By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 16, 2009 at 8:16 AM

Let's face it, taking a vacation is tough these days. Everyone's tightening their belts these days, and airfare alone to get far from Wisconsin might be more than you've budgeted for a getaway. But the time-honored road trip may be just what you need this summer -- a fun escape on just a tank or two of gas. Fortunately, we've come up with a few car trips that won't break the bank. Pack a lunch and get going.

Chicago (approximate round-trip mileage from Milwaukee: 180)

Don't let the big buildings fool you, Chicago is a perfect day-out vacation. The key is to make your outing a surgical strike. Don't try to do too much in a single day and do some basic planning before you go.

Since parking is a pain, the most cost-effective and easy way to approach a central Chicago summer day visit is to park once and get around on foot, in cabs and on public transportation.

If you plan wisely, you can likely get around on foot power alone.

Recently, we did a family day out in the Windy City with a pre-schooler and an infant and we walked everywhere, taking one cab at the end of a long day.

Here is a suggested itinerary for a sunny summer Chicago trip on a tank. Of course, the options are nearly limitless in a city the size of Chicago, so this is just one recommended route.

7:30 a.m. -- leave Milwaukee. Remember that work I-94 south to the Illinois border has begun, so allow some extra time.

9:15 a.m. -- arrive in downtown Chicago and park anywhere in the Loop area. Most lots will run you around $25 for the day. An especially convenient option for this itinerary are the four "Millennium Garages" beneath Millennium and Grant Parks.

9:45 a.m. -- breakfast at The Artists' Café, 412 S. Michigan Ave., across and a couple blocks south from the Art Institute. This traditional diner has been around for nearly 50 years and you can dine for around $10 per person, which is a great deal in the area. On nice days, you can sit outside and watch the passersby on Michigan Avenue.

11 a.m. -- Check out the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.

The $294 million expansion not only created some much needed space for the Art Institute's world class collection of modern art, the bright, airy Renzo Piano-designed building reclaims some prime real estate. While the area north of the Art Institute, along Monroe Street, was once deserted and home only to a stretch of railroad tracks, that block is now home to an attractive building that serves as a second major entrance to the Art Institute and successfully links the museum to the teeming parade of visitors at Millennium Park across the street.

The 264,000-sq. ft. wing -- the seventh (and largest) expansion of the museum in 116 years -- is home to the museum's modern art, contemporary art, photography and architecture and design collections -- and adds 33% to the museum's total area.

The restaurant and terrace on the roof offer great views of the lake, Millennium Park and the skyline and the sleek Nichols Bridgeway connects the museum to the park.

Inside, Piano's soaring skylight and warm oak floors and birch and cherry accents -- especially on the alluring staircase.

What is especially exciting about the expansion is the light that streams in. Some parts of the Art Institute -- like many museum buildings of its age - can seem dark and disconnected from the world outside, but Piano pulls Chicago in via the skylight, the third floor sculpture terrace, the rooftop restaurant and a main floor deck and patio.

12:30 p.m. -- Walk across the new 620-ft. bridge to Millennium Park for an al fresco lunch at The Plaza at The Park Grill, in the shadow of "the bean."

The Park Grill is located in a building not unlike the one that houses a Starbucks in Milwaukee's Red Arrow Park. But the real gem is The Plaza, the part of the restaurant set up like a giant beer garden, with tables under umbrellas, live music and a generally festive atmosphere.

The sandwiches and appetizers are reasonably priced -- especially considering the primo location -- and our pre-schooler's meal was just 50 cents. And a Stella Artois enjoyed with a meal in the warm sun in the bustling restaurant in a packed park -- there was also free music on tap at the nearby bandshell -- made for a really festive summer experience.

1:30 p.m. -- Walk east on Monroe Street and then south on Columbus Drive for a stroll through Grant Park, past the Buckingham Fountain to Shedd Aquarium.

With the first phase of renovations complete, the Buckingham Fountain looks really great and is the perfect spot for a family photo with the Chicago skyline in the background. Phase two is scheduled to start in autumn, so enjoy this chance to experience the fountain before the workmen arrive back.

2:15 p.m. -- This trip marked our second visit to the Shedd Aquarium, which has so much on offer that a single visit almost certainly won't suffice. So, don't try to cram it all in.

Kids will love the Polar Play Zone in the Oceanarium, with its views of darting otters and diving dolphins. They can also touch starfish in shallow pools and learn about the polar seas.

The Oceanarium is also home to the awe-inspiring, acrobatic dolphin show that clearly amazes adults and kids alike.

The Caribbean Reef greets visitors upon entry and when a diver jumps in to feed the vast array of marine life, he wears a microphone so he can explain what's going on. The 90,000-gallon circular tank affords face-to-face looks at a huge sea turtle called Nickel, moray eels, sting rays and all kinds of fish.

One especially memorable room is home to a group of Komodo dragons. After seeing it once, a year and a half ago, our pre-schooler is still talking about them.

4 p.m. -- From the Shedd, we cabbed it back to our ride -- at a cost of about $10, including tip -- and headed home.

Had we been traveling sans little ones, we might have stayed on for dinner, but on a weekday, with the kids, we decided it was best to get out of Dodge before the office workers hit the freeways.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.