Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2008

City Basics

Arriving. The best way to get to into the city from O'Hare International Airport is to hop a Blue Line train, which will take you downtown in about 40 minutes; train fare is usually $2.75 a ride, but if you plan on riding the trains often, pick up a multiday visitor pass at the airport and you can save a truckload on individual rides. A cab from O'Hare to downtown will run you about $40 not including tip, and usually takes 30 to 40 minutes.

If you fly into Midway International, the Orange Line will get you into downtown in about 30 minutes; a cab ride will run you about $30 and usually takes 20 to 30 minutes.

Getting Around. The trains and buses of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) are a fairly efficient way to get around much of the city. Pick up a day pass to save money on the $2 fares. With Chicago trying to get its transit infrastructure more up to speed, there always seems to be some kind of construction project nowadays. If you encounter any stall times, hop off and walk it or try to flag a cab. If you're venturing farther out of the city, Metra commuter trains are a very comfortable and efficient way to travel.

Driving. If you have access to a car, you'll have an easier time exploring the farther reaches of the city, but wherever you go, make sure you park legally; check street-parking signs carefully or look for a reasonably priced lot. Sometimes it doesn't even matter whether or not you were parked legally — the city would ticket and tow you out of your own driveway if it thought it could get away with it. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight featured shots of Lower Wacker Drive, which is where one of the city's tow pounds is tucked away — you don't want to have to go there to rescue your rental car, trust us. Not even Batman could get your car out of the City of Chicago's clutches, if you don't have the proper proof of ownership.

Biking. Chicago is a great city to explore by bike, and it has a good number of bike lanes and bike paths (including 18 miles on the lakefront). And you can generally take your bike on CTA trains and buses and the Metra trains, except during rush hour and certain holidays. Borrow a bike from a friend, if you can; otherwise, rent one at one of five Bike Chicago locations for hourly, half-day and full-day rates. If you want to make your dollar reach a little further, make a trip to Working Bikes Cooperative in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood, where you can buy a bike for as little as $50; the co-op uses the money to provide bicycles to local charity groups and ship bicycles to countries like Angola and Ecuador. When you're ready to leave town, you can donate your bike back to the cooperative.

Tipping. The 15% to 20% rule of thumb (plus extra for exceptional service) applies across the board. Consider giving cab drivers the same. Gas has soared in price since the last time the city's cabbies got a fare hike, so if your driver gets you where you need to be in good time and without causing any crazy accidents, consider a larger token of your appreciation.

Wi-Fi. A number of bars and coffee shops throughout the city either have free Wi-Fi or offer a special deal with purchase. The Apple Store downtown is always a cool place to plug in or hop on the Internet if you don't have computer access.

Survival Tips. Chicago has a history of tension among its various ethnic and socioeconomic groups, rooted in its segregated communities. While it's not the norm, don't take it personally if locals don't look overly friendly. Just smile, be friendly, and remember that you're there to appreciate and enjoy the city's culture. As in most cities, you should always be mindful of your surroundings.

Weather. The Windy City can get really, really hot, and really, really bitter cold. Sometimes on the same day. Layering is a good idea most of the year, pack some sunscreen for the summer, and in the winter months, make sure you have a pair of boots that can withstand not only the cold, but hard-to-see patches of ice.