Deep discounts make wintry travel to NYC, Chicago worthwhile

Hibernating through winter is a good thing unless too much coziness feels like confinement. Thin is the line between peaceful solitude and bleak isolation.

One remedy for cabin fever is the sunshine of southward travel, but it may be easier on the budget to break away to Manhattan or Chicago. Deep discounts, easier access and shorter waits at attractions are likely at these mega cities.

I was lukewarm about visiting New York for travel trade shows in January but began checking airfares and hotel rates for the fun of it. Prices were too reasonable to ignore.

My three-night trip to Manhattan cost $710 ($78 for a roundtrip, nonstop flight between O’Hare in Chicago and LaGuardia international airports; $46 for roundtrip bus fare between Madison and Chicago; $39 for roundtrip airport-hotel shuttle; $408 for hotel; $90 for food and drinks; $39 for a theater ticket; and $10 for one cab ride).

I didn’t select a plane seat and only brought a backpack that fit easily under a seat, to avoid the extra charges that most airlines have begun adding to economy fares. My purse collapsed to fit inside the backpack too.

Biggest complaint? Thanks to construction work and traffic, it took longer to get to my hotel from the airport than to fly to New York. Best way to avoid this? Fly to Newark, N.J., where the AirTrain between the airport and New York’s Penn Station runs frequently, takes one-half hour and costs $13.

A few weeks before leaving home, I scoured 1iota.com to see which TV show broadcasts would fit my schedule and requested free tickets. “The View” came through, and that filled one morning. Standing time outdoors was minimal and indoor waiting was seated, in a cafeteria with complimentary beverages. A whip-smart stand-up comic interacted with the crowd of around 200, before the show and during commercials.

Part of the fun was behind-the-scenes banter: hearing Joy Behar rave about Gennaro, a longtime Italian restaurant, and Meghan McCain chant “OH-IO” with Buckeye State fans. We watched Sunny Hostin tape a commercial and heard Whoopi Goldberg was told to go home because of a cold.

We were scooted away after the show, each leaving with a free book and the knowledge that we could avoid a cover charge at West Side Comedy Club that night by mentioning “The View” comedian’s name.

What else? I entered theater ticket lotteries at luckyseat.com and won nothing. I perused playbill.com/discount and ended up buying a cheap seat to “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart” at the theater box office (to avoid a ticket surcharge).

Manhattan is good for walking, and my iPhone app tallied eight miles per day, but sometimes time matters more. My lone cab ride was two miles, to reach the American Folk Art Museum before closing time. Admission is free. folkartmuseum.org

My most expensive meal, $55 including tip, was three courses for a fixed price at Charlie Palmer at the Knick (he is a James Beard Award winner), right at Times Square. It was a leisurely, quiet and classy choice for New York Restaurant Week. Colleagues and I ignored the pricey booze. charliepalmer.com

For cheaper meals and drinks, Hourglass Tavern and Bettibar was a winner, just northwest of Times Square. Hell’s Kitchen is the neighborhood for this intimate upstairs restaurant-lounge, in a renovated 1894 brownstone. hourglasstavern.com

This month, my guy and I decided on a midweek, two-night visit to Chicago and took the bus to get there from Madison. Roundtrip fare for two was $55, through megabus.com, about one month before our departure.

Add $209 for the hotel, which included made-to-order hot breakfasts because of a deal posted at Travelzoo.com. The location was ideal: next to the Chicago River, between Michigan and State streets.

Everything we did was within a 10-minute walk. Best happy hour: McCormick and Schmick’s, whose bar snacks started at $3 for hummus and chips or bruschetta. A pair of fish tacos or Asian chicken lettuce wraps were $5. Add $6 glasses of wine. mccormickandschmicks.com

A three-course dinner at Catch 35 – fine dining, seafood – included a glass of wine and coincided with Chicago Restaurant Week. The total for two, with tip, was under $100. Right across the river, at the funky House of Blues, Smiley Tillmon’s Blues Duo (with Tom Rezetko on bass) played for tips instead of a cover charge. catch35.com, houseofblues.com/chicago

On the same block is the Museum of Broadcast Communications and its nifty, funny “Saturday Night Live Experience” exhibit that I wrote about recently. A three-hour revisit was fine with me and worth the $25 admission. Lunch at the 1934 Billy Goat Tavern, four blocks east and under Michigan Avenue, was a bust because of infrastructure work at the site that inspired “Cheezborger, Cheezborger” skits on “SNL.” The scrappy bar and grill reopens soon. museum.tv, billygoattavern.com

Chicago Theater Week was the draw for our pre-Valentine’s Day splurge, and we bought $30 tickets online to “Blind Date,” about meetings between the Reagans and Gorbachevs in 1985. More historical than hysterical, but not as dry as it may seem.

The ticket promotion is over, but it wasn’t about cheap access to the hottest shows. We actually saw $15 “Blind Date” tickets on the day of our show, which made us a little grumpy until Goodman Theatre staff asked – out of the blue – if we’d like to exchange our measly mezzanine tickets for Row E, front and center. I think a snowstorm alert affected ticket sales. goodmantheatre.org

Downloading the “Hamilton” app and entering the daily lottery for $10 tickets didn’t work for me, but maybe it will for you. Winners are chosen by noon on the day before a performance, which allows time to figure out trip logistics. Good luck! hamiltonmusical.com/lottery