Do You Need a Car in Chicago? 7 Things to Know

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Chicago car

If you are traveling to Chicago, one of the primary questions you may have is, do you need a car in Chicago? Here is a detailed answer.

Chicago is the bustling financial hub of Illinois and the third-largest city in all of the U.S. There are tons to see and many attractions to explore here. And wait, the deep-dish Chicago-style pizza is a reason to travel to the city. 

But since it’s a busy city, there’s an important question to be answered: do you need a car in Chicago? Whether you’re staying in Chicago for a few days or a couple of weeks, there are some things you need to know about the Chicago transportation system.

In this post, we’ll help you decide whether or not living in Chicago without a car is possible. We’ll also talk about alternatives to driving and how you can get around the city to different places. Read on to know everything about traveling in Chicago. 

Car rental locations in Chicago

There are many car rental locations in Chicago to choose from. Enterprise Rent-A-Car is a great option for convenience and low prices. Their rental cars are perfect for weekend getaways, airport tours, and highway trips.

Visit a local or convenient neighborhood car rental location in downtown Chicago if convenience is your top priority. However, opt for reliable rental car companies located directly at O’Hare Airport (ORD) or Midway Airport (MDW) to get the lowest price for a rental car.

To get the lowest rate possible, ensure you book with RentalCars.com. They accept credit or debit cards for payment and have direct pricing with rental companies, so you won’t need to worry about paying extra hidden fees.

If you end up renting a car, ensure you ask the rental counter for an auto toll device to avoid getting fined for not paying the toll fees while visiting Chicago.

Find the rental car that’s right for you

Mid-size cars can cost $147-$176 per day, while economy car rental prices can cost between $72 and $112.

The average rental price for a car in Chicago depends upon several factors, including the number and availability of vehicle types, the popularity, and the location of your rental vehicle.

If you need to rent a car in Chicago, we suggest you rent economy or economy plus since you’ll be dealing with small parking spots and potentially massive gas fees if you rent a large vehicle. Getting around the city is a lot easier in a small vehicle.

7 Things to Know About Transportation in Chicago 

Do you need a rental car while traveling to Chicago? Yes, if you plan on venturing off on day trips, have several meetings throughout the city, or visit the Chicago suburbs that don’t have train access.

Not every situation is perfect for Chicago, so we are here to help evaluate the many ways to get around Chicago. The following are some factors to consider:

CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) is Good Enough 

Chicago Transit Authority's buses

For most people visiting this city, the Chicago Transit Authority’s public transportation system of buses and trains is the best way of getting around the town. So, is a rental car necessary in Chicago? No, especially if you’re visiting the city just for a short while.

The city’s trains and buses will get you just about anywhere. Many people live in Chicago without a car, relying mainly on public transport. 

The CTA consists of hundreds of trains with 145 stations around the city. To fill in the gaps, there are over 1,800 buses that cover more than 140 routes, with the buses stopping every few blocks.

They will take you just about anywhere in downtown Chicago, and you’ll only have to walk a short distance before reaching your destination. Since most popular attractions and business hubs are nestled here, you can easily travel from one point to another through public rides. 

And if the routes seem complicated, download a map from CTA’s website to learn about each bus and train.  The public transportation system fares are also reasonable – about $2.50 per ride, no matter how long. You can pay with a credit card or cash but don’t expect a change for big bills.

So always remember to stash some coins and small bills in your wallet when using public transport.  An easier way to pay is by using a Ventra card. This is an electronic method of paying the train or bus fare, and you can buy this card from over a thousand retail stores or any L station. 

See Related: Best Walking Tours in Chicago

Downtown Chicago is Full of Traffic 

Aerial View of Gold Coast, Chicago
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

If you plan to stay for a few weeks, renting a car in Chicago may seem like a good idea. However, one thing you should know about Chicago is that it has its fair share of traffic jams daily. 

This is particularly true for expressways and roads in the city’s heart. Here, traffic is heaviest between 6 am to 8 am and 4 pm to 6 pm, when workers travel to work and return home. 

Also, if you’re traveling to Chicago during the summer, you may want to use public trains and buses instead of driving through the city.

Chicago train

This is because summer brings about some of the worst traffic jams in Chicago due to tourism, construction, and whatnot.

But you might want to leave early if you have to drive your car during these hours or travel long distances within the city. We suggest using Google Maps to find the fastest traveling routes and avoid traffic jams. 

See Related: Is Chicago Safe to Visit?

Uber and Lyft are Worth Considering 

Even though the quickest way around town is by using public transportation, it’s not meant for everyone. You may not feel like riding on a crowded bus/train or shifting from one side to another. 

This is especially true if you’re traveling on longer routes, where you’ll have to switch between several buses/trains and spend long hours traveling. 

Uber in Chicago

In such scenarios, traveling in a car is far more comfortable and often quicker if you avoid traffic hours. But here’s when you’ll have to decide whether renting a car suits your travel plans in Chicago or using Uber or Lyft

If you travel long distances across town daily, renting a car might be more convenient and cheaper than public transport than Lyft

But if you’re not planning to travel longer distances frequently, consider using Uber or Lyft. Since renting a car in Chicago costs more than $30 daily, you’ll find such services much lighter on your wallet. 

