Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Stay where you want

That I could roll out of bed at 5:00 a.m., grab a (moderately) hearty breakfast, and comfortably walk downtown to the Urbanathlon start with time to spare reflect just a few of many reasons Chicago is the perfect location for this race. And to boot, all of the pre- and post-race activities we did as a family were well within walking distance (or a short ride on the Metro) from our hotel, so as you think about where to plan your weekend stay the biggest difference from one hotel to the next in Downtown Chicago just may be budget. For a variety of reasons (in 2011) we chose Best Western River North, but let’s break down some of the considerations:

Location:

On foot our hotel was about 1.8 miles from the Urbanathlon start/finish, and about 1.2 miles from the Hard Rock Hotel, where we picked up our race packet the night before. Both well within walking distance for the whole family (the unseasonably nice weather helped). In fact, the brisk walk the morning of the race was a great distance to warm up. Perhaps this year I’ll hone my timing so that I run some instead of just walk, to better warm up (there was an inspiring Urbanathlete pilgrimage down Michigan Avenue, and I walked behind a relay team called Walker, Texas, Ranger; each had one name on the back of their shirt). In a later post I’ll explain the unintended adventure I had on the way, too. There probably is more than a baker’s dozen of hotels lining Michigan Avenue that are an Albert Pujols home run from Urbanathlon festivities, and several clusters within a mile or less in any direction, so walking to and from any related activities should be a breeze. This one’s a push, just pick your spot.

A quick update after seeing the 2012 course map from Men’s Health. The 2012 start / finish area has moved more than a mile down from its 2011 location (away from the Magnificant Mile area). This doesn’t impact accessibility (except for pack pickup, which has moved completely, now located at REI in the other direction), but puts a little more distance betwee the festival area and properties on the other side of the Chicago River.

The purple dot near the top reflects the 2011 start / finish, while the red dot reflects the start / finish in 2012. That’s more than a mile difference, which may influence some of your decision making.

Price:

The Urbanathlon touted hotel deals/promo codes (through a third party), but while they technically may have been ‘discounts,’ when I ran the numbers I was hard pressed to find any true deals with listed properties. Your best plan of attack is to simply book early (I think I booked in early July last year and none of the ‘discounted’ properties could ever sniff the Best Western rate; I kept checking until race weekend). Cruise Groupon, too, or another deals/discount program that constantly cycles “Chicago Downtown Getaway” steals (I’ve seen some really good ones; just watch the restrictions). My 2012 money is still on Best Western, but we’ll see if Groupon comes through with a Godfather offer, or my Marriott Rewards points earns me a free night stay by October (which I expect might be the case). I have’t seen 2012 partner promos yet, but Hilton HHonors is a 2012 official sponsor, so maybe something will shake out there.

PRICE UPDATE (Chicago): For 2012, as part of the previously mention Hilton HHonors sponsorship, Men’s Health announced discounted rates at Hilton Chicago ($249/night plus tax) and Palmer House Hilton ($219/night plus tax). Get the details (including location in relation to race start/finish) on the official Urbanathlon page

Amenities:

Okay, aside from price, amenities probably make a huge difference to some. We just needed two beds, an indoor pool, and free Wi-Fi (check, check, and check). Free breakfast is always super high on my list, but I can overlook it when there are other options readily available, as they are in Chicago (McDonalds is across the street from Best Western River North so I fueled my run with coffee and sneaky good oatmeal). No frills was cool since we just needed a reliable home base (we’re mostly out and about anyway), but downtown you can run the gamut from unassumingly practical, to uber modern, to classically old school, with an equally rangy set of services/amenities. My only advice here is to assume nothing and make sure you understand what’s available to you. I’ve read frustrated reviews about quasi-shady $25 fitness center charges at some properties, upfront charges for incidentals, exorbitant parking fees (see below), etc. It’s maddening to lock in an affordable rate, only to get fleeced at check in.

Parking:

This is one of the main reasons we chose to stay at Best Western River North: free on-site parking (this is a huge selling point for them, as they are the only Downtown hotel to offer this). Even though we never took the car out of the garage until it was time to head home, we still saved about $40/night, which is $40/day we could spend elsewhere (and we did). Nearly all of the hotels in the area have self-park garages (for a price), and valet, but wouldn’t you rather spend that money on a really good steak, a Ferris wheel ride at Navy Pier, or Museum of Science and Industry admission? If you have certain benefits or discounts through a hotel rewards program they could possibly negate whatever fee you might incur for parking. Just be aware.

Celebrities:

Arriving in Chicago squarely during rush hour, we hit our downtown exit (after 7 hours on the road) and I noticed that traffic patrol along Ohio Street was out in force. Oddly so. Plus barricades were sort of discarded along the sidewalks (I thought maybe this is just how they roll on Fridays). Not 30 seconds after we park in the garage security goes into major lockdown mode, stopping all traffic (we just made it), closing down crosswalks, and yelling from one block to the other (the poor saps at the intersection one block down kept letting cars through and security at our end of the block nearly had a collective seizure trying to get them to get their heads in the game). Turns out the prime minister of South Korea was in town (not for the Urbanathlon, though) and was making the rounds down Ohio Street to wherever. Secret service and armed guards were hard core, to put it mildly, but the prime minister was all smiles and waves. A great way to kick off our weekend.

In the end:

My point is that in terms of proximity, you can’t go wrong. You can end up paying between $120ish – $300ish(+) a night downtown, depending on your penchant for basic or baller, so just stick to your comfort zone and do a little research to cobble together the best deal. Importantly, know that accessibility to the Urbanathlon from nearly any downtown hotel is a non-issue (and the morning walk down Michigan Avenue is pretty fun).

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