The Windy City is known for its pristine streets, incredible attractions, raucous sports fans—and downtown traffic. Driving in Chicago isn't for the faint of heart, as streets are not only packed with vehicle traffic, but they teem with jaywalking pedestrians and cyclists.
Finding cheap parking downtown can be difficult. One way to get around expensive parking is to do your research ahead of time to find cheaper parking spots. Some parking garages offer special rates on event days or you can reserve garage parking in advance from one of many services.
Chicago Street Parking: Know Before You Go
Depending on where and when you park in Chicago, the cost and hours of operation vary. Hourly parking rates range from $6.50 (Loop), to $4 (Central Business District) and $2 (outside the Loop and Central Business District).
The free ParkChicagoMap app shows areas where you are more likely to find available parking spaces, and helps you avoid areas where parking is scarce. The app also lets you feed the meter using your smartphone, which is super handy.
Street parking may seem like the cheapest way to go, but you could get stuck paying a lot more if you're not careful. Be mindful whether you can park in metered spots, which can have time restrictions. Make sure you read the signs. Segway-riding parking attendants are known for issuing many tickets in the downtown area in particular.
A ticket for exceeding metered parking will typically cost you $60. If your car is towed, you can expect to pay a minimum of $150 to get it out of impound. Commit a second parking violation, and you're looking at fines even greater than $60.
Be careful about parking in residential neighborhoods, some of which are restricted to vehicles with a residential parking permit. If you are visiting friends who live in the city, they can get you a guest permit. If you park in a residential spot without a permit, you can get a $75 fine.
Most of the year, you can park for free in unmetered parking spots on the street in Chicago. From December 1 to March 31, however, you should not leave your car overnight on most main streets and residential streets. The snow plows come through in the wee hours of the morning and your car might be in the way. Note that this ban applies even if there is no snow.
Chicago Parking: Beware of Theft and Break-Ins
Don't leave valuables in your parked vehicle and be sure to lock your rental car. Car break-ins are common in Chicago. Be sure you have adequate insurance coverage if you are concerned about car break-ins.
Chicago reports thousands of car thefts every year, although numbers are down overall in the last few years. Still, Chicago has the highest rate of car theft in the nation. Your chance of getting your car stolen is about 1 in 235. Again, be sure that you have adequate insurance coverage.
Finally, car jackings in Chicago have surged in recent years. A common strategy is the "bump and run" where the car jacker will purposefully cause a minor accident and when the driver gets out, the jacker will threaten the driver and steal the car.
Don't Take Your Rental Car Out to the Ball Game
Both of Chicago's major baseball teams—the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs—play at famous downtown ballparks. When a ballgame is on the schedule, expect traffic to be even more insane than normal. Be forewarned that parking near the ballparks tends to be very expensive, ranging from $25 to $50 or sometimes even more.
Heading to a game? Leave the car parked in a garage and take public transportation. Both Cubs fans and White Sox fans can take the 'L' (Chicago's elevated train) out to a ballgame.
If you insist on driving to the game, look for alternative routes rather than sticking to major streets, which are likely to be jammed with baseball fans. For example, when the Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field, avoid Clark Street, Rogers Park and Andersonville.
The Best Apps and Websites for Cheap Chicago Parking
To find parking in a garage or lot—a smart move in busy neighborhoods—your best bet is to use apps to find the cheapest prices. Parking costs can vary widely depending on time of day. Here are the most popular parking apps:
SpotHero offers a handy dynamic map of downtown Chicago and clearly displays prices for each parking location. It also allows users to reserve parking.
Parker is another app that can help you find garage spots nearby and is highly recommended online.
Best Parking (website and app) also allows drivers to find and reserve spots, and also connects to navigation apps.
Park Me is an online parking database that can help you understand and compare spots. You can even book parking two weeks in advance with the app.