Much like the city it serves, Chicago's largest airport is big, bustling and efficient – unless there's traffic. And there's usually traffic. But seriously – if you can't get there from O'Hare, or if you can't get from there to O'Hare, wherever there is might just be nowhere: In 2012, O'Hare was the fifth busiest airport in the world. That's a lot of people coming from and going to a lot of places. Coming in for a landing? You'll want a guide to help you get in, around and out.
Chicagoans are wont to grumble about the local transit services, and while the CTA network may be aging, trains often overcrowded and service rather limited at times, it does exist, it does work and it will get you where you need to go. Also? The Blue Line train runs right into Terminal 2 (you can walk from Terminals 1 and 3), ferrying you into the Loop in just 45 minutes, past all the terrible traffic on the Kennedy Expressway.
Sticking around for a while? Buy one of the CTA's unlimited ride passes, available in the train station. The longer you stay, the better the deal -- $10 for one day is okay, three days for $20 is better and the 7-day for $28 is the best value. These passes work on suburban buses as well as all CTA services. If you just need one ride downtown, buy a pay-as-you-go Transit Card. Note, however, that while the typical rail fare is $2.25, passengers boarding at O'Hare pay $5.
While many cab companies serve the airport, they're mostly metered and regulated by the city; the base fare is $3.25, each additional mile will be $1.80 and you pay $0.20 for every 36 seconds of waiting time. You pay $1 for the second passenger and $0.50 for every passenger after that until the cab is full. Note that there is also a $2 airport tax on each trip. What this means, in plain English: The typical fare to the loop will be $40, or maybe more – note that with traffic, a cab can often take longer than the train. (At best, you're looking at a half-hour drive.) If you'd like to save a little money, shared ride fares are available for $24 per person to the Loop, Near North and McCormick Place. Note: The city requires all affiliate cabs to accept credit cards now, which is a very good thing.
If you've got lots of luggage in tow but want to spend a little less than the cost of a cab, the GO Airport Express shared-ride shuttle is a good bet; you don't need to make reservations when arriving at O'Hare, but note that you do need them for return trips. For one person and a couple of bags to an address in the Loop, the cost is $32 on the outbound, $30 for the return. Need to make a flight at Chicago Midway? Omega Airport Shuttle offers service on the hour, all day long for $45 per person. (You can save a bundle of money, if not time, by hopping the CTA Blue Line to the Loop, where you can transfer to the Midway-bound Orange Line at Clark and Lake Station.)
If you're just hanging around the city and don't mind using transit and doing a bit of walking, you're truly better off avoiding a car rental at O'Hare. Not only is renting expensive, visitors are often surprised to find just how bad Chicago traffic can be. Or how tough (or expensive) parking can be, particularly in any neighborhood near the center of town or on the North Side, near the lakefront. In addition, rentals here can get very pricey at peak times, with a whopping eight taxes and fees piled atop each base rental fare. Quoted $80 per day for an economy car? (Don't laugh, that's what the O'Hare Enterprise location quoted us on an upcoming summer weekday.) Eighty dollars is ridiculous on its face, but the fun really begins when you realize that on top of that, you'll pay nearly $40 in tax. Bottom line: If you can avoid renting at O'Hare, do so – or at least wait until you're in town, where local rental offices don't carry so many of those crazy surcharges that the airport locations are required to levy. If you can't live without wheels, head down to the lower level outside of baggage claim, where rental agency shuttle buses congregate.
Two words: Tortas Frontera. Two more words: Rick Bayless. There is a lot of food at O'Hare, some of it is not half-bad. But there's really only one truly great place to eat – this outstanding Mexican sandwich joint from one of Chicago's most popular chefs. From delectable cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style pork) to simple but delightful breakfast sandwiches, Bayless and his team find a way to make airport dining not only good, but darn near memorable, too. Well-sourced food from solid local sources, tasty aguas frescas plus better-than-they-have-to-be margaritas and good guacamole make this one stop shopping for happy. Best of all, there are now three locations inside the airport – Terminal 1 (B Concourse), Terminal 3 and, as of last month, Terminal 5. Wherever you are, Tortas Frontera is just a short walk. (Short by O'Hare standards, anyway.)
