How to Save a Few Bucks on Pricey Parking in Crowded Cities

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Photo of Marina City parking in Chicago by Vincent Desjardins via Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Marina City parking in Chicago by Vincent Desjardins via Wikimedia Commons

Driving in major metro areas like Chicago and New York is rarely fun. Between the traffic jams, pedestrians and parking rates, it can be a real headache. While there isn’t much we can do about the other drivers or the jaywalkers, we can help a little on the parking. Here are a few ways to save time, money and hassle even when you want to park in the central city.

The easiest way to save parking hassle when you’re headed into a major metro area like Chicago is not to do it. That’s right. Don’t drive into places like Chicago and New York. Both cities have terrific public transit systems, as well as cabs, Uber drivers and other ways to get where you’re going–like walking. Every one of those options will save you time, money and hassle when trying to get around the city.

But some people just have to have their cars. If you are one of those people, the first thing you need to know is: There are apps for you.

2 Parking Apps

The two I use to find affordable parking on those rare occasions when I drive into downtown Chicago are SpotHero and ParkWhiz. Both are:

  • Free downloads for both iPhone and Android
  • On my phone
  • Have a decent array of somewhat affordable parking spots in and around the Chicago Loop.

(Despite my general aversion to driving into the city, I do it now and then when the train schedule doesn’t work well for me. For example, when I’m headed to the theater.)

For many years, SpotHero has been my go-to choice for discount parking in Chicago. I like its Groupon-like fun approach to dealing with customers.

Spothero Heroes

I had a problem with a SpotHero parking spot only once.

A parade on Michigan Avenue cut off the route I needed to take to get to my reserved parking spot. Since I had tickets the ballet, I couldn’t wait. I pulled into a different parking lot, paid for my parking and went to the show.

When I got out, I called Spothero. One of the company’s “heroes” refunded the booked spot I couldn’t use. But she didn’t stop there. She gave me a Spothero credit for the difference between what I had expected to pay to park thanks to the Spothero discount ($14) and what I actually paid ($24).

That’s the kind of customer service I love!

SpotHero vs. ParkWhiz

I haven’t used ParkWhiz as often, but I do check it to see whether it has a closer or cheaper spot available. I find that the app isn’t quite as informative as Spothero.

For example, I checked it to book a spot at O’Hare International Airport. Both apps offered a spot in nearby Rosemont at the Blue Line CTA station. Only Spothero told me how to get to O’Hare from that lot.

In general, Spothero offers more information — everything from directions to the parking garage to advising customers to take a screen shot of the pre-paid parking code in case your cell phone doesn’t get a signal in an underground garage.

Let’s compare the two on a parking spot near the Chicago Hilton at 720 S Michigan Ave. If you pay to park at the hotel, the 2022 price is $65 per day for self-parking, $70 for valet parking.

Spothero has a spot offers spots within two blocks for $20 or $25 per day. It even offers parking at the Hilton — for $55 per day, a slight discount off the hotel’s daily parking fee.

Screenshot of Spothero app results
Spothero screenshot showing results for parking near Hilton Chicago on South Michigan Avenue. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

The ParkWhiz process is just as easy as SpotHero’s, but it returned fewer options. The prices were similar—$20 was the best deal via SpotHero while ParkWhiz offered one for $17, but it was a little farther away.

Screenshot of a ParkWhiz parking app results
Screenshot of Parkwhiz results. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

I like the information the SpotHero app includes on each spot—everything from height restrictions on the parking garage to advising customer to take a screen shot of the pre-paid parking code in case your cell phone doesn’t get a signal in an underground garage.

Screenshot of Spothero app results
The Spothero app offers a little more pertinent information about the parking lot and directions to get to your destination. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

The ParkWhiz app has the basics. Certainly there is enough information to decide whether it’s the right spot for you. The app shows how far the spot is from your final destination and a map that outlines the walking route to get there. It also tells you key information such as whether there’s a bathroom in the facility.

ParkWhiz app screenshot
The ParkWhiz app provides slightly less info. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Saving Hassle

The best things about both of these apps? They allow you to pre-pay through your phone and they guarantee you will have a spot when you arrive at the parking lot.

That means you know you will have a spot when you get to the garage. So no more driving around hoping for a spot to open up within a block or two of your destination–or risking a ticket if your meter expires before your return.

It also means that when all of the other parkers are waiting in line at the payment kiosk, you can head straight to your car, flash the QR code on your phone and drive away.

Finally, both companies promise refunds up until the moment you are due at the garage.

Know Before You Book

If you’re driving into Chicago and plan to stay at one of the downtown hotels, the daily parking rates can blow your family vacation budget. Instead, drive up, drop the family and luggage with the bellman and then head a block or two away to park the car for the duration of your visit.

Before you book your spot, read all of the fine print. Some small, underground parking garages have height or size restrictions–your mongo extended cab pick-up truck might not fit.

Play around with the booking times. You might think you’ll only need the spot from 6-10:30 pm because you’re going to the theater, but if you decide to go early for dinner or stay late for a drink, you may not have a spot in the garage. Try booking those few extra hours even if you aren’t sure you’ll need them. Chances are it won’t change the price.

Finally, don’t risk parking on the street at a metered spot. Cash-strapped Chicago has stepped up parking enforcement.

Most downtown meters are good for only two hours at a time. If you are even a few minutes late (as I was once), you’ll be sorry.

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