Bunk Up in Downtown Chicago on a Summer Beach Weekend (For Super Cheap)

Budget Travel, Chicago — By on June 2, 2011 at 6:00 am

By Patty Hodapp

Deputy Editor

Nestled on the south shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s soft-sand beaches, skyscraper skyline, and diverse culinary scene make the city the throbbing heart of the Midwest. So if you’re dying to ditch your cubicle or stuffy office for a weekend getaway, check out Chicago. Like any big-city vacation, visiting Chicago can be expensive. Here’s the good news: you can budget your trip to avoid a hefty price tag. Save on accommodation — a big chunk of your travel expenses — by booking a room at HI-Chicago. Hostel International sits in the heart of downtown on 24 East Congress Parkway between State St. and Michigan Ave. (Chicago’s two main streets that run parallel to Lake Michigan). The hostel is three blocks from Lake Michigan in walkable downtown near Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain, the Shedd Aquarium, Navy Pier, and Michigan Ave.’s massive shopping district, among other attractions. You can’t go wrong.

This youth hostel, built nearly a hundred years ago, provides an affordable alternative to hotel rates. HI has clean rooms, comfortable beds, a friendly staff, and hot showers. Better yet, it’s located right where you need to be to max your your precious vacay days. Grab a map from the check-in desk and ask any reception staff to get your bearings. Before you head out for a day of exploring, load up on a toasted butter croissant, cereal, coffee, and orange juice at HI’s free continental breakfast on the second floor from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. HI doesn’t have a curfew, and the reception desk is open 24 hours. The building feels secure: you have to swipe your key card for access into the ground floor, and again in the elevator to get access to your respective room’s floor. There’s a luggage storage room where you can safely leave suitcases. If you have expensive valuables like a computer or camera, the staff can store them behind the reception desk in large wooden cupboards.

Rooms range from eight and ten beds with communal bathrooms, to private rooms with private bathrooms. In high season, prices vary but the cheapest runs rooms run between $20-30—a total steal for the location, free breakfast, and cleanliness. For $60-70 you can get your own private room and bath, a reasonable alternative for traveling couples or families who want their own space.

Getting There

Traveling to and from O’Hare Airport to HI is also easy. When your plane lands, follow the signs to baggage claim and down to the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority). At z kiosk before the turnstiles, buy a metrocard. You can top up at any train station. A single-ride trip costs $2.25, but you can purchase multi-day passes as well. Take the Blue Line train to LaSalle (about 30 minutes) and exit on West Congress Parkway. Walk east three blocks (crossing over State St. toward Lake Michigan) and HI is the seven story red brick building on your left.

Free Things to do Nearby

While you’re in town, shop on Michigan Ave., score your carnival fix on Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel, or relax on one of Chicago’s beaches. For the best views of the city’s skyline, head to the Shedd Aquarium and Observatory area. Don’t forget your camera. Walk through Millennium Park, Grant Park, Hyde Park — most parks have sculptures and fountains, all part of the thriving hip art scene. Don’t miss the famous Bean in Millennium Park (walk underneath and look up at all nine views of yourself in the mirror, and be sure to visit at dusk for a snapshot of the glowing reflection of the Chicago skyline).  If you like zoos, train or walk uptown to stroll through the Lincoln Park Zoo, free of charge. After, relax on the pier by North Avenue Beach. Skip the Willis Tower (aka Sears), which costs $20. Instead, score incredible bird’s-eye views of Chicago’s skyscrapers free: head up 96 floors to the John Hancock building’s Signature Lounge. Ladies, be sure to check out the view from the women’s bathroom— some Chicago natives claim it’s the best view in the entire city. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the Signature Room on a foggy night: you’ll be so high above Lake Michigan that you can look below and watch the fog crawl through the red-lit streets of Chicago.

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