How to do Chicago on a Budget

On your way to Chicago but only have a little money and a few days? Want to explore this historic city and soak up the culture, nightlife, and tourism all on a limited time and budget? Have no fear! Chicago is a unique and cool city, definitely one to see. Here’s what to see if you only have a few days and the cheapest ways to enjoy yourself.

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Millenium Park

If you’ve only got a few days, make sure you get to Millennium Park! I rode into Union Station and while it is a bit of a walk, it’s possible to get to Millennium Park by walking. Chicago is pretty walking-friendly, and if you get tired there are tons of Ubers driving around and the attractions are so close that rides are very cheap.

Millenium Park is home to Crown Fountain (pictured above), The Bean, Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus classical music performances and more. You can listen to music and see these attractions for free. Millennium Park is home to Chicago’s iconic trademarks, it’s beautiful, nice to walk through, and free.

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Buckingham Fountain

Located in the center of Grant Park and open since 1927, the Buckingham Fountain is a beautiful piece of architecture that’s completely free to view and easy to walk to.

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Go to the Top of a Tall Building

Part of the Chicago experience, right? The go-to here is the famous Willis Tower. But, the Willis Tower does cost money to experience. Although, if you feel like paying, you can go out on the skydeck which is a small glass room protruding from the Willis Tower that you can step out onto and look at the city hundreds of feet below. If you’d like the tall tower experience but would prefer a free option, try the John Hancock Building! On my first Chicago trip I went up to the top of the Willis Tower and it was a great experience. However, on this trip we opted for the free John Hancock Center, which was also memorable. It’s a 100-story 1,128 ft. skyscraper completely free to enter. At the top is a restaurant and bar, surrounded by glass walls that allow you to overlook the city while you dine. However, if you’re super cheap (like me!) you can ride to the top for the view and sneak back down without buying a thing!

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The Riverwalk

The riverwalk is quickly becoming a hot tourism spot in Chicago. Lined with restaurants and shops, the Chicago River goes straight through the city and hosts walking tours, boat rides, and beautiful scenery. I went on a “Chicago’s Finest Tours” walking tour which was exquisite. 90 minutes walking, lots of great history and facts, and a fun boat ride, plus the tour guide was enthusiastic and funny. While this tour wasn’t free, you can still walk through the riverwalk free of charge.

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Deep Dish Pizza

This is an essential part of the Chicago experience. There is authentic deep dish pizza everywhere, and each time I’ve visited Chicago I’ve eaten at a different spot. That being said, you really can’t go wrong anywhere. Go ahead and splurge on your pizza–trust me.

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This concludes the cheap selection! Although they are pricey, Chicago offers some of the best art museums, natural history museum, aquarium, and space and industry museum. Certain venues hold cheaper days/nights and if you’d like to go to the big three (Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History, and the Art Institute of Chicago) you can buy passes that bundle the three and are cheaper than buying individual passes. While these passes aren’t exactly thrifty, if you have the means to go to at least one attraction you will not regret it.

Have fun in Chicago!

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What I learned from Backpacking in Europe

This summer I went on a backpacking adventure through Europe. I had never traveled without my parents before, and all I had was a backpack, limited Spanish, and my friend. The two of us took on multiple means of transportation, major cities, tiny towns, and proved to our families and ourselves that two, 20-year-old female college students with zero traveling experience can navigate, finance, and travel through Europe.

How to Pack

I took my brother’s camping backpack with me, which had about seven pockets, 13 zippers, and towered above my head. I sifted through numerous travel blogs before leaving on my trip, trying to find out what I needed for six weeks abroad and how I could carry it all with me. One of the best pieces of advice I found out there is to make sure every article of clothing you bring goes with everything else in your bag. In other words, if you have a shirt that is so cute but only looks good with one specific pair of jeans, don’t bring it. You’re going to be so short on luggage room, only bring items you wear often, are comfortable in, and go with each other. Also, bring little travel bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and whatever shower necessities you like. We stayed in hostels, (even tents) and discount places won’t provide essentials like these. Finally, invest in a super comfortable, durable pair of hiking sandals! I used a cheaper version of Birk’s and they worked perfectly for me. The last thing you want is to be crawling through Rome because your feet are blistered.

How to Budget

Financing your own travels as a broke college student is hard, but not impossible! We primarily used hostels.com to book our lodgings, which turned out really well. However, if you’re going to travel on the cheap, you have to truly commit yourself to it. Both my friend and I were ready to be uncomfortable, do anything to save money, and were focused on using our money to see more places rather than stay in luxurious hotels. To some people, staying over night in Paris in a tiny tent on the ground with an outdoor bathroom sounds terrible! And that’s ok. Be honest with yourself about what you want, because otherwise being less comfortable than you had intended will ruin your trip. You can also save on museums and tours by researching before you get there, to find out student discounts. In Europe, many places give discounts to under-26-year-olds. For food, we splurged on a big, authentic meal once a day. We’d eat cheap breakfasts, like fruit and bread (typical European breakfast) and then go all out for lunch or dinner. That way, we’d get a taste of every country without spending $20 three times a day on meals. You will spend the most money on transportation and lodging. Research hostel prices and determine how many nights you can afford to stay in a city, and plan accordingly with travel expenses. Flying between European countries is often cheaper (and faster) than trains, and staying in hostels outside of the city is cheaper than staying in the heart of it.

You Can’t Plan Everything

You can’t, we tried. Do plan out as much as you can control, but be ok with the fact that some of your plans are going to fall through and you will be met with obstacles. Backpacking or traveling on your own is different than a vacation; it takes some effort, planning, and you will learn as much about traveling as you do about yourself. We had some transportation issues. In Italy especially, buses and trains are usually late, and this caused as a few schedule complications. But as you go, you’ll learn to adapt to challenges and fix problems quickly. Traveling with the mindset of, “I will do the research and do my best to prevent problems for myself, but understand they will arise anyway” is the best way to go.

You Can Do It

You really can! Don’t be afraid! Our parent and friends thought we were crazy. I promise, we had absolutely ZERO traveling experience, but we were able to travel by ferry, car, bus, train, and plane. We visited seven countries. We saw historical marvels of the world, tasted authentic cuisine, played tourist and immersed ourselves with locals. I’m also someone who, before this trip, couldn’t read a map. Now, I’m confident in my abilities to get myself anywhere. It will be scary, stressful, and hard at times, but those are the times you will learn and grow the most. Our ongoing joke was that we were forced to learn “hello,” “excuse me,” and “exit,” in every language we encountered, mostly taught to us by navigating our way through the underground metros. Traveling transformed my worldview, confidence, and capabilities. It can change yours too 🙂