Chicago public transportation proves the motto that you get what you pay for. The cheapest option is the city bus service, with various train services becoming increasingly expensive. (Deals abound, however, and selecting the right transit pass can save you a bundle.) .
In Chicago proper, the combined bus/rail system of the CTA now has a rather complex fee system that nobody really seems to understand. You see, the CTA no longer wants people to pay cash to use their system (more on that in a future blog post) so they penalize those paying with cash by charging them a full $2.00 fare to ride either the buses or the trains with no transfer given.
Those who use a "Transit Card" (a thin card made of coated paper) pay $1.75 for bus rides and $2.00 for the L. Transfers are .25 for the first transfer within two hours of the initial fare, and free for the second transfer within that same two hours. For those who use the "Chicago Card" (thick plastic cards similar to credit cards), bus and train rides are both $1.75 with first transfers being .25 and the second transfer being free. I know this all sounds silly and confusing.
However, a good rule of thumb is to remember that if you lack a Transit Card or a Chicago Card you will have to pay $2.00 for each segment of your journey. If you have a Transit Card or a Chicago Card, you can expect to pay $2.00 for a trip requiring up to two transfers.
Keep in mind that unlike many transit systems, the Chicago (CTA) system does not charge by the distance of your travel: There is no "zone" system of pricing. In addition, the Chicago system does not require you to use a pass to get out of a train station: Once you have entered the station, your train pass can be safely tucked away for later use.
Chicago Transit Pass Options
The most cost efficient way to travel in Chicago is to get a Chicago Card (or a Chicago Card Plus, which is funded online via credit card rather than at a rail station machine). The Chicago Card system automatically adds bonus dollars to your purchase (depending on how much money you put on your card) and since the card is registered to your name, lost or stolen cards can be replaced and your funds restored. These cards can be purchased via phone/mail/online order, by visiting CTA headquarters, or at certain retail outlets. Transit Cards are available at L stations through automatic vending machines. Both Transit Cards and Chicago Cards have an "unlimited monthly pass" option for $75, and an unlimited weekly pass option for $20. These cards are also good on PACE buses in the suburbs.
The fare schedule for Pace Buses is a bit more complex due to the various types of bus service available. However, the basic fare is $1.50, with .25 for a transfer. The misnamed "Ten-Ride Tickets" actually entitle bearers to eleven rides for the price of ten. CTA passes are also accepted on Pace buses.
Unlike the CTA system, Metra Rail fares depend on length of travel, with fares charged based on a zone system. Fares range from $1.95 to $7.30 per trip, with significant discounts available to those who hold ten-ride or monthly passes.