Spring Break Chicago-Style: Family Day Trips for Twenty Bucks or Less

Chicago, IL

There’s no need to get on a plane for Spring Break.  Lake County families who want to “get away” for Spring Break have an international vacation destination right on our doorstep!  Hop on the Metra or pack up the car for an exciting day trip into Chicago with the kids. No hotels, no passports, no flight delays.  Enjoy all the culture, sights, and attractions of a world-class city and still put the kids to sleep in their own beds.  This week, we’ve prepared a series of posts to help you enjoy Spring Break Chicago-Style. Hold the ketchup!

In case you missed the previous installments…

TODAY I tell you how to enjoy an extraordinary Spring Break Day Trip with your kids for $20 or less!

Family Day in Chicago for $20 or Less

So what’s your excuse for not visiting Chicago with your kids? If your big hurdle is the cost, I get it. When you add up parking, tickets to attractions, and feeding everyone, you can be in for one hefty price tag. So if I told you that you could pack up your family (of any size as long as they fit in one vehicle) and enjoy a kid-friendly, one-day itinerary in the Windy City for $20 or less, would you believe me?

Submitted for your approval, not one but THREE suggestions for family day trips into the city that will cost you less than $20 per day. Our first itinerary includes iconic landmarks, a museum, and an amazing playground. Think I’m nuts? Well, my mental health status may be debatable, but you can enjoy a perfect day in Downtown Chicago for $20 or less. With all the money you save you can buy me a souvenir! For reals. I’m not kidding. Get me something pretty.

easy bento lunches, family day in chicago for $20
L. Thomas | littlelakecounty.com | 2015

Step #1 – Pack Your Own Lunch and Snacks

Preparation is key, my dear!  There’s just no way you’re going to feed a family of four, three, or sheesh barely two folks on less than twenty bucks in Downtown Chicago. In my perfectly affordable Chicago itinerary, you’re driving in, so you can’t complain about not wanting to carry food with you. Pack a lunch for everyone, leave it in your car and bring snacks and water bottles with you.

Step #2 – Park Once, Park Cheap

You’re not in Lake County anymore, Dorothy. Hopping in your car from place to place is a lot more trouble and expense than it is worth. For my perfectly affordable Chicago day, select Millennium Park as the springboard for your day’s activities. Park in this area, and you will walk to your other destinations. Right about now is when you’re convinced I’m crazy because everyone knows the Millennium Park Parking Garage is pricey.  Oh, ye of little faith…

spothero, family day in chicago for $20
Image from SpotHero on Facebook

Allow me to introduce you to my new friend, SpotHero. This genius website allows you to select your date, destination, and even the hours you wish to park, then gives you several parking options in the surrounding area that you can reserve and pay for in advance at discounts up to 50% off. The first time I used SpotHero, I was able to park within 2 blocks of my destination for the entire day for only $16, and my spot was guaranteed to be there upon arrival. It’s like calling dibs without the plastic lawn furniture! Your available pricing may vary, but I’ll go out on a limb to say you can find a spot for $20 and under. Your redemption procedures can vary based on the garage or valet service, but I was able to pull up a QR code on my phone and scan myself into and out of the garage. Easy peasy!

Now put away your wallet. Because that’s the last time you’ll have to pay for anything on my perfectly affordable Chicago day.

family day chicago for $20, cloudgate
© L. Thomas | littlelakecounty.com | 2015

Itinerary Stop 1: Millennium Park

Millennium Park, , 201 E. Randolph St., between Michigan Ave. & Columbus Ave. Chicago
Now let’s have some fun!  After securing your discounted and convenient parking spot, walk on over to Millennium Park and let your kids gaze in amazement at “The Bean.”  Technically, it’s called the “Cloud Gate” but you have kids so you call it  “The Bean.” Or as my son says, “The Great Bean.”

family day in chicago for $20, pritzker pavilion
© L. Thomas | littlelakecounty.com | 2015

While the Cloud Gate is certainly the most recognizable sculpture at Millennium Park, there’s so much more eye candy to be found. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, The Crown Fountain, Boeing Gallery, and even the BP Pedestrian Bridge that spans Columbus Drive will no doubt elicit shrieks of “Mommy come see!” over and over again.

family day in Chicago for $20
Image from cityofchicago.org

Now if you have any hope of having them pose for pictures in front of these landmarks, take my advice and stop at Millennium Park FIRST. Our next stop on my perfectly affordable Chicago day trip will be hard to pull them away from…

Itinerary Stop 2: Maggie Daly Park

Maggie Daley Park, 337 E. Randolph St., Chicago
When the kids start to ask, “What’s next?” Now is the time to walk across the BP Bridge and head over to Maggie Daley Park.

Pro Tip: Make a quick pit-stop at the car to grab your lunch, because it’s going to be hard to leave.

I won’t go into too many details about this incredible park. You can read all about it in the first installment of Spring Break Chicago-Style. In a word, it’s AWESOME. You’ll spend several lovely hours chasing your children around the Play Garden, that unfortunately, puts your subdivision’s pocket tot lot to shame. But hey, it’s Spring Break! Go big or go home!

playground at Maggie Daley Park
L. Thomas | littlelakecounty.com | 2015

When the kids get hungry, pull out the lunch you packed and enjoy views of the lake and Chicago skyline in a nearby picnic grove. Take a deep breath. Observe your happy children. And pat yourself on the back for an already spectacular day.