Where to go drinking
There are plenty of places to grab a cold beer – the Berghoff Café (Terminal 1, Concourse C) always seems to have a couple decent regional beers on tap, that's a great place to start; but if you're looking for something a little more sophisticated, the recently-opened Beaudevin wine bar (also at Terminal 1, Concourse C) is worth seeking out. Comfortable bar stools, an almost-elegant chandelier, a player piano and lots of wines by the glass will have you forgetting all your airport-related troubles. Over in Terminal 3, Bubbles Wine Bar is similarly grown-up and worth a visit.
For a better class of Chicago memorabilia, there are two good options – the Chicago Historical Society Gift Shop in Terminal 3 and the Field Museum Store in Terminal 1. Or, you could just hit up Garrett Popcorn Shop (Terminals 1 & 3) for a Chicago souvenir that won't last long, but will taste very good. For proper shopping, keep your eye on Terminal 5, currently undergoing quite the transformation with shopping center giant Westfield at the helm. Expect Fifth Avenue / Rodeo Drive quality brands, along with iconically Chicago edibles (and drinkables) at Intelligentsia Coffee and Vosges Haut Chocolate. If you're not flying in or out of T5, the airport's landside People Mover automated train will bring you there.
Yes, but it isn't free. The cost is $6.95 for 24 hours, via Boingo – save a little time and hassle and sign up in advance at Boingo.com.
Best airport hotel
Really, the best airport hotel is always the one that involves the least hassle when it comes to getting back to your terminal. And on that front, the Hilton Chicago O'Hare performs beautifully: Walk right in from Terminals 1-3, walk right back out whenever you like. The Hilton can be expensive, depending on the time of year (or how many flights were cancelled that evening) but it's not half bad. Rooms are standard, but there are a couple of acceptable bars and restaurants, 24-hour room service, a good fitness center and indoor pool. Plus, if you have energy for a trip downtown, the 'L' train is within walking distance.
Get away from it all
In desperate need of a moment – or three – of zen? The Hilton's not just for overnight stays; anyone with an hour or two to kill should consider buying a day pass to the Hilton Athletic Club. For $20, you get steam, sauna, pool, Jacuzzi, fitness center and an all-around pretty decent place to veg out.
The long layover
With the CTA Blue Line train terminus located right inside the airport, the choice is clear – should you find yourself with four hours or more to kill, spend it in the city. You could just do the architecture-in-the-Loop thing, or the shopping-on-Michigan-Avenue thing, but to get down there, you'll be traveling through some of Chicago's hippest 'hoods – why not hop off early and explore a side of town that too few tourists ever see? The Damen Avenue stop puts you at the heart of the Wicker Park/Bucktown scene, one of the coolest between the coasts, but even closer to the airport is the Logan Square district, served by the station of the same name. While the very-residential neighborhood's charms are slightly more muted than further in towards town, Logan Square is a great place to just hang out among some of the city's coolest customers. The fun starts right across the street from the train station at Longman & Eagle, an all-day café and bar that's been one of the most popular addresses in town for a few years running. No need to wait for the evening, though – brunch is served seven days, and they do a bar snack menu in the late afternoons before dinner starts up. Best of all, you're only 25 minutes from Terminal 2 by train. Should you lose your way back to the airport, they've got a handful of chic hotel rooms upstairs that rank among the most appealing in the city.
For more about Chicago-O'Hare, check out www.flychicago.com. Learn more about travel to Chicago at www.choosechicago.com.
Low airfares to Chicago-O'Hare, found by our Dealhounds
More in this series
New York-LaGuardia (LGA)
follow us on Twitter @airfarewatchdog
image via Shutterstock