Getting Around Chicago: Guide to Public Transportation

A CTA Pink Line rapid transit train
Bruce Leighty/Photodisc/Getty Images

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is the second largest public transportation system in America, after New York City, and it’s widely used by locals and visitors. 1.6 million people ride the CTA on an average weekday. In addition to being available for the City of Chicago with its rapid transit system on eight different train routes, the CTA also serves 35 surrounding suburbs and connects passengers to the Metra train and Pace buses. The transit system also brings riders to both of Chicago’s major international airports. Since parking and driving in the city of Chicago can be a challenge, taking the CTA is an optimal way to travel. Keep reading to learn more.

How to Ride the Chicago Transit Authority’s Trains and Buses

With Chicago’s eight train lines, also called the ‘L’ as a nod to the elevated tracks, and 129 bus routes, you’ll have many options for getting from point A to point B. Many travelers use the trains and busses in tandem to get exactly where they want to go.

  • Fares: The regular fare for the ‘L’ train is $2.50 and for the bus lines it’s $2.25 (cash can be used directly on buses). If you travel within two hours, you can transfer up to two times for an additional $0.25. Customers can also buy a one day CTA pass for $10, a three day pass for $20 or a seven day pass for $28. The ‘L’ train fare from O’Hare International Airport is $5.
  • How to Pay: You’ll need to buy a Ventra Card—there are vending machines at all train stations. You can use a credit card or cash to purchase a card. Ventra Cards can also be used via smart phone or smart watch. Reduced or free fares are available for children, students, seniors, people with disabilities, and active military.
  • Routes and Hours: Trains and buses run every day of the week. To find out which train or bus, or combination of the two, you’ll need to ride to get where you’re going, use the CTA trip planner. Type in your starting point, your destination, and when you’d like to leave, and the planner will let you know the exact route and timing to help you on your way. You can also get direct assistance by calling 1-312-836-7000.
  • CTA Trackers: Great resources for travel on the CTA are the system trackers. The CTA Train Tracker and the CTA Bus Tracker allows you to get arrival times, find stops near you, or see trains and busses on a map.
  • Service Alerts: To learn about system alerts on the busses or train routes, or to check in advance if there’ll be a service change or delay, visit the CTA’s System Status and Alerts website. You can view service changes and alerts for each of the ‘L’ lines, review the bus lines, or find out about the elevator usage alerts. You can also subscribe to CTA updates to learn about planned service changes or events that might affect service.
  • Transfers: Take a look at the CTA’s system map, which shows both the train and bus lines as well as all of the connecting services you might need in the city of Chicago, the suburbs, or the international airports. You can also see a map of the downtown popular attractions and learn how to get to them or see the routes that operate at later hours or overnight.
  • Accessibility: All busses and railcars are outfitted with accessible seating and services. It’s important to note, however, that not all stations are accessible—103 out of 145 stations are accessible. To learn about which stations are accessible as well as which ones will be in the future, read the CTA’s All Stations Accessibility Program.

How to Get to Chicago’s Major Airports

If you would like to avoid paying a higher rate for a ride share, taxi, or rental car, you can travel to and from both of Chicago’s airports—Chicago O’Hare International and Midway—via the CTA’s trains and busses.

  • Fares: For $5 or less, you can get from O’Hare to downtown Chicago. For $2.50 or less, you can get from Midway to downtown Chicago. Purchasing an Unlimited Ride Pass will give you the best rate.
  • How to Pay: All vending machines take cash, credit, or debit. Choose from three options for paying for your airport transportation. First, you can purchase a single-ride CTA Ventra Ticket, which includes two transfers on either the busses or other trains within two hours. You can purchase a one-day CTA ticket, which will allow you unlimited rides on the CTA for 24 hours. Or you can purchase three-day CTA ticket, which gives you unlimited rides for 72 hours. Second, you can purchase a Ventra Card and load it with money for riding the CTA as much as you like, for up to seven people at a time. Third, you can use Apple Pay, Android Pay, or Samsung pay for contactless entry, however transfers won’t be included.
  • Service to Chicago O’Hare International Airport: The CTA Blue Line will take you directly to the airport from downtown—24 hours a day and seven days per week—which will take about 45 minutes. View the routes, timetables, and customer alerts prior to travel. The O’Hare train station is located on the lower level concourse, connecting to Terminals 1, 2, and 3. From Terminal 5, take the complimentary airport shuttle train.
  • Service to Midway Airport: The CTA Orange Line will take you directly to the Midway Airport. The Midway train station is just east of the terminal building. In 25 minutes, you’ll arrive in the downtown Loop. Be sure to check the schedule and service information prior to travel as overnight trains are not available.

Other Transit Options

While the CTA is the most popular form of transportation in and around the city, you could also opt for renting a vehicle or use a ride share. The Windy City’s streets are designed on a grid system, beginning at the intersection of State and Madison streets, which makes navigating around the city on foot an option as well. Also, for a fun way to travel up and down the Chicago River, take the Chicago Water Taxi. Finally, you can rent a Divvy bike and travel around the city on two wheels.

Riding the Metra

The fast-traveling Metra is a commuter train that connects passengers to the surrounding suburbs from downtown Chicago. Downtown stations include Ogilvie Transportation Center, LaSalle Street Station, Millennium Station, Van Buren Street, and Union Station. View the system map to plan out your desired route.

Tips for Getting Around Chicago

Chicago is home to 2.7 million people so getting around can be tricky. Have the best success by following these steps.

  • Public transportation is your friend. Rush hour can be difficult if you’re traveling in a vehicle. Expect a lot of traffic on the roads between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. and again between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.
  • Check event and game times. One of the best things about the city are all of the festivals, events, and sporting activities. Be aware, however, that public transportation will be packed, and roadways will be busy surrounding these special happenings.
  • Know where to park. If driving, you’ll want to know where you can park. Take a look at his map, which highlights all of the garages and lots. SpotHero and ParkWhiz are great apps for purchasing less expensive parking spots.
  • Be prepared for the weather. Getting around the city easily is often dependent on the weather. Rain can slow things down or limit the availability of taxis, snow can cause delays, and high heat can make commuting uncomfortable. Be prepared and know before you go.
  • Walk a mile. Keep in mind, that every eight city blocks equal one mile.
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