CHICAGO — The Chicago Transit Authority's new payment system Ventra launched Monday, making the sky-blue cards an option for all "L" train and bus riders.
You can still use some CTA fare cards through Dec. 15, but they'll get trickier to reload as the CTA begins replacing fare machines at "L" stations.
Transferring to Ventra will require getting a reloadable Ventra card and maybe transferring a balance from Chicago Cards or magnetic-stripe CTA fare cards.
Several groups of riders won't need the tips below: College students with U-Passes were the first to get Ventra cards in early August, and Chicago Card Plus customers (cards tied to an online account) have starting getting Ventra passes in the mail, for which balance transfers occur automatically with activation. Some CPS students are part a pilot program that uses a school ID as a Ventra card.
For everyone else, here's what you need to know:
• There are three places to get a Ventra card without getting charged the $5 purchase fee. One is online at ventrachicago.com, one is by phone at 877-669-8368 and the third is at the Ventra Customer Service Center at 165 N. Jefferson St. The $5 fee will be waived through the end of the year.
• You can buy a Ventra card at a CTA station, but you'll have to wait to get reimbursed the