Cheap thrills the backbone of trip to Chicago

Dozens of us will head south this month, to watch Wisconsin take on Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. Why not come along?

At last check, there still were plenty of $50 tickets available; call (847) 491-CATS or go to www.nusports.com. Tickets have been selling for about the same price on eBay.

Our group goes to one football game away each season, typically loading vans or renting a motor home to dart as far away as Ohio State. The twist, this year, is that we’ll partly rely on public transportation and give Chicago attention as well as the Badgers.

It should not be an expensive weekend in Illinois. Here’s why:

We’ll pay $66 per room at a Baymont Inn in Gurnee, home to Six Flags Great America. The rate comes from Expedia.com. The location will allow shoppers, if they choose, to get their fix at the giant Gurnee Mills outlet mall.

From Gurnee, it’s a straight shot to the Metra train station at Waukegan, where parking is 25 cents an hour ($2 per day at max).

It will be $4.90, one way, to get from Waukegan to downtown Chicago in about 75 minutes. To tour the Windy City instead of the stadium on game day, it would be a mere $5 for a Weekend Pass that is good for as many train rides as we’d want to take on Saturday and Sunday. See www.metrarail.com or call (312) 322-6777.

We each paid $5 for a Visitor Pass from the Chicago Transit Authority, which means unlimited rides on city buses and trains for one day. The passes were ordered online, because we know it is hard to find them when in Chicago. See www.transitchicago.com or call (888) YOUR-CTA.

What will we do? Whatever we want, and some of us may wander in opposite directions. We each will have a CTA route map, as well as a Metra train schedule.

We’ve suggested meeting points, for noon, late afternoon and mid evening.

They include the Chicago Cultural Center, our favorite building in the city. The former Chicago Public Library is an architectural delight, with music likely at lunchtime, plus a handful of artsy and historical exhibits. All are free. See www.cityofchicago.org or call (312) 744-6630.

This building is on Michigan Avenue, across from stunning Millennium Park, which also is worth a stroll because of its outrageously creative design. We’ll hope for sunshine.

Another logical meeting place is Navy Pier, but we’ll need to get more specific than that. This long limb of diversion has carnival rides, restaurants and shops, plus a nifty stained glass museum (free admission) and children’s museum ($7 to enter). See www.navypier.com or call (800) 595-PIER.

This also is a great place to catch a boat ride, either along the Lake Michigan shore or onto the Chicago River, for an architectural tour of the city. See www.shorelinesightseeing.com or call (312) 222-9328.

Dinner will likely be casual, and maybe even sporty. The top contenders: ESPN Zone (www.espnzone.com and 312-644-3776), Uno Chicago Grill – where Chicago-style Deep Dish Pizza was invented in 1943 (www.pizzeriauno.com and 312-321-1000) and Ed Debevic’s glorified diner (www.eddebevics.com and 312-664-1707).

Our last stop, if stamina permits, may be to the panoramic views of the Signature Lounge of the John Hancock Center, two floors above the 94-story observation deck. A ticket to the deck is $9.75; we’d rather fork over the money for a drink in the lounge, which also serves appetizers, sandwiches and desserts. Want more? Fine dining at the Signature Room is on the 95th floor. See www.signatureroom.com or call (312) 787-9596.

On game day, we can take the Metra train (Union Pacific North Line) from Waukegan to the Central Street Evanston station, then walk three blocks to the stadium. Or, we can disembark at the Davis Street Evanston station, and have lunch/drink beer.

(Tommy Nevin’s Pub, with its Irish theme, already has been recommended. See www.tommynevins.com or call 847-869-0450.)

Our group’s 2006 football trip likely will be to Cleveland, during Labor Day weekend, for the Badger game against Bowling Green. The search for lodging already has begun, and the big decision will be how close to stay to the Cleveland Browns Stadium, where the game will be played.

Although there are several options nearby, we’re also aware of the city’s light rail system, which means we can stay elsewhere and still have easy access to downtown.

For more, see www.lightrail.com. www.travelcleveland.com or call (800) 321-1004.