Living in the Champaign-Urbana area has numerous benefits and one of them is being in proximity to big cities like Chicago. For an option other than driving, consider taking the train!
We are just a 2 1/2-hour drive away from downtown Chicago, where endless opportunities for family fun await! Chambanamoms favorites include 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.
Plus, the cost of parking can be a bit shocking. And then there’s the tolls, 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.
Taking the Amtrak to Chicago
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. There are options to purchase tickets that allow for free cancellation and trip modification, and they’re only a few dollars more.
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 ride share like Uber or Lyft, 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 your family.
Taking the Metra Electric to Chicago
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 Electric 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 a person, call the Passenger Services Department at (312) 311-6777 weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. As of early 2024, all ticket windows will be closed and ticketing will be available only through vending machines and the Ventra app.
The cost for a Metra ticket depends on how far you’re going. Regular one-way fares to downtown Chicago range from $3.75 to $6.75. Children under 7 are free and children 7-11 are half-off for a one-way fare. Several different ticket options are available.
One-way tickets can be purchased on the train but we definitely recommend downloading the free Ventra app and using that. Purchase your tickets on the app and use them anytime within 14 days — just show your ticket to the conductor when they come through to check tickets. Five-day passes and monthly passes are also available.
So, let’s break it down. On a recent trip to Shedd Aquarium on a weekday this fall, I used the app to purchase two one-way tickets for my sister and me. My 3-year-old son was free, so he didn’t need a ticket. We parked and took the 9:15 a.m. train from University Park to the Museum Campus station. It took about an hour and was super efficient. The conductor was nice, there were a variety of folks on the train but it wasn’t crowded, and my son got a kick out of train travel.
When we arrived, we walked a few minutes through Grant Park to the aquarium and spent our day there. When it was time to head home, I just purchased two more one-way tickets, hopped the train, and headed back to University Park. You can definitely buy all your tickets at once, but the app makes it easy to do so whenever, wherever.
Parking is available at the University Park station for a small daily fee. Just park, then follow the signage posted at the station and in the lot to register your car online and pay for parking with your phone. You can also use the manual parking machines, but you must have exact change.
Here are a few comments from readers who recommend taking the Metra train from 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. 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!