In Chicago, tourist costs at new heights

"Cloud Gate" -- aka "The Bean" -- by "Cloud Gate" -- aka "The Bean" -- by British artist Anish Kapoor in Chicago's Millennium Park weighs 110 tons. (Jan. 17, 2007) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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It's sleek, shiny and sensational.

But let's add two more words to describe Chicago for tourists: darn expensive.

Last month, admission to the Art Institute of Chicago jumped to $23 for out-of-state visitors. A host of other price hikes that affect tourists also have taken effect recently: Museum of Science and Industry ticket prices rose. The Chicago Transit Authority hiked the price of passes to ride the L and city buses. Parking prices downtown jumped. Even the toll on the Chicago Skyway went up.

Chicago has the highest tax burden for travelers in the nation, even higher than New York and Boston, the Global Business Travel Association reported last fall, when it compared cities' taxes on hotel rooms, car rental and meals.

Chicago has 2.7 million residents and 43.6 million visitors a year. It doesn't need to offer constant cut-rate attractions. That's the power of a popular city.

Comedy and blues

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So how can you visit without going broke? Visit off-season.

With more than 33,000 hotel rooms in the downtown district and lower occupancy rates early in the year, Chicago hotel prices are more reasonable than they are in summer and fall, when occupancy can hit more than 90 percent. For example, the weekend of March 15-17, rates before taxes were $219 for the historic Palmer House Hilton and the boutique Whitehall Hotel. (You do have to factor in the city's steep 16.4 percent per night hotel tax, however.)

Psychologically, Chicago seems to have more room this time of year. It still is breathtakingly beautiful, even on a chilly day. Millennium Park downtown offers plenty of free fun, such as clowning around at the Bean (the shiny Cloud Gate sculpture in the park). If you can handle the bracing wind off Lake Michigan, strolling and shopping are relaxing this time of year.

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You can ride the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier for $6, or take in the views from the John Hancock Observatory ($17.50), or watch the crowds from a window seat at the nearby Ghirardelli chocolate shop while sipping a large hot cocoa ($4.37 with tax).

Deep Dish Pizza is a Chicago classic that is still a good value. Two local favorites with locations across the city are Gino's East ($23.95 for a large pie) and Lou Malnati's ($17.60 for a large pie at the Lincoln Park restaurant). For artisanal New American food at neighborhood prices, there's Cafe Lula in Logan Square, which serves up dishes such as slow-roasted pork shoulder, gnocchi with wild boar sausage and a six-course vegetarian tasting menu.

You also might score tickets for the hottest show in the country, "The Book of Mormon," if you are flexible with your dates or seeking a single seat on weekends. The musical at the Bank of America Theatre has been extended through Sept. 8. Chicago's famed comedy theater, Second City -- where Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and many more got their start -- is now performing its 101st Revue ($28 on weekends). You can hear real Chicago blues at many clubs seven nights a week, such as Buddy Guy's Legends ($10-$20), owned by the legendary guitarist, or Kingston Mines ($12-$15), one of the North Side's oldest juke joints.

Price hikes

When I arrived in Chicago in late January, I heard grumbling from hotel clerks and even transit workers about all the new price hikes around town. Some affect residents, but most of the increases seem meanly aimed at tourists. For example: The cost of a day pass often used by tourists to ride buses and the L is now $10, a 74 percent hike over the old price of $5.75. You now need to ride at least five times in one day to make the pass worthwhile, because individual trips are $2.25.

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Prices for seven-day and 30-day passes also went up at the beginning of the year.

It's now $5 to take public transit from O'Hare Airport to downtown, up from $2.25.

Art Institute of Chicago tickets for out-of-state visitors are now $23 (they were $18). Museum of Science and Industry tickets for out-of-state visitors are $18 (they were $16). And there are no more free days for out-of-state visitors to any Illinois museum -- those were dropped 18 months ago.

It's now $6.50 an hour to park in the Loop, the highest city parking meter rate in the nation. Parking near downtown is now $4 an hour, and neighborhood parking is $2 an hour. Parking prices rose Jan. 1.

The toll for the Chicago Skyway is now $4, up 50 cents.

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So how can a simple visitor from out of state still enjoy Chicago? Come now. If you have two or fewer people, don't bring a car to Chicago -- the parking alone costs more than mass transit or taxis, $45 to $55 a day, even if you self-park. Take the train or a bus. Stay with a relative or friend. Seek out small neighborhood restaurants.

Save your money for the few things that really matter to you -- the symphony, a play, a museum, a great jazz club, a Chicago pizza, an American Girl doll with her very own hot-air balloon or just a hot cup of cocoa while looking out at a bustling Magnificent Mile.

With staff reports

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