. But we couldn't get enough of them. They go on for miles, some clustered in groups and some off to themselves. We had questions and looked up information on them on our phones as we drove.

Once we arrived in Chicago, we went directly to Midway to drop off the van. Fairly uneventful, but keep in mind there may be tolls. We were not aware of this and spent several frantic miles digging in the bottom of my purse looking for quarters.

We took an Uber into downtown from the airport. None of us had ever Uber-ed before, so that was an adventure in itself. Once we figured it out, we felt so very cosmopolitan.

We stayed at a Hampton Inn downtown, and this is another great way to save some vacation money: FREE BREAKFAST. If you're trying to feed a family of four with two boys, you know it can get very expensive. So, each morning we went down to the lobby to fill up before our grand adventures. And don't think you're going to get just cereal and maybe a stale donut or two. We had scrambled eggs and bacon and sausage, and one morning there was a bagel/cheese/egg/bacon concoction that we're still talking about. That thing was GOOD.

With our membership to the Kentucky Science Center, we were able to get free admission to several museums in Chicago. We hit the Field Museum of Natural History first. Arriving only a couple of hours before closing on a Sunday afternoon, we were able to give it a quick run-through, with plans to go back in the next day or two. The building is beautiful. Some of the exhibits take extra tickets, and we decided to skip those. We did see the famous t-rex Sue, or parts of her, as her exhibit is currently being moved to another part of the museum.

After that, it was time for some famous Chicago deep dish pizza. I had polled several friends for ideas, and one name that kept coming up was Giordano's. We Uber-ed (SO, cosmopolitan) over to the nearest location and sat down for dinner. When the pizza arrived, my boys were confused. What do you mean, you can't just pick it up and eat it? They got over it pretty quickly after tasting it. Hot, bubbly, cheesy and delicious. One slice fills you up pretty good, but we managed to devour an entire pie, no problem.

Now, back to our hotel room. We got a room with two double beds, and it was…cozy. We debated over getting another room to allow us some more breathing room, but decided to stick with it and I spent three more nights getting kicked in the face by a sleeping 8-year-old. But we survived.

The next morning we headed off to the Willis Tower. It's the building formerly known as the Sears Tower, which stubborn Chicagoans still call the Sears Tower, and probably always will. My husband elected to people-watch at street level, so the boys and I headed up. We were there on a Monday morning, so it wasn't terribly crowded. We learned a lot about the construction and history of the building as we waited in line. Tickets for three of us cost $64, and it was worth every penny. This was by far my favorite part of our trip. The weather was clear and we could see for miles and miles. We went out on the Ledge, a clear glass box that extends 4.3 feet out, 1,353 feet in the air. That first step is a doozy, but once you get out on the ledge, the view is truly breathtaking. I highly recommend this to everybody. It was our favorite part of the trip.

We headed over to the Museum of Science and Industry next. The boys loved the interactive exhibits, including a real fuselage of an actual United Airlines Boeing 727. We watched as a 20-foot Tesla coil put on a 1.5 million-volt light show of electrical discharge, with arcs jumping ten feet from the center coil to the grounding rings.

Now, you can't visit the Windy City without a trip to see The Bean. We walked a few blocks from our hotel over to Millennium Park, where we saw the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, aka The Bean. If any of your friends have ever visited Chicago, you've seen pictures of them on social media next to the huge silver structure.

There are many ways to get around town besides Uber or Lyft. We decided to try our hand at public transportation, and it turned out pretty well. We bought a Ventra card for $5 at a local Walgreens, and hit the nearest L station. Now, here's a tip. If the train is listed as "express" you're going to go all the way to that location with no stops in between. So for instance, if you wanted to go to Chinatown, but you get on the express train to 63rd Street, then you're going all the way to 63rd Street, and will watch helplessly as you pass by Chinatown and keep on going. Or so I've heard.

Speaking of Chinatown, it's a great place to get some souvenirs. There are lots of shops and restaurants to visit and enjoy. The day we visited, the weather wasn't the greatest, so we hit a few shops and got back on the (correct) train.

No trip to Chicago is complete without a trip to the Shedd Aquarium. You can see 32,000 animals and learn about the world's oceans, rivers and reefs. It was very crowded the day we visited, but we had a wonderful time.

One way to visit some of the top attractions and save money is to purchase a Chicago City Pass. You can save 51 percent on admission to five attractions, including the Shedd Aquarium, Skydeck Chicago at Willis Tower, The Field Museum, either the Museum of Science and Industry OR 360 Chicago Observation Deck at the John Hancock Building, and either the Adler Planetarium OR the Art Institute of Chicago. The City Pass lets you skip most ticket lines too. The City Pass is good for nine days. The cost is $106 for adults and $89 for children 3-11.

There is so much to see and do in Chicago, you won't be bored, so much wonderful food that you'll never be hungry.

We had such a great time that I'm already planning our next trip.

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