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It doesn’t always pay to save in Chicago

July 17, 2011

When it does — and doesn’t — pay to save a buck

The Bean is a free must see in Chicago

As you may gather from my columns, I am stingy. I can’t help it. If I see a way to save a dollar, I’m going to go for it. In many ways this can be beneficial to long-term financial success, but at other times I am essentially stepping over a dollar to save a dime. The key to saving money is to use a little common sense and keep an open mind to a number of possibilities.

If you read about my family trip to Chicago in a couple of my June columns, you know I looked for a number of ways to save money. Beforehand I studied the train and bus lines like it was a college final. I looked for special deals and had mapped out every way to get from here to there while avoiding toll roads.

Unfortunately, these methods did not exactly pay off for us most of the time. First, I looked for ways to save money with transportation once we arrived in Chicago. I thought public transportation was a sure-fire way to save money, especially considering how expensive it is to park in downtown Chicago.

We took the bus twice while in Chicago. The first time was from the Navy Pier to Millennial Park, a 1 ½-mile trip. At the time it was my wife and I, our daughter, and my mother-in-law and father in-law. We had to wait awhile for the right bus and then we all scrunched in after paying our fare. It took awhile as we had to follow the route and did not go straight to the park, making stops along the way.

On our way back we decided taking a cab would be easier. After we found a cab we all could fit in, which took about a minute or less, we quickly arrived back at the Navy Pier, and including a tip, had spent just a dollar more to take the cab than the bus. We also saved about 20 minutes of time and saved my pregnant wife from swollen ankles after quite a bit of walking to and from the bus stops.

A similar thing happened when we took the bus from the Lincoln Park Zoo to go downtown to take a Chicago River architecture tour. We waited about 40 minutes for the right bus and slowly made our way with numerous stops to downtown Chicago. Later than night the three of us took a cab back to where we parked and it was only about $1.50 more, but saved approximately 30 minutes.

I had also looked at taking the trains from the suburbs to downtown Chicago. Parking for the day is usually around $20. When I started to look at what it would cost for train tickets, bus or cab fare once we got downtown, and the inconvenience of following different schedules, we opted to pay for parking. This was a wise decision in terms of time and lack of hassle. It also was a bonus to be able to drive along the lake as we were heading downtown.

Even though for us public transportation did not make sense, if you travel alone, I think it can be very cost effective. If you choose to take a cab, there are some simple things you can do to save money on your fare. Sometimes by walking one block in the right direction you are able to get a cab ride going the right direction as opposed to having to ride a cab around a busy block to get moving in the right direction.

Even though transportation can be expensive, there are some great things to do in Chicago. It definitely was worth it to travel to various points in the big city. We spent one day at the Lincoln Park Zoo. This is one of the few free major zoos left in the United States and is comparable in quality to the Denver Zoo. We had a great afternoon checking it out.

Another great place to visit is Millennial Park. The artwork includes the Cloud Gate, also known as the Bean, and the Crown Fountain. Even for Quincy, age 3 1/2, this provided a good 30 to 45 minutes of entertainment. While looking at our reflection at the Bean I hard the sounds of the band Styx coming from the open-air concert pavilion.

At first we thought maybe it was another band singing Styx music, but when we walked over we realized it was former lead singer of Styx, Dennis Deyoung. We listened to half a dozen songs as the concert was winding down for free since it was toward the end of the show (you know that was a major plus for me).  Quincy had a great time running around in the large open grassy area.

By having a few activities that were free, we were able to take the river architecture tour of Chicago and go to the Shedd Aquarium. Each of these activities cost a little bit of money for a small family of three, but after getting to see the buildings that make up Chicago and visit one of the best aquariums in the country we felt it was well worth it.

To try and save a few bucks on the way home, I bypassed interstate 88, the toll road that takes you from Chicago to the Quad Cities at the border between Illinois and Iowa. I felt pretty proud of myself that I had saved $6, but then when it took us two hours to get out of Chicago, I did not feel so smart.

We traveled all day and did not have much of a chance to spend a lot of time with my brother and his wife when we arrived in Omaha that night. I would gladly had gone back, taken the toll road, paid the money, and had another two hours to spend with family.

It all comes down to the value of time and money. Sometimes a couple of extra bucks is worth it; sometimes it isn’t. Saving money on vacations also can appear to make you a genius when you can find great free entertainment, but can also make you the goat as you wait 45 minutes to hop on a crowded bus that isn’t going anywhere fast.

I’m still accepting your tips and ideas on how to save money while traveling. If you have a general tip or a tip specific to a certain city (Personally, I’m partial to Las Vegas), please send it to me at andrewlong@fastmail.fm or post it at my blog at greatwonder.wordpress.com. The winner will receive the book “1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die.” Please submit your tips by July 31.

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