Here's How to Ride the CTA's Magical Holiday Train and Bus in Chicago

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

CTA Holiday Train
Photo by Jaclyn Rivas for Thrillist
Photo by Jaclyn Rivas for Thrillist

The heat lamps are back on at “L” platforms, a sure sign that winter has arrived in Chicago. It’s common to see commuters stepping out from under them to check the monitors in the hopes that a train is coming soon. But what everyone should really be hoping for is the tiny candy cane icon that appears next to certain trains. It’s not just a display of festive cheer: it’s a surefire sign that the Allstate CTA Holiday Train is running and on its way.

The after-Thanksgiving tradition features a 10-car train that’s decked out in Christmas lights, playing festive classics like Brenda Lee’s “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree,” filled with holiday-specific ads starring reindeers, snowmen, and snowflakes, and complete with elves (aka CTA employees) dressed in their best holiday decor, handing out candy canes and buttons to commemorate the event. The purpose of the train isn’t just to spread holiday cheer; it’s a reminder of a CTA tradition that began in 1992, to deliver food baskets across the city.

Back then, a single out-of-service Blue Line train with “Season’s Greetings from the CTA” on the front, was used to deliver food to various charities. Today, the train is an over-the-top Christmas explosion whose twinkling lights can be seen further away than by the people waiting on the train platform. It runs on all eight of the city’s transportation lines, 25 times between Thanksgiving and Christmas. On certain days Santa can even be seen seated in his sleigh with his reindeer, waving, smiling, and shouting “ho, ho, ho!” from an open-air flatcar in the middle of the train line.

Less well-known but no less magical is the Allstate CTA Holiday Bus, which began in 2014. The exterior of the 60-foot bus is wrapped in a decal depicting Santa’s sleigh and reindeer flying high over Chicago’s skyline to deliver gifts. The bus will criss-cross the city via 19 different bus lines. Guests will know the bus is arriving when they hear the jingles of holiday music in the air. A holiday bus tracker provides its real-time location when it’s in service.

Whether you’re catching the holiday bus or the train, normal CTA fares apply since they are both part of regular service. Check the schedule for designated run times, particularly if you want to see Santa. The trains get packed the closer they get to the Loop. If you’re riding the train for the experience (rather than as a commuter), consider getting on close to its starting point since most holiday train riders will ride to the end of the line and back. CTA employees are happy to help take your photo with Santa, but their primary job is to ensure the train remains on schedule with everyone safely abroad. The train cars adjacent to Santa’s sleigh fill up fast so if you’re looking for more space, consider a spot at the front or tail-end of the train. Travel light and enjoy the ride.

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Ximena N. Beltran Quan Kiu is a Thrillist contributor.