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The Art Institute of Chicago

Missy JJ is part of a synchronized skating team and their national championship was held last weekend in Chicago, IL. Traditionally, these have resulted in mother-daughter trips, usually lasting three days. We have been all over the continental US from Minneapolis, MN to Oxford, OH to San Jose, CA. Two years ago, we made a family trip to Orlando, FL to enjoy Harry Potter and Disney World before focusing on the skating competitions.

A week before this year’s trip to Chicago, I was in Cleveland with Sonny JJ attending the music festival. While there, I had a nagging feeling often: I couldn’t remember which airline I had booked us on for this trip to Chicago. Now usually, we fly with Missy JJ’s friend and fellow skater and her family. We book tickets at the same time or sometimes one of the families books the flights and we split the cost. I meant to call my friend to find out the itinerary but forgot while in Cleveland.

Two days before our supposed departure to Chicago, I browsed through all my frequent flyer accounts but could not find a single reservation for the Chicago trip. I reached out to our friends who had theirs booked via Southwest. But their reservation was for two people not four.

With a sinking feeling, I realized that I had actually forgotten to book tickets for a trip that I had known about since last fall! How I missed this vital step is still beyond my comprehension. I suppose with a busy work, school and travel schedule, booking this ticket fell by the wayside.

Our original plan was to fly Southwest with round trip tickets for $255. By the time I scrambled to find tickets for Friday morning departures, the prices had jumped several fold. What should have been a $510 RT for two was now a costly $1550 affair! We had to be in Chicago by Friday afternoon for scheduled practice sessions. And this being a team sport, we could not miss this session. Similarly, we had to be back in Dallas by Sunday night as neither of us could afford to miss work/school.

Understandably, Missy JJ was terribly worried. I hurriedly checked Google flights, Southwest and Spirit airlines websites. My initial plan was to pay $775 one-way on Southwest to reach Chicago. And fly back on a much cheaper Spirit flight out of O’Hare on Sunday for $109 per person. Even accounting for carry-on, it would still be cheaper than paying $700+ on other flights. My biggest concern was that it wouldn’t reach Dallas until 11:51 pm. And, if for some reason it got cancelled, we would be left without a flight home.

I booked the Southwest flight, fully aware that we had 24 hours in which to cancel and get a full refund. But somehow, I couldn’t get myself to make the Spirit reservation. Instead, I researched award flights on American and came up empty-handed. Then I logged into my United account and, lo and behold, found a flight from O’Hare for 12500 miles and $82 pp. The fees included the close in booking of $75 pp that non elites have to pay for reservations made less than 21 days before departure. Compared to a cash outlay of $775, I could swallow paying $164 for this leg. Plus, this flight would bring us home by 10 pm, with enough time to gain a decent night’s sleep.

Fueled by excitement, I then looked into award flights to Chicago. There were tickets for a 5:48 am departure to O’Hare, also for 12500 miles and $82 pp. I booked those and then canceled the Southwest flights once the United itineraries were ticketed. What could have been a potentially costly error at $1550, was now manageable with $328 and 50,000 United miles.

Much to my family’s amusement and sometimes chagrin, I try to collect miles and points avidly. They bear the brunt of this, as I make them shop online portals, use certain credit cards, eat at certain restaurants, do mattress runs, etc. For the most part they grin and bear and cooperate with me. But there have been times we have been at loggerheads because of this. I felt this episode vindicated my passion for miles collecting. Of course, I made the mistake of not booking on time, but my miles came through when I needed them the most.

All’s well that ends well! We had no issues with our flights to Chicago and back. Our flights were comfortable both ways (I think, I was asleep the minute we settled into our seats), the flight attendants were very courteous and the landings were extremely smooth. Chicago was still cold for April and windy. The trees were bare and the front lawns were brown. There was no snow on the ground. After spending most our time there between practices, driving to and fro and skating at the competitions, we had only a couple of hours of free time left on Sunday afternoon before the flight back.

Both the girls wanted to visit the “bean” at Millennium Park in downtown Chicago.  We drove the 45 minutes or so from the rink all the way to Millennium Park. But the traffic was slow and it was past an hour before we could get to the area. We emerged from the parking lot onto the main street only to feel the brutal onslaught of the cold wind. We sought refuge and satiety in the arms of a nearby Potbelly. And then headed out to view the “bean”.

Cloud gate, as the bean is actually called, is a highly polished stainless steel sculpture, made by Sir Anish Kapoor. Its polished surface neatly captures the myriad moods of the Chicago sky, grey and cloudy on the day we visited. Around 2 pm, the Park was flooded with visitors and this sculpture was the main draw. It wasn’t the perfect setting for capturing great photos and I would plan to visit this area either earlier on in the day or later at night to avoid the hordes. After admiring the bean, we took a short trip across the Park to enjoy the BP Bridge and the Jay Pritzker pavilion, both products of Frank Gehry’s amazing mind and talent. We were lucky to enjoy his BioMuseo in Panama City last month and these structures in the Windy City were no less striking.

By the time we left the Park, it was time to head to the airport. Our friends were flying out of Midway and we were headed to O’Hare. I had read somewhere that O’Hare is linked by the “L” train from downtown. The clerk at the hotel confirmed this. The Chicago Transit Authority runs the train which takes about 40-45 mins to reach the airport from downtown Chicago. Our friends dropped us off near one of the terminals and we made our way to the station entrance. It had a small sign outside but no other traffic as befitting a public transport area.

The lobby was small with a few turnstiles but no attendants. We obtained one-way tickets from the vending machine (day passes are also available) and the process was simple. We followed signs to the platform where a few travelers lingered. The train reached our stop in two minutes and soon we were on the “L”. The compartments were a bit dated and small but clean and amply served the purpose of getting us to the airport on time. Although we had two small carry-ons, we didn’t feel the strain of hauling them around while on the train and in the connector to the airport terminals.

Our family has often used public transport in other countries where they are a way of life. Unfortunately, we don’t always find good public systems in many US cities. Prior to Chicago, we have taken the trains in New York City, Boston, Washington DC and Vancouver. Public transports are great places to get a feel for the pulse of the city it’s located in.  I enjoy commuting with office goers, locals, tourists and travelers, people with whom we share time and space for a few minutes before they are lost to us for ever. Plus, in the US, it’s a nice change of pace from the monotony of driving.

At O’Hare station, there are adequate signs leading to the terminals and the connections are seamless. There is plenty of artwork on the walls to keep one entertained along the way. O’Hare, of course, is huge in terms of space. But with our TSA Precheck, security clearance was a breeze. I found the underground connector tunnel between concourses B and C to be very compelling with its mood lighting.

Come take a look at some of our Chicago moments from this trip.

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Redmond Park, Bensenville, IL
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Brook at the Double Tree by Hilton, Chicago-Oakbrook
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The Art Institute of Chicago
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Light and shadows, Chicago
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Sculpture, The Art Institute of Chicago
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Millennium Park, Chicago
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The Bean, Millennium Park, Chicago
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Concave reflective underbelly of the bean
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Downtown skyline reflected on the opposite side of the bean
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Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago
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Crown fountain, Millennium Park, Chicago
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Flamboyant interplay of color and art
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Decorative lamplights
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Clark/Lake, the “L” train station
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O’Hare artwork
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Connector tunnel, O’Hare