As you might imagine, navigating a big city with an RV + tow vehicle is not for the faint of heart! With heavy traffic, impatient and aggressive drivers, numerous low bridges and tunnels, grid-locked lanes snaking the freeway (a misnomer as they’re anything but free) and the lack of campgrounds, it’s not exactly an enticing destination for RVers… or is it?
I’d never visited Chicago before, and while Marc had been there several times on business, he wasn’t a fan. Being a Colorado boy used to open space and blue skies that go on forever he doesn’t enjoy big cities, the hustle, bustle, crowds, traffic or skyscrapers that often stand in the way of a direct view of the sun. So while Marc wasn’t excited at the prospect of visiting Chicago he knew I was really keen and didn’t want to stand in the way. So, being the wonderful hubby that he is, he agreed – that also meant I had to put in some advance research to put both Marc’s and my mind at ease.
Where to stay in or near Chicago?
Our first consideration was where we would park the coach. While we didn’t necessarily need (or expect) to stay right in the city we soon discovered that the closest RV campground was more than 50 miles away! The week prior we’d been staying at Thousand Trails Pine Country RV Resort in Belvidere, Illinois which would have been about a 2 hour, 72 mile drive each way in the MINI. Four hours of driving would really eat into our day of exploring and we’d heard plenty of horror stories about Chicago traffic. Then there was the issue of finding affordable parking! We seriously considered just leaving the coach in Belvidere, driving into Chicago in the MINI then spending a night in a hotel in the city, but at around $200+ per night this was a pretty expensive option!
After searching high and low for camping options on RVParkReviews then reading about Jason and Nikki Wynn’s Chicago camping experience we decided to brave driving into the city with Rocky and Juice and spending the night at McCormick Place near 31st Street.
McCormick Place isn’t a campground, it’s literally a parking lot. Technically, it is a convention center with the largest amount of exhibit space of any convention center in the country at 2.2 million square feet! But they also happen to have a ginormous, 500 large-vehicle truck marshalling yard/parking lot to handle all of the semi-trailers schlepping gear in and out for all of those trade shows, events and concerts. The night we stayed we counted at least 7 semis for Taylor Swift’s concert alone!
The great thing about McCormick Place is that RVers are allowed to dry camp in the parking lot which we didn’t mind for a night or two. It’s definitely not scenic and you’ll be parked alongside dozens or hundreds of semi-trailers (depending on what’s going on) but the location is fantastic – being just a few minutes from scenic Lakeshore Drive and a paved trail that takes you right into downtown Chicago.
What facilities are available?
McCormick Place offers plenty of parking space – the yard can accommodate up to 500 large vehicles. That said, you should call ahead and make sure there isn’t a huge event going on that would book the place out in advance. But remember, this is NOT a campground so there are ZERO facilities (aside from a line of port-a-potties which may or may not always be there – we have no idea).
We arrived with empty grey/black tanks, had plenty of water on board and were able to use our generator (for our air conditioner and cooking breakfast) without bothering anyone, so we were self sufficient and could have easily dry camped for up to 4-5 days if we chose.
We parked in an area where a few other Class A coaches were situated, snagging one of the few shady spots under trees as it was already shaping up to be a very hot day. It was a bit of a tight squeeze as the cement post beside us had a big piece of metal jutting out on an angle, but tree cover was high value for us. We managed to avoid the metal post and just kept the main slide in the whole time. In fact, we kept all the slides in most of our entire stay. When we arrived home that night, we cooled the coach down with the A/C, before popping 3 of the 4 slides for extra space and comfort.
Being a 24/7 truck yard in the middle of a major city, this is not a place you’d expect to find nature and serenity on your doorstep, especially in your RV. We were parked right beside a train line, near a couple of major roads and also heard the occasional siren (as you usually do in big cities), but I simply activated the “White Noise” app ($1.99 in the iTunes store) on my iPhone, and fell asleep to the (digital) sounds of “Heavy Rain and Thunder”.
What did it cost?
Overnight Parking at McCormick Place is $30 for 24 hours and yes, they accept credit cards. Pretty reasonable when you consider it’s 24 hour parking for a large RV and a tow vehicle in the middle of a major city – and it’s definitely cheaper than a hotel. If you’re an RVer, you simply won’t beat the convenience or cost of this location unless you have a friend in downtown Chicago with a big driveway!
Speaking of costs, be prepared to be properly dinged with tolls on your way in and out of Chicago. On our way into the city from Belvidere (east bound) we paid 2 tolls of $3.15 each and the next day as we left Chicago (east bound toward Indiana) it seemed we were barely out of the city when we got hit with 3 more, the largest single toll being $20.20! Yup, that’s right – and we aren’t even on the east coast yet! All up we paid a total of $32 for 5 tolls within a 75 mile radius in less than 24 hours. Yes, more then we actually paid for our overnight parking, so be sure to include that in your Chicago travel budget!
What about security?
Despite our initial concerns about the safety of our RV and MINI in the middle of a big city known as much for its high crime rate as it is for its art, culture and food these were soon laid to rest when we saw the entry gate was manned 24/7 with security guards driving around the lot during the day and at night. As mentioned, we were parked near a few other occupied coaches, we didn’t put anything outside and we kept both vehicles locked at all times.
We were confident everything would be just fine and felt comfortable leaving Rocky and Juice behind for the day. When we arrived home around 10pm, everything was just as we’d left it.
Tips for driving into the big city
Yes, we’ll admit it – we were nervous about this part. After all, we were entering the city of low bridges with a vehicle that is almost 13′ tall. We didn’t want to risk getting stuck on a road which couldn’t accommodate our rig. That could end badly.
We did our homework and planned ahead, so it all worked out just fine. Here are 9 tips from our big city driving experience that may help you have a trouble-free experience too.
- Definitely follow the specific driving directions provided by the McCormick Place website (or their recorded voice message)
- If you have an RV GPS, enter the Lat/Long coordinates for McCormick Place ahead of time as an additional back-up
- Read and review the driving directions before setting off so you feel comfortable before you start driving
- Take your time, stay focused and avoid all distractions during your drive into the city
- If you have a navigator, have them remain alert and looking ahead as well – two sets of eyes are better than one, especially when the driver is so focused on driving and lane changes
- Avoid driving during rush hours – Chicago is always busy, but the mornings and afternoons are much worse and could easily double your drive time
- Be patient and allow plenty of time for lane changes which can take much longer with a big rig – other drivers may not want to let you in (as we experienced)
- Keep an eye out for toll roads so you can get into the correct lane and have cash or your credit card handy (that’s if you don’t have an I-Pass or EZ-Pass)
- Take it slow, take it easy and don’t let the crazy drivers get to you
Now that we’ve done it, it didn’t seem so bad really, but driving your rig into a big city can definitely be a lot more stressful than typical interstate, country or coastal driving. If you follow all the steps above you’ll be just fine.
Would we drive into and stay in Chicago again?
Definitely yes. We had a fantastic time exploring the city and would like to see more on a future visit. Now that we are more comfortable both with the driving aspect and also parking at McCormick Place, we would do it exactly the same way again.