By Kelly Youngblood
Living in the Champaign-Urbana area has numerous benefits and one of them is being in proximity to big cities like Chicago.
We are just a 2 1/2-hour drive away from downtown Chicago, where endless opportunities for family fun awaits! Our personal family favorites are Shedd Aquarium, Navy Pier, and The Field Museum of Natural History.
While the distance from Champaign to Chicago is relatively short, anyone who has driven in Chicago traffic can tell you how stressful it can be. (I don’t think my husband’s knuckles have quite regained their color since our last visit to Chicago.)
Plus, the cost of parking can be a bit shocking. And then there’s the toll booths, stopping for bathroom breaks, road construction, etc.
One way to eliminate those stresses is to take the train to Chicago. We asked our readers what they thought about the idea and those who commented agreed — it’s definitely something to try at least once.
Amtrak trains leave from the Illinois Terminal, located at 45 E. University Ave. in Champaign, and head to Chicago’s Union Station every day.
There’s an early morning train, a mid-morning train, and one that leaves later in the evening. The website lists the duration of the trip as about two hours and 45 minutes. Ticket prices vary by fare options. Fares differ based on refund rules and restrictions.
As for the return trip from Chicago’s Union Station to the Illinois Terminal in Champaign, the last train to leave is at 8 p.m.
So if you took the early morning train from Champaign and arrived in Chicago about 9 a.m., you would definitely have a full day to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Windy City.
The Amtrak website is probably the easiest way to buy tickets and plan your trip. When I looked into buying round-trip tickets for my family of five for a day trip in June, it was going to cost about $155. That option would have allowed us to cancel within 24 hours and still get a refund. Otherwise, we could pay $273 and have no restrictions on refunds.
Buying tickets early is always a good idea. As one reader pointed out, “You never know how many students are hopping the train.”
Several readers, who raved about their experience taking the Amtrak to Chicago, offer some of their best tips:
“The train is great and completely hassle-free. We play cards in the dining car.”
“I’ve done the trip with my 6-year-old and we had a ton of fun. Bonus: if they’re Bears fans, you’ll pass Soldier Field for a good look.”
“Fun. Try to get the train with the lounge car (City of New Orleans?). The lounge car has a clear domed roof and twisty seats. Lots of fun, and I found it much less stressful than driving. No need to stop for bathroom breaks or snacks. It’s much roomier and more relaxing than a plane or car.”
“By all means take train. Ask to be seated in observation car. Huge glass windows and dome … can see forever. It also has swivel seating so you can face window. When you get there go to Lou Mitchell’s for breakfast. Food on train pricey so may want to take a snack to hold them until breakfast in town.”
(Editor’s note: The Sightseer Lounge, which offers a great view of the scenery, is only on the City of New Orleans train. That train is the first one to leave in the morning.)
If you’re wondering how to get to your destination after arriving at Union Station, several public transportation options are available. They include taking a taxi, bus, pedicab, or even utilizing the city’s “L” train system. (The “L” stands for “elevated.”)
If you’re not going too far and the weather is nice, you could also walk. Make sure to look at a map and check the weather to decide the best mode of transportation for you and your family.
Several readers said while taking the train to Chicago isn’t a bad idea, driving to the University Park Metra station and then taking the Metra train to downtown is the preferred way to go.
The University Park Metra station, located at 1900 University Parkway, is a commuter rail agency that serves several counties in the Chicago area.
Trains run about every hour and make several stops at various locations in downtown Chicago. You can use the Metra’s trip planner for routes and train times. To speak to someone, call the Passenger Services Department at 312-311-6777 weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
The cost for a Metra ticket depends on how far you’re going. Regular one-way fares to downtown Chicago range from $3.25 to $10.25. Children under 7 are free and children 7-11 are half-off for a one-way fare. Several different ticket options are available.
Tickets are available for purchase at downtown stations and at all outlying stations where a ticket agent is on duty. One-way tickets can be purchased on the train but if an agent is on duty or a vending machine is available at the station where you boarded, the conductor will charge you an additional $3. Ten-ride tickets and monthly tickets can also be purchased online.
Here are a few comments from readers who recommend taking the Metra train in University Park to downtown Chicago:
“Drive to the University Park Metra station and ride in! It’s the furthest south the Metra goes and right on I-57. It’s the best of both worlds and it’s nice to not have to drag bags and luggage AAAALLLLL the way back to Champaign.”
“I have enjoyed taking Amtrak but I like driving to University Park and taking the Metra to Michigan Avenue more. I like the convenience of Metra running every hour and we can leave when we’re ready without any delays.”
“My vote is for driving up 57 to University Park, parking and hopping the Metra the rest of the way. A little driving, a little train and it drops you off right outside the Shedd Aquarium on the mag mile. Plus they run regularly. Just check the schedule to try and time it close.”
Have you taken your kids to Chicago via an Amtrak train or the Metra? Let us know your best travel tips!