Itinerary Stop 3: Ryan Education Center

Ryan Education Center at The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.
You and the kids have been enjoying all this fresh air, and while lunch has perked you up a bit, you’re ready for a more leisurely activity. Rally the troops for an easy 10-minute walk through the park going south towards Monroe Street. There you will find the Modern Wing entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago  (be sure to enter from Monroe, NOT the main entrance at Michigan Avenue.)

family day in chicago for $20
Photo by Dave Jordano from the Art Institute of Chicago on Facebook

Now I’ve lost you… you’re thinking your kids thinks Michelangelo is a turtle who likes pizza so there’s no way they’ll enjoy wandering the art galleries.  And admission… surely museum admission will blow your budget!  Think again…

The Ryan Education Center is located on the first floor of the Art Institute in the Modern Wing. Instead of getting in line for tickets, upon entry turn immediately to your left to enter The Ryan Education Center which is ALWAYS FREE.

family day in chicago for $20, ryan center at the art institute
© L. Thomas | littlelakecounty.com | 2015

Inside you’ll find a Family Room full of hands-on activities that nurture artistic minds. There are computer games, educational toys, puzzles, a whole room full of illustrated storybooks and more.  Best of all? Pristine bathrooms with changing tables!  Time to put your feet up for an hour or two while the kids play.

If you are truly itching to see the rest of the Art Institute exhibits, there’s a way you can still see them for free. Children 14 and under are always free at the Art Institute any day of the week.  Now after a full day’s worth of activity, I’m guessing you and your brood will be pretty tuckered out and ready for the drive home before 5 pm to avoid traffic, but if you have it in you go for it!  Just be sure to plan for dinner as well. There are several lower-cost options in the area, but it will bust through your $20 budget…

So there you have it – Chicago with kids for under $20!  Told you it was possible.  To make things even easier for you, here’s a map of the entire area covered in this itinerary.  As you can see, your full day of fun is all within a few city blocks!

Family Day Trip to Chicago

Download or Print a copy to take with you: Family Day Trip to Chicago Map & Itinerary

Alternate Itinerary 1: Lincoln Park Zoo

family day in chicago for $20, Lincoln Park Zoo
© L. Thomas | littlelakecounty.com | 2015

Lincoln Park Zoo, 2001 N. Clark Street, Chicago
One can easily spend all day at this FREE Zoo in the heart of Lincoln Park. The zoo’s parking lot entrance is located at Fullerton Parkway and Cannon Drive (2400 North Cannon Drive, Chicago IL 60614). Parking fees are collected at the lot exit and you can pay a flat rate of $20 for parking in excess of 30 minutes.  You can try and beat that price by using SpotHero for greater savings and pack your lunch and snacks for another perfectly affordable Chicago Day Trip idea!

Alternate Itinerary 2: Notebart Nature Museum

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
© M. Haak | Little Lake County.com | 2015

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum,2430 Cannon Drive, Chicago (773) 755-5100
You’ll need to save this idea for a Thursday, when admission is FREE at the Petty Notebaert Nature Museum. You can learn exactly why it makes a great day trip destination by reading Melissa’s review. The museum is located just across from Lincoln Park Zoo on Cannon Drive. You can either try to find FREE parking along Cannon Drive or save yourself the hassle and park in the zoo parking lot on Fullerton and Cannon for $20 a day. Remember to pack your lunch and snacks to stay within budget. Nice thing is, if your children are super troopers, you can hit both the Lincoln Park Zoo and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum all in one day on a Thursday and never pay admission for either!

By Loralie

When Loralie isn’t out exploring with her two pint-sized adventurers you’ll often find her in front of her computer plotting to take over the world (or at least Lake County.) She appreciates good friends, good food, expensive shoes and parents who make two lanes in the drop-off/pick-up line at school. Her spirit animal is The Hobbit. She invites you to join her on her quest for unique distractions, diversions and deliciousness in this county we call home.

Disclosure: I received a promotional code to try SpotHero for free and have been so impressed with their service I felt compelled to share. No compensation was received; however, this post does contain referral links.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.  

Spring Break Chicago-Style: Family Day Trips for Twenty Bucks or Less


  1. Loralie,
    I absolutely loved this article! We are spending the week downtown while my hubby is at a trade show at McCormick Place all week. When I scrolled down and saw your picture I thought “I know her from preschool (…and gymnastics… and the beach…)” Made me love the article even more!

  2. To save even more money you can drive up I-57 and get off in Manteno (I think). Anyway. University Park (Google it) is the furthest South the Metra train runs. Kids ride free a lot and it saves parking. Plus it’s super fun to ride the train! For $31 you can buy a 10-ride ticket that never expires. There’s several day trips right there…

    • We like the Metra too Sarah! We have a story just about train travel with the kids on the Metra.

      I didn’t recommend it in this case because the 10-ride isn’t round-trip. So if you’re traveling with a family of four you’ll use up 8 of your rides with one trip into the city, and the 10-ride is still more expensive than discounted parking. Also Union Station is about 1.5 mile walk to Millennium Park. Not a bad walk but can be tiring for parents with younger kids, especially since there is a lot of walking on the itinerary already. Could be doable with kids that ride in a stroller but now you have to keep track of a stroller. I personally like the convenience of having a car and a place to stow our stuff when traveling to the city with kids.

      But if you live near a Metra line that stops at Millennium Station then you are golden! That station serves the Metra Electric Line and the South Shore Line.

      Unfortunately, there aren’t any convenient mass transit options from the suburbs that I know of that would work for a day trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo. One could do it, but not for under $20 and not without a lot of transfers. If anyone knows of a way our ears are open!

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