16 Tips to Tackle the Chicago 'L'

For newcomers to the city, using the train can seem complicated—there are routes and train names to memorize, transfers, and the (sometimes) unspoken train etiquette to consider. Here are 16 tips to help you get your bearings on using the train :

It’s called the ‘L’

The Chicago train system is called the L because it’s elevated—meaning that the train runs above ground unlike many subway systems such as NYC’s subway and the London Tube, which runs underground.

Use an app

Chicago L maps are posted on all trains and in most train stations. But using a mobile app is a great way to plan your trip and keep up to date on any train schedule changes. Most apps will alert you when a train is delayed, shut down, or otherwise diverted. You can find a list of great mobile apps here

What’s cheapest?

Depending on where you live in the city, it may make sense to only buy a train ticket when you need it. If you’re going to be taking the train on a daily basis, it probably makes sense to get a Ventra Card. The Ventra Card almost works like a debit card. You can reload it online, have it reload under a certain balance, or reload it at most train stations.

Getting a Ventra Card

Ventra Cards are more like a reloadable debit card. You can sign up for one here and the card will be mailed to your home. The card can be reloaded online, or set up to be reloaded when the balance hits a certain amount.


If you’ve ever taken a train in NYC, you’ll notice right away, that Chicago’s L train is much easier to navigate right way. Each line is color-coded and because most trains run in a loop, missing your stop is no big deal. You’ll quickly be able to hop on the same color train moving in the other direction to get to he right stop.


You can transfer different train lines at many of the L stations. Transferring is completely free—even if you go to another station; as long as you do so within two hours. So if you get off at one station and then walk to another station you won’t be charged for getting on the next train when you swipe your Ventra Card or insert your ticket. Your Ventra Card will also work on busses!

Stay up-to-date

It is very common to have train delays and route changes in the city—and no one likes them. Many mobile apps have notification capabilities to inform you when there’s a schedule change. Consider following the CTA’s Twitter account as they tend to tweet alerts pretty quickly. Changes to the train schedule will also be posted inside stations that are affected, along with instructions for how to transfer.  

Step out of the way

When the train pulls up to the platform, stand out of the doorway and to the left or right of the doors so passengers can get out of the train as quickly as possible. If you stand directly in front of the doors when they open, you’re likely to get some very angry looks. Move to the sides of the doors and let them pass.  

Get in quickly

Once the train doors open and people who are getting out have done so, get on and move in quickly. Don’t hop on and then stand in the door way—there are likely other’s behind you that want to get on. Also be sure to keep out of the way of the closing doors—if you don’t you’re likely to get injured or—even worse—hold up the train while everyone gives you the stink eye.

The Wet Seat of Terror

Always, always, always, look at your seat before you sit on it. Sometimes it might be wet and instead of speculating what that wetness could be—it’s probably better to just find another seat or stand.

Take off your bag

Your goal on the train is to take up as little space as possible. If you’re wearing a backpack, no matter the size, take it off and either hold it in front of you or, place it on the ground between your legs. Keeping your book bag on takes up space for another person to stand behind you. This is especially true during rush hour when everyone is jammed in trying to get home. If you forget to take it off, don’t be surprised if someone asks you to do so.

You’re not a DJ

We’re sure you’ve got impeccable taste in music, but your fellow riders may not agree. Don’t play music without headphones.

Say ‘excuse me’

If you’re trying to get on or off the train and someone isn’t moving out of your way first say ‘excuse me’—clearly and firmly. Most people will gladly get out of your way. Don’t be shy about it—you need to let people know you’re trying to get on or off. It’s not their job to pay attention to what you need—it’s your job to let people know what you’re trying to do.  

Don’t be a pole hog

If you’re holding on to the pole while riding, use just one hand if you can. Don’t ‘hug’ the pole—that’s being a pole hog and it’ll keep other people from holding the pole if they need to. And that’s not cool.  

Mind the spread

When you’re seated, keep your knees close together as comfortably as possible. Avoid touching other’s knees with your own if you can. Don’t be the person who hogs either seat beside them because you’re spreading your legs. Chances are someone will firmly ask you to move so they can sit down.

Be present

Thousands of people use the train in the city every day. It is generally regarded as safe. But sometimes, you might run into a shady character or two. Keep your phone out only when you need it and hold it firmly. Keep your valuables out of sight and if you wear a wallet, keep it in your coat pocket, your bag, or your front pocket. If you wear a purse, cross it over your chest so that it’s secure—don’t let it hang off one shoulder or it might be gone before you know it.