Using the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) is a great, cheap way to navigate the city. You’ll also avoid having to find and pay for parking in many of the busiest areas. The first thing you need to get on the CTA is a fare card. These credit card-size passes can be purchased at any “L” (short for elevated) train station from either a vending machine or the cashier. Conveniently, the newer machines allow you to pay with a credit card if you’re short on cash, while the older ones still accept dollars and cents. You can also pick them up at most major supermarkets or drugstores at the service counter. With a fare card, the train is $2.25 and the bus is $2.00 per ride. Your first transfer costs only 25 cents, and your second is free.
To help you figure out where you’re going, the CTA placed several easy-to-read maps in each L car and train station. All trains with the exception of the Yellow Line (Skokie-Chicago Express) go through the Loop, the central transit hub from which the area received its name. The Red (Howard-95th) and Blue (O’Hare-Forest Park) Lines run underground downtown, cutting north-south tunnels beneath the circle traveled by the Orange (Midway), Pink (54th/Cermak), Brown (Kimball), and Purple (Linden) Lines. The Green Line wraps around the north and east sides of the Loop before it spokes off west to Harlem/Lake and south to Ashland/63rd or Cottage Grove. In the loop, riders can transfer between all of these lines. Free transfer points are denoted on the map by connected white circles, and lucky for you, they’re all over the Loop.
You can hit many major landmarks just by riding the L. If you’re taking in a Cubs or White Socks game, partying in Boystown, Lincoln Park, or River North, or heading to Chinatown for dim sum, take the Red Line. Fresh off the airplane or heading for vacation? The Orange Line connects downtown to Midway International Airport and the Blue Line runs all the way to O’Hare (and through some of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods). Hit up the Southport Corridor for shopping and Lincoln Square for lunch on the Brown Line. Walk around Northwestern University’s beautiful campus and adorable “downtown” Evanston north of the city by hopping on the Purple Line which runs express from Belmont to Howard during peak hours. See the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright houses or the Cheney Mansion in Oak Park by hopping the Green Line and heading west.
The CTA bus system is easily maneuvered as well. Each stop has a map of the route including starting/ending points and any turns the bus makes. Recently, the CTA installed LED displays at 150 bus terminals to provide riders with estimated arrival times for all routes that stop at those terminals. You tech-savvy travellers can use CTABusTracker.com (mobile version available) and a recently introduced Train Tracker Beta (http://www.transitchicago.com/traintracker/) to help plan your trip, saving you from any unnecessary outdoor waiting time in the dead of winter. You can also track buses via text by locating your stop ID on the stop’s sign, texting ctabus [stopID] to 41411, and wait for the ETA from the CTA. Make sure to text the word “ctabus”, a space, and then the stop ID number.
When all else fails, Google Maps now has a great transit option for directions and usually includes accurate arrival/departure times and several possible routes. You’ll be across the city (or back at home) in no time.