West Michiganders Can Explore Chicago with Less Wear and Tear on the Family Car
We All Love the Adventure That Awaits in the Windy City
Zoos, aquariums, museums, shopping, sporting events, concerts…. The list of exciting things to do in Chicago is endless. Although West Michigan has so much to offer, sometimes a day trip two states away is enticing.
But, do I want to spend the gas money and worry about traffic? Oh, and those tolls. Do I have quarters? Should I get an oil change first? Where will I park?
Many of us find the answers in skipping the SUV and hopping a train.
West Michigan has 2 Train Options to Take to Chicago
Depending on how far you are willing to travel on a train and how much you want to spend, you have two great options for rail service to Chicago.
1 – Amtrak: The National Name for Passenger Trains
My friend Mindy and her daughter, Carly, go on an annual shopping excursion to Chicago using Amtrak’s service from Kalamazoo. It’s a straight shot from Kzoo to Union Station on Canal Street in Chicago.
Their tradition is to immediately pop into The Cheesecake Factory then hail an Uber to take them to their hotel. With The Magnificent Mile and restaurants galore nearby, they walk about town, never worrying about parking meters or confusing urban traffic patterns.
Amtrak has stations in Grand Rapids, Holland, Bangor, St Joe, New Buffalo, Kalamazoo, Dowagiac, Niles, and Michigan City, Indiana. You can board anywhere along the route.
The recently-opened Vernon J. Ehlers Station in Grand Rapids is landmarked with a tall clock tower at 440 Century Avenue SW near the Downtown Market. Like many of their Stations, it has a waiting room, vending machines, and parking areas.
The Kalamazoo Station is located at 450 North Burdick Street in downtown. It is an accessible building with features similar to Grand Rapids.
Amtrak does warn that parking fills up quickly, and not all spots are free. Travelers should plan to arrive at the station 30-45 minutes before departure.
Tickets are available for purchase in just about any way you could imagine. Besides ticket agents in stations, there are app sales, online ordering, Quik-Trak kiosks at larger locations, phone orders, and just buying them as you board. If all else fails, contact your travel agent for help.
A non-stop ride from Grand Rapids to Union Station starts at around $35 per person. The trip is just over 4 hours.
“It takes about 2 to 2.5 hours and it’s much easier than driving in all of the crazy Chicago traffic,” Carly adds, about the excursion from Kalamazoo. Infants under 2 are free, and strollers are allowed. Some trains even accommodate bicycles.
There are many hotels near Union Station too. Many chain hotels, like Holiday Inn, Marriott, and La Quinta are close and allow easy make-ahead reservations. Some unique local flair can be found at The Club Quarters Hotel or the opulent Kimpton Gray Hotel.
2 – South Shore Line Commuter Train
You Don’t Have to Be a Businessperson to Enjoy an Easy Commute
Sometimes Mama just wants to spend money on the shoes, not the train. Or maybe the kid in the booster in the backseat will only enjoy the rocking rail cars for so long.
With one daughter attending college in Chicago, my friend Sheila makes frequent trips into the city. She finds it more budget savvy to take her car a little farther, then hop on the South Shore Line, a local commuter system that operates from South Bend, Indiana to Chi-Town.
The South Shore Line is named for its path – running along the south shore of Lake Michigan. There are nineteen stations along the lake. Beginning in South Bend, you can tour the Chocolate Factory and Museum, catch a Notre Dame game, or visit the Healthworks! Kids’ Museum before taking the line to Millenium Station.
Many West Michigan adventurers drive to one of the Michigan City stations (503 North Carroll Avenue or 11th street), the first seen upon entering Indiana from I-94.
Sheila and her family prefer to hop on board at Dune Park, at the junction of Indiana Route 49 and U.S. Highway 12. She finds the smaller station nicer, more maneuverable, and parking easier to find. Parking is free, but limited, at most stations for the South Shore Line.
From Dune park, a ticket is only $9. Michigan City stations will add about $1.50 or so. Up to 3 kids, ages 13 and under travel free during daily off-peak hours, holidays, and weekends with a paid parent or guardian. Additional children are half price. Tickets are available over the phone, on their app, through ticket vending machines and sales agents at select stations, online, or on the train for an additional $1.00 fee.
It takes about 3 hours to ride from Michigan City to Millennium Station.
Upon arrival at the end of the line, Millennium Station, there are clear signs to the exit from the underground train to the street level. You can even stop for a bite or some shopping in the subterranean station before hitting daylight again. A quick call to Uber, Lyft, or a local taxi company can get you to a hotel.
Millennium Station is near Millennium Park and the Loop. Within a quick walk you will discover the famous “Bean,” or have a look at what’s along scenic Lake Shore Drive. Sheila says, “when you emerge from the station, you are in the center of it all….it’s a great place to arrive.”
Hotels like Hampton Inn, Hyatt Regency, and Comfort Suites are a walk away. You can also find Staypineapple housed in an 1895 skyscraper and the Radisson Blu Aqua for a free cupcake at check-in or rooftop swimming.
However, it is easy to stop and explore other parts of the city at any of the South Shore Line stations along the way. The Museum Campus at 11th Street gives access to the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and Soldier Field. The Art Institute is found near the Van Buren Street Station.
Like Amtrak, some South Shore Line trains allow you to bring your bike for free. It is a great way to pedal the coast of dunes and the East Chicago Trail. Their bike travel page gives all the details of where to get on with your bike, where to ride, and how to stay safe.
Your Kind of Town, Your Way
Whether you want to see Bears, Cubs, and Blackhawks or bear cubs and a black rhinoceros, Chicago is completely accessible without even gassing up.
Both operating systems run many trains daily. But, as Sheila warns, be sure to check the schedule. Her family was once almost stuck in Chicago an extra night when they nearly missed the last train.
Union Station and Millenium station are a 7-minute city drive apart, so it’s a win-win either way. Most importantly, no matter which train you choose, there is a Giordano’s Chicago Famous Deep Dish Pizza location nearby!