Jill Baird will be making a 1,400-mile round-trip drive from Grand Forks, N.D., to Chicago this month for a getaway weekend with a friend. She is driving in part so she can see friends along the way, but also because it's cheaper than flying or taking Amtrak.
But that’s not to say it will be cheap. AAA Chicago recently reported that January gas prices in the city were the highest ever for this time of year at an average cost of $3.51 per gallon, 29 cents higher than last year.
Plus, parking in downtown Chicago is notoriously costly. Baird, an education technology specialist, will be staying at a hotel on the Magnificent Mile that charges $43 per night for valet parking with in and out privileges, and $38 per night for self-parking.
“I kind of expected that we would have to pay a little bit, but I didn’t think it would be that much a night,” Baird said.
But that’s less than she might pay at other hotels. An informal phone survey of a dozen downtown hotels showed that valet parking with in and out privileges costs an average of $48.25 per night.
If she takes her car out of the hotel garage, there are parking meters to deal with. According to the Chicago Parking Meters website, the rate in most areas of the city is $1.75 per hour. In the Central Business District outside the Loop, rates are $3.50 per hour. Rates inside the Loop are $5.75 per hour from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the same rate for two hours from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Just a one-night stay in Chicago with your car can add up when you add the parking cost to the room rate, which averaged $164.18 in downtown Chicago in 2010, according to the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. To add insult to injury, Chicago recently raised the hotel tax one point to 16.4 percent to alleviate the city deficit. That puts the Chicago tax on par with New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Yet Baird is not the only tourist taking a driving trip to Chicago. Eighty-one percent of Chicago’s 28.1 million domestic leisure travelers drove to the city in 2010, although it’s worth noting that some tourists do not travel far since a tourist is defined as anyone outside the city limits.
While driving is costly, for some like Baird, it’s still more affordable than the alternatives. But there are other motivations, too.
For Chris Geirsson, a visitor from Orwigsburg, Pa., in 2011, it was the allure of the American road trip.
“I wanted to see the Midwest,” Geirsson said. Prior to this trip, “I never actually went any farther west in my car than Ohio. I wanted to see around Lake Erie, Indiana and Illinois from my car.”
Geirsson, who came to Chicago to visit a friend, said the scenery was well worth the additional time he could have saved flying.
“I’ll never forget seeing the Sears Tower from 30 miles out,” he said. “It just looked so cool, to see this huge, tall building ahead.”
The convenience of being on your own schedule at all times is also a reason people choose their vehicle. Dave Chatterton, a commodities broker in Champaign, drives nearly 300 miles round-trip a few times a month on business and to see relatives and friends, even though Amtrak provides service a few times per day.
“Unfortunately, Amtrak doesn’t have the best reputation for being on time and keeping with the schedule,” Chatterton said. “The train is actually a little cheaper, a little more economical, but the convenience is enough for us.”
Preston Johnson drove from Minneapolis in 2010 and also flew in 2011, although he drove in the city once he arrived. Johnson, who works for a marketing and technology company in Fargo, N.D., agrees with Chatterton that the convenience of a car can outweigh the expenses for some.
“It’s kind of the Midwest way,” Johnson said. “We enjoy having control over destiny even if it costs a little more to fill up on gas or pay for parking. I think, generally, people like that.”
While Johnson vaguely remembers the time and expense it took to park, what stands out to him are the adjustments he had to make while driving in a city of more than 3 million people, including relying on a GPS, waiting for swarms of pedestrians to cross the street and adjusting to the city’s driving style.
“Chicagoans are extraordinarily assertive about how they drive and they’re fast!” Johnson said.
Baird said she and her friend plan to leave the car at the hotel and use public transit and their own two feet as much as they can while they’re here.
“It’s not going to be worth it,” she said. “To battle traffic, then find a parking spot, then pay for that parking spot.”