Think helicopter tours and chances are you conjure up images of soaring over the Napali Coast of Kauai. Or the fall colors of the Smoky Mountains. But a helicopter tour can be an urban adventure too! The Chicago Helicopter Experience tour of the city’s gorgeous lakefront skyline is one of the coolest things to do in Chicago.
Holiday Lights Tour
Helicopter tours are one of the coolest things to do in Chicago or anywhere. Since I took my first-ever helicopter ride over the blazing fall colors of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, I’ve become a convert. I now consider it to be my go-to family vacation splurge.
So, when Chicago Helicopter Experience asked if I would like to take a ride to see the holiday lights of my own city from the air, I jumped at the chance.
My husband and I, both helicopter lovers, headed to the heliport, full of eager excitement. And we were not disappointed.
It’s only about 20 minutes in the air—from the heliport on the near South Side, out over Lake Michigan, north to Wrigley Field (home of the Chicago Cubs), back past the blazingly beautiful Chicago Loop and, all too soon, back to the heliport.
A Thrilling Ride
But it is a thrilling 20 minutes! As a lifelong Chicago are resident, I know this city. I see it regularly from the ground and I have seen it often from the air as I flew in and out of O’Hare and Midway. (Best experience: Flying home around 10pm on July 4th as fireworks sent little pops of sparks into the sky below our plane.) But I have never seen Chicago so close from the air.
Our pilot was a new Chicago transplant who moved to the city two months ago from Hawaii. But he had the city tour narrative down. (If, like me, you’re wondering why anyone would move from Hawaii to Chicago two months before winter sets in, the answer is that his wife is from here. “You know what they say: Happy wife, happy life.”)
We all donned headsets with a microphone. It blocked out the roar of the EC130 helicopter blades and delivered his steady narration directly to our ears. But more importantly, it made us look and feel like real helicopter people. So even if there was no commentary, I would have wanted the headset.
Ours was the tour billed as the “holiday lights” tour. The reality is that there are so many lights on in Chicago that was tough to actually see any holiday lights. The top of a few buildings and the canopies of Navy Pier were adorned with red and green lights, but it was hard to pick them out of the blazing white lights everywhere, even though I knew what to look for!
So, if your goal is to see the holiday lights of Chicago, take a walk down Michigan Avenue or stroll through Millennium Park, visit Lincoln Park Zoo or even head to the top of the Hancock. But if you want the thrill of soaring across the lakefront for a view of the city you can’t get any other way, Chicago Helicopter Experience is the way to go.
About Chicago Helicopter Experience
The company was started because founder Trevor Heffernan was tired of sitting in Chicago traffic. He learned to fly, bought a helicopter and his friends and family started requesting tours of the lakefront. Thus was born Chicago Helicopter Experience.
Today, about half of the customers are Chicagoans and the other half are visitors to the city, according to Isha Jordan, director of Charter Services for Chicago Helicopter Experience.
The welcome center is a temporary facility nestled on the north edge of the Chicago River. There are some displays of interesting helicopter facts and info about Chicago and its celebrities. For kids, there was a bean bag toss game set up, but there were no kids on our flight and I didn’t see anyone using it.
The choppers fly 30-40 flights per day—some are the 6-passenger touring flights, some are intimate 2-person private flights (a well-dressed and very hip couple toting a bottle of champagne arrived for their private flight while we were checking in for our tour), and some are charter flights.
The daytime architecture tours are the most popular with visitors, Jordan says.
If You Go
The Chicago Helicopter Experience office is at 2420 S. Halsted. There’s plenty of free parking, so you can drive. Or you can get there by train—the Halsted Street stop on the CTA Orange Line is just around the corner. Or you can take a cab from downtown. The company promises a shuttle bus is coming, but it’s not operating now.
This is not one of the cheapest things to do in Chicago. That’s why it’s a splurge. The price for a nighttime holiday tour in December 2015 is $178 per person.
Children must be at least 5 years old to fly. That’s an FAA safety regulation to ensure they can be secured by the seat belt harness. If you’re taking a group flight, try to book seat 1 or 2. Those are the front row seats next to the pilot and offer panoramic views of the city. Seats 3, 4, 5 and 6 are in the back with slightly more restricted views out the side windows.
You will go through a metal detector before heading into a briefing room where you’ll hear the safety speech and watch a short video about the flight. The key takeaway: Step on the black step, not the round gray one. That’s will become the floats in the event of a water landing—important to know since 90 percent of the flight is over water!
While it’s possible to get same-day reservations, the company recommends booking a week in advance. You can get a full refund if you cancel two days before your flight. Flights may be canceled for poor weather. Check-in time is 30 minutes before the scheduled departure.
The FAA-imposed weight limit is 250 pounds per passenger. The check-in agent will ask you to step on a discreet silver plate that is the scale. The weight shows only to the clerk. Passengers who exceed the limit are pulled aside and told they can’t fly.