Getting Around Chicago: Guide to Public Transportation

Illustration of the Chicago L train going over a bridge with text about how to use the public transit system

TripSavvy / Ellen Lindner

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is the second largest public transportation system in the U.S., after New York City. Widely used by locals and visitors, the CTA serves the City of Chicago and its 35 surrounding suburbs, seeing 1.6 million people on an average weekday. With 129 bus routes and a rapid transit system (also called the "L" as a nod to the elevated tracks) consisting of eight train lines, the CTA offers many options for getting from point A to point B. They also connect to the Metra train, and bring passengers 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 Chicago Transit Authority's "L" Train and Bus Lines

Many travelers use the "L" and buses in tandem to get exactly where they want to go; here's how to navigate both.

  • Fares: The regular fare for the "L" train is $2.50, and for the bus lines it’s $2.25 (you may purchase your ticket directly onboard). 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. Reduced or free fares are available for children, students, seniors, people with disabilities, and active military.
  • How to Pay: You can buy disposable single-ride, one-day passes, and three-day passes at vending machines at any "L" station with either cash or a credit card (if you choose the former, you may transfer up to two rides within two hours at no extra cost to you). Alternatively, you can purchase a Ventra Card and load it with value or one of the day passes, or add the Ventra Card to your smartphone or smart watch via the Ventra app. Note that with Ventra, it's an additional $0.25 for up to two transfers within two hours. Finally, you can use Apple Pay, Android Pay, or Samsung Pay for contactless entry; transfers won’t be included.
  • Routes and Hours: Trains and buses run every day of the week. To find out which train, bus, or combination of the two you’ll need to get to 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 allow you to get arrival times, find stops near you, or see trains and buses on a map.
  • Service Alerts: You can view service changes and alerts for each of the train routes and bus lines, or find out about the elevator usage alerts, on the CTA’s System Status and Alerts website. You can also subscribe to CTA updates to learn about planned service changes or events that might affect service.
  • CTA System Map: Take a look at the CTA’s system map, which shows both the train routes and bus lines as well as all of the connecting services you might need in the city, its suburbs, or international airports. You can also see a map of downtown's popular attractions and learn how to get to them, or see the routes that operate at later hours or overnight.
  • Accessibility: All buses and railcars are outfitted with accessible seating and services. It’s important to note, however, that of the 145 train stations, 22 are currently not accessible. To see 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 rideshare, 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 buses.

  • Fares: You can get to downtown Chicago from O'Hare for $5 or less, and from Midway for $2.50 or less. Purchasing an Unlimited Ride Pass will give you the best rate, though you can also purchase a single-ride Ventra ticket at O'Hare.
  • 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 using a rideshare. The Windy City’s streets are designed on a grid system, which makes navigating around the city on foot an option as well. For a fun way to travel up and down the Chicago River, take the Chicago Water Taxi. Or, you can rent a Divvy bike and explore 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 a.m. and 8 a.m., and again between 4 p.m. and 6 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 that during these special events, public transportation will be packed and roadways busy.
  • Know where to park. If driving, you’ll want to know where you can park. Take a look at this map, which highlights all of the city's 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 eight city blocks equal one mile.