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 5-part series to help you enjoy Spring Break Chicago-Style. Hold the ketchup!
TODAY I tell you how to enjoy an extraordinary Spring Break Day Trip with your kids 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.
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 carry 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…
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.
Step #3 – 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.”
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.
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…
Step #4 – 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!
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.
Step #5 – 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.)
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.
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, but on Thursday nights from 5-8pm, Illinois Residents get in for free. 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!
Download or Print a copy to take with you: Family Day Trip to Chicago Map & Itinerary
Day Trip Idea #2 – Lincoln Park Zoo, 2001 N. Clark Street, Chicago
One can easily spend all day at this FREE Zoo in the heart of Lincoln Park which is open 10:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m. during the month of March. 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!
Day Trip Idea #3 – 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!
Keep coming back for more in our Spring Break Chicago-Style series. In our final installments, we’ll give you a full review of the Lincoln Park Zoo and a digest of our past reviews of other Chicago attractions. Stay tuned!
Editor’s Update 3/27/2015: For a full round-up of Chicago attractions that make a great day trip for budgets of all sizes, check out our Spring Break Chicago-Style: Kid-Friendly Review Round-Up.
Editor’s Update 5/28/206: Go West Young Mom tells us how KIDS RIDE FREE on Metra through Labor Day 2016!
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.