As you may already know, traveling can be expensive. From the second you reach the airport, you're spending tons of money on tickets, snacks, and your overweight bag that has to be checked. You drop hundreds of dollars on accommodations, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and a camera to capture all the memories and moments along the way. Ugh! I mean, it's always worth it, but it would be nice if you could go somewhere and not break the bank. That's why I'm here to tell you how to fly to Chicago last-minute on a tight budget, and still experience everything. It's possible, more attainable, and affordable than you might think.
First things first: Let's backtrack to this past summer, when I took my last-minute trip. I had about five days off from work and my other commitments, and wanted to take advantage of such a rare and beautiful coincidence. I paced around my kitchen, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with all this spare time, thinking to myself, "Maybe I'll try and be productive, or should I just relax for the week?" I ended up sending a text in a group chat with my friends from college to get a second opinion.
Within a few minutes, one of my friends who lives just outside of the city responded. She said, "You should come and visit!" Now, that was an idea I could get behind. My wanderlust was out of control ever since I got back from my trip to the Pacific Northwest. So, I immediately started researching flights and the different airports. I knew that from the East Coast to Chicago, flights are usually a couple hundred dollars. I could make it work, right?
Well, here's the thing. When you plan and book a trip spontaneously, those prices tend to get much higher. Seats are limited, layovers are almost inevitable, and there are fewer options for departure and arrival times. I scrolled through so many tickets that were out of my price range, and almost gave up on the idea of this last-minute trip being attainable and affordable.
About an hour later, though, I had an itinerary good to go. I was leaving in a few nights and would spend the week seeing iconic sights in a new city, eating fancy hot dogs, and exploring the beauty of the Midwest. How did I do it? That's a secret that I'll absolutely tell, so that you can book a last-minute trip, too.
Here's how I flew to Chicago last-minute on a tight budget.
When the price for a plane ticket first appeared on my laptop screen, my mouth dropped. The round-trip flight to Chicago was going to cost me about $300 more than what I was expecting and could afford. I continued scrolling, looking for other options — ones that included layovers or off-peak departure times, because those flights tend to be slightly cheaper. But, my search showed that my best option was still going to cost me around $450. Um, yikes.
My budget was tight, because I was in the midst of planning other trips and looking to save money as much as possible. I ended up hitting the purchase button on the "out of my price range" ticket, because I realized I could, and would, cut costs elsewhere on this trip.
Although I had to splurge on the flight, I wasn't paying for accommodations or other transportation costs. I was staying with my friend, and we used public transportation or walked if and when we could. Some mornings and nights, instead of eating out in the city, we cooked food in her kitchen or ordered from a local restaurant in her town. That also saved me and my budget a lot, because the price of one breakfast in Chicago is about the same as it would be in New York City — a.k.a, expensive.
Last but not least, when it came to excursions and seeing things around the city, we found a lot of cheap alternatives and loopholes. We didn't spend a ton on riverboat cruises or museum tours, and still had an unforgettable time. Let's dig into that real quick, OK?
I still saw and did everything that was on my bucket list, and then some.
Going into this trip, I had a few things on my bucket list. I wanted to see "The Bean" in Millennium Park and the Willis Tower. I wanted to get dreamy pictures with the city skyline, and maybe go to the planetarium or aquarium, too. We ended up doing it all, and then some, in just five days.
On the first day of the trip, we did all of the popular things. We rode the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier, and walked along the waterfront. We saw the huge fountains and parks, and every iconic sight in between. Other than some snacks and riding the Ferris wheel, this was all completely free. *Cue the round of applause from my bank account.*
Then, the next few days, we explored outside of the city. We went hiking through the canyons and waterfalls a few hours away, and got caught in a rainstorm in the middle of a bike ride. I tried deep-dish pizza for the first time, and had a Chicago-style hot dog, which I'll now be craving forever. We also spent a night at an event at the planetarium, attending live shows about constellations and stars for around $25.
Finally, on the last day, we went back into the city and toured around. We grabbed breakfast and lunch at cute and artsy spots in a very Brooklyn-esque area, and walked to various murals and wall art that was nearby. The influencer in me was so content with the whole itinerary, photos that I snapped for the 'Gram, and the money that I barely spent.
What should you keep in mind when booking your own last-minute trip?
So, when it comes to your own last-minute trip to Chicago or elsewhere, what should you consider? Well, first see what your accommodation options are. Hotels can be expensive, especially if you're visiting a city. Staying with a friend or family member can help out immensely.
In addition, see where else you can cut costs — whether it be in food, shopping, or excursions. Often, you can see and do everything that you want to at a discounted price, simply by going during off-times or being flexible with your itinerary.
Most importantly, take into consideration that the flight will likely be expensive. Know that you may have to splurge when planning this last-minute trip, but that you'll be able to find balance for yourself and your budget.
At the end of the day, travel only makes you richer with experiences, memories, and moments that are well worth it. Take advantage of your time, use it wisely, and be spontaneous as much as possible.