Chicago traffic is often heavy, on-street parking is nearly impossible to find, parking lots are expensive, congestion creates frustrating delays (especially during rush-hour snarls), and other drivers may be impatient with those who are unfamiliar with the city and its roads. On the other hand, Chicago's network of buses and rapid-transit rail is extensive, and taxis and limousines are readily available (the latter often priced competitively with metered cabs), so rent a car only if you plan to visit outlying suburbs that are not accessible by public transportation.
If you do need to rent one, you'll have plenty of options, from the big chains to luxury options. The common rental agencies regularly stock new models, many with modern amenities (think navigation systems and satellite radio).
Rates in Chicago begin at around $50 a day, $75 a weekend, or $200 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This does not include the car-rental tax and other taxes totaling 20% plus the $2.75 surcharge per rental. If you rent from the airport, expect to payslightly more because of airport taxes.
The Illinois tollways snake around the outskirts of the city. Interstate 294 runs north and south between Wisconsin and Indiana. Interstate 90 runs northwest to western Wisconsin, including Madison and Wisconsin Dells. Interstate 88 runs east–west and goes from Eisenhower to Interstate 55. Traffic on all is sometimes just as congested as on the regular expressways. Most tollgates are unmanned, so bring lots of change if you don't have an I-Pass, which is sometimes included with rental cars. Even though tolls are double without the I-Pass, it's not cost-effective to purchase one for a couple of days.
The Illinois Department of Transportation gives information on expressway congestion, travel times, and lane closures and directions on state roadways.
Gas stations are less numerous in downtown Chicago than in the outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. Filling up is about 50¢ higher per gallon downtown, when you can find a station. Expect to pay anywhere between $2 and $3 per gallon of gas (prices at time of writing). Major credit cards are accepted at all gas stations, and the majority of stations are completely self-serve.
Most of Chicago's streets have metered parking, but during peak hours it's hard to find a spot. Most parking pay boxes accept quarters and credit cards in increments as small as five minutes in high-traffic areas, up to an hour in less crowded neighborhoods. Prices average $2–$6.50 an hour. Parking lots and garages are plentiful downtown, but they're expensive. You could pay anywhere from $13 for the day in a municipal lot to $25 for three hours in a private lot. Some neighborhoods, such as the area of Lakeview known as Wrigleyville, enforce restricted parking (especially strict on Cubs' game nights) and will tow cars without permits. You won't find many public parking lots in the neighborhoods. Many major thoroughfares restrict parking during peak travel hours, generally from 7 to 9 am heading toward downtown and from 4 to 6 pm heading away. Read street signs carefully to determine whether a parking spot is legal. On snow days in winter cars parked in designated "snow route areas" will be towed. There's a $30 fine plus the cost of towing the car. In sum, Chicago isn't the most car-friendly place for visitors. Unless it's a necessity, it's best to forget renting a car and use public transportation.
Chicago drivers can be reckless, zipping through red lights and breaking posted speed limits. The Loop and some residential neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Bucktown are made up of mostly one-way streets, so be sure to read signs carefully. Check both ways after a light turns green to make sure that the cross traffic has stopped.
Rush hours are 6:30 to 9:30 am and 4 to 7 pm, but don't be surprised if the rush starts earlier or ends later, depending on weather conditions, big events, and holiday weekends. There are always bottlenecks on the expressways, particularly where the Edens and Kennedy merge, and downtown on the Dan Ryan from 22nd Street into the Loop. Sometimes anything around the airport is rough. There are electronic signs on the expressways that post updates on the congestion. Additionally, summertime is high time for construction on highways and inner-city roads. Drive with patience.
Dial 911 in an emergency to reach police, fire, or ambulance services. AAA Chicago provides roadside assistance to members. Mr. Locks Security Systems will unlock your vehicle 24 hours a day.
AAA Chicago. 800/222–4357; www.aaa.com.
Mr. Locks Security Systems. 866/675–6257; www.mr-locks.com.
Rules of the Road
Speed limits in Chicago vary, but on most city roads it's 30 mph. Most interstate highways, except in congested areas, have a speed limit of 55 mph. In Chicago you may turn right at a red light after stopping if there's no oncoming traffic and no restrictions are posted. When in doubt, wait for the green. Cameras have been installed at many major intersections in the city to catch drivers who run red lights and commit other infractions. There are many one-way streets in Chicago, particularly in and around the Loop, so be alert to signs and other cars. Illinois drunk-driving laws are quite strict. Anyone caught driving with a blood-alcohol content of .08 or more will automatically have his or her license seized and be issued a ticket; authorities in home states will also be notified. Those with Illinois driver’s licenses can have their licenses suspended for three months on the first offense.
Passengers are required to wear seat belts. Always strap children under age eight into approved child-safety seats.
It's illegal to use handheld cellular phones while driving in the city; restrictions vary in the suburbs. Headlights are compulsory if you're using windshield wipers. Radar detectors are legal in Illinois.