No city is without its parking headaches, but it’s usually a result of not being familiar with the way things work locally. Lucky for you, we at Avail are local to Chicago and know the city well enough to guide you through it, whether that’s helping you find free parking in Chicago or figure out whether you need a car in the city. Assuming you’ll be behind the wheel, you’ll need to know what your options are before you hit the road so you don’t waste time searching for open spaces or lots. This ultimate guide breaks down where to park in Chicago, including garages, street parking, free spots and some things you may not even consider, like when the city’s winter parking ban is in effect and how to know when the street sweeper is coming through.
Where to find free parking in Chicago
Free parking in Chicago isn’t necessarily hard to come by, but sometimes you need to be flexible, quick or crafty to get it. Here are the most commons ways you can park for free in Chicago:
1. 15-minute standing zones
If you’re making a quick stop, such as for an errand or to pick up grandma, there are designated areas where you can park for up to 15 minutes during specified times each day. Look out for a red and white sign that says “15 minute standing zone” at the top. Make sure that you’re there within the allowable time frame and turn on your hazard lights while you’re parked or you’ll risk your car getting towed.
2. Validated parking
This can be hit or miss. Many restaurants, shopping centers and entertainment venues validate parking with proof of purchase; however, some may offer a discounted rate rather than cover free parking in Chicago. It’s worth calling ahead to your destination to ask so you aren’t surprised when you arrive. Here’s a tip: If you’re hungry, Chicago French Market offers free parking for up to an hour with proof of at least $20 in purchases.
3. Street parking
Metered street parking in Chicago is free on Sundays outside of the city’s central business district, except in spaces with signage stating “7 Day Paid Parking.” Monday through Saturday, you can find free street parking in Chicago from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. in neighborhood areas south of Roosevelt Road, west of Halsted Street and north of North Avenue. Likewise, from midnight to 8 a.m. every day of the week, you can park for free in Chicago’s central business district outside the Loop.
4. Fulton Market
There are some streets near Fulton Market, not far from downtown Chicago, that offer free parking, such as on N Sangamon St. between W Hubbard St. and W Kinzie St., and on N Aberdeen St. between W Hubbard St. and W Kinzie St. These precious spots get taken fast, so go early and circle a few times if needed.
What to know about Chicago’s parking garages
When you’re looking for where to park in Chicago, especially downtown, you’ll quickly notice that there’s no shortage of parking garages. These are generally safe places to leave your car, either equipped with cameras and/or security staff, and you can pay hourly or daily rates, so there’s flexibility depending on how long you need to park. One thing to note is that you’re unlikely to find a garage that allows in and out privileges without a long-term parking pass.
To avoid having trouble locating parking garages in Chicago (or available street parking), check out the five best Chicago parking apps that we recommend, which will help you find the nearest places to park around the city.
If you’re heading into town in the morning, look for garages that offer an early bird rate. You’ll get a discount if you enter and exit the garage by specific times. The entrance cut-off time is usually between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., and the evening exit time is typically no later than 7 p.m. Exact times will be stated on a sign outside of the parking garage’s entrance, so if you don’t see a notice, then the early bird special may not be offered at that location.
Aside from the traditional parking garages mentioned above, you may be able to park at a local hotel if you plan to use one of their services, like eating at the on-site restaurant or pampering yourself at their spa. You’ll likely still have to pay a fee, but it may be less than a nearby garage. You might even be able to keep your car parked after you’re done at the hotel if you want to visit nearby shops, venues or attractions.
How to find street parking in Chicago
As mentioned earlier, you can find free Chicago street parking outside of the Loop at certain times. But free parking is not going to be an option during prime time, such as when you’re downtown on a Tuesday afternoon for lunch and sightseeing activities. In this case, you can look for Chicago street parking if you don’t want to opt for a garage.
Street parking in Chicago is managed by ParkChicago® pay boxes. You can pay with quarters or credit, debit or branded pre-paid cards. If you plan to park on the street at least a few times, it may be worthwhile for you to download the ParkChicago® app so you can quickly and easily pay via your smartphone. You can also try using the ParkChicago® Map to find areas that may have open street parking spaces. This is a predictive parking app, so it will tell you the likelihood that there’s an open space, but can’t guarantee one.
As for cost, the hourly rate differs depending on where you park in downtown Chicago. You’ll pay $2.50 per hour outside the Loop and central business district, $4.75 per hour in the West Loop and $7 per hour inside the Loop. Compare these rates to Chicago parking garages and businesses that validate parking around your destination to find the best option for your wallet. Planning where you’ll park will also save you from wasting time circling blocks and crunching numbers, which is a headache when you’re also trying to navigate your way through Chicago traffic.
Other tips for parking in downtown Chicago
Now that you have a general idea of how parking works in the city, we have a few additional tips for snagging discounted and free parking in Chicago, as well as information about when the city prohibits street parking.
Ask a local friend for a guest permit
Residents of Chicago are able to buy parking permits that are sold in packs of 15 for $8 to use themselves or share with guests. Each individual permit is valid for 24 hours in the zone in which they live. So you can keep your car parked on a residential street and use a taxi, rideshare or public transportation to get in and out of downtown while you’re visiting.
Look for discounted validated parking
Earlier, we mentioned that businesses that validate parking may offer a reduced rate than free parking. This discount can be a really good deal at some locations. For example, Tempo Cafe will validate your ticket after you eat there, and you can keep your car parked for up to 12 hours for just $8. In Chinatown, participating restaurants will validate your ticket, which allows you to be parked in the lot for up to three hours for only $2.
Be aware of winter restrictions
Chicago has a winter overnight parking ban that runs from December 1 through April 1, from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., regardless of snow accumulation or lack thereof. Permanent signage is posted along the 107 miles of affected streets (you’ll see a big white snowflake on a blue background at the top of the sign). The Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) also puts flyers on cars that are parked on affected streets before the restriction begins. The penalties for violating the ban are steep, with a minimum of a $150 towing fee, $60 ticket and $25/day storage fee.
There is also a parking ban when snow accumulation reaches at least two inches, no matter the date or time of day. This ban covers 500 miles of main streets, and violators could receive a ticket and have their vehicle relocated in order for the city to clear snow from the street.
Be aware of the street sweeper schedule
DSS runs street sweepers through the city to clean up debris from April 1 to mid-November. In residential areas, DSS is required to post a notice at least 24 hours in advance, although its staff typically do so about two days before. Look out for orange paper no-parking signs on affected streets. These notices will be removed once the street sweeper has come through.
In downtown Chicago, there are permanent signs along commercial and side streets that indicate the specific day(s) and times for street sweeping, during which you cannot park or you’ll risk a $60 fine.
Get around Chicago with Avail
If you’re a visitor who needs a car or a Chicago local who doesn’t own one, book with Avail car sharing for a smooth, stress-free rental experience. We have dozens of neighborhood locations throughout the city that use express, self-service pick-up and drop-off to get you on your way quickly. All trips are protected by Allstate insurance coverage and 24/7 roadside assistance so you can drive around Chicago or head off on a road trip with peace of mind.