You can even consider a private airport transfer from the airport where you can travel in style and with a bit more class. This is a good option if you are traveling far to visit Chicago.

See Related: Best Things to Do in Old Town, Chicago

Parking Rates are High 

parking spot

Speaking of a rental car in Chicago, it’s worth noting that parking rates are high in Chicago. The city has quite a reputation for having strict parking rules and high rates. 

Finding a free parking space in the city is uncommon, considering the number of tourists and business people pouring into the city daily.

So, you’re left with a few options when using a car to drive around the city. You’ll have to use on-street, metered parking, and prices vary between four to seven dollars an hour.

The Loop (the main part of downtown Chicago bursting with eateries, malls, and main attractions) costs about seven bucks on most days. 

Your second option is to look for a parking garage. It’s easier to find free spots here than on-street parking. There are tons of parking garages in Chicago, with some within the Loop. You can use an app like SpotHero to compare prices and even reserve a parking spot with discounts. 

If all of that sounds too expensive and complicated, you can choose to park away from the Loop. Parking gets cheaper and easier to find the further you move away from the Loop. After that, you can catch a bus or train towards your destination within the Loop. 

As you can see, parking rules and prices are pretty frustrating in Chicago. This is another reason why having no car in Chicago might prove less of a hassle, and using public transport or Uber is much more convenient. 

Using Public Transport from the Suburbs Might Not Be as Easy 

This is one of the few instances where renting a car wins over using public transport. Riding from a suburb to downtown Chicago can take an hour, sometimes even more.

If you’ve got a kid with you, an hour-long ride to the city and an hour to get back home on a packed train can prove overwhelming and tiring.

Plus, off-hour trains are infrequent and sometimes not available.  So if you’re staying in a suburb, consider a rental car to drive to the city. But don’t go all the way in – find a parking spot on the outskirts and use public transport to travel downtown.

It’s easier and quicker this way, considering all the traffic within the city. 

Biking is a Viable Alternative 

Divvy Bikes

Forget crowded buses and jam-packed roads – get around town on a bike as it’s quick, easy, and cheap. Chicago is known for its well-developed bike routes with over 200 miles of designated lanes. It’s a good alternative for residents and tourists, so you won’t have to worry about renting a car or public transport. 

Divvy is a well-known bike rental company that runs on self-service, making it easier to travel in Chicago without a car. Just download the app and pay for the ride. Next, grab a bike from one of the 570 docking stations throughout Chicago and bike away. 

You can explore your favorite spots without worrying about parking, long train rides, and rush-hour traffic. Once you’re done, return the bike to the station when your time is up – it’s as simple as that. You can also book one of the organized bike tours within Chicago to visit the city’s main attractions

See Related: Do You Need a Car in Los Angeles?

Water Taxis Are a Fun Alternative for Tourists 

water taxi service Chicago

No wonder Chicago has one of the best-developed transportation systems in the US. The city provides a water taxi service – a whole new alternative to traveling in Chicago that many overlook.

There’s no traffic, honks, or cramped spaces – just a boat on a river with exotic sights. Two companies offer this under-appreciated way of commuting around Chicago – Chicago Water Taxi and Shoreline Water Taxis.

Operating from March to November, these services allow you to travel along the lake and river much faster than an Uber or public ride on the road. 

The Chicago Water Taxi service has seven stops, from North of the river to Chinatown. Meanwhile, the Shoreline Water Taxis has two routes. The Lake route connects the Navy Pier to the Museum Campus, while the River Route covers the Navy Pier, Michigan Avenue, and Willis Tower. 

With taxis leaving every 15-30 minutes, you can catch a quick ride for $6 or schedule one online. Either way, you’ll have a fantastic view of the skyscrapers and skyline. 

Do you need a rental car in Chicago? Our takeaway is no; you don’t necessarily need one.  We recommend not driving within the city if you want to relax and have an enjoyable time. There are many better, cheaper, and quicker modes of transportation for tourists that can get you from point A to B. 

However, a rental car might be necessary if you have kids – they might get cranky and tired on crowded public rides. If you’re staying in one of the neighborhoods and want to travel to downtown Chicago, you may want to consider renting a car. Other than that, you’re better off without driving in Chicago. 

See Related: Places to Visit for Your Birthday

FAQ

Do I need a rental car in Chicago?

You likely do not need a rental car in Chicago. The metro and bus lines can take you virtually anywhere. In addition, taxi cabs and rideshares can be expensive. So, if you travel to Chicago on a budget, you certainly do not need to rent a car. However, if you are visiting multiple suburbs that do not have public transportation access, you may want to consider getting a rental car.

Is Chicago a driving city?

No, Chicago is not a driving city. WalletHub found Chicago to be the eighth-worst city for drivers of all of the 100 populated cities in America.

What is the easiest way to get around Chicago?

Public transportation, particularly the “L” train, is the easiest way to get around the city. There are several trains and buses that operate within the city, all with varying levels of efficiency, cost, and convenience.

If you’re looking for a convenient, affordable, and efficient way to get around Chicago, the L is the perfect option. I’ve used it numerous times to get to work and other destinations throughout the city and have always been happy with the service. Plus, there are over 145 stations to choose from.

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Kyle Kroeger
WRITTEN BY

Kyle Kroeger

Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He's a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he'd heard.

Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he's learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.

He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time. Read more about his portfolio of work.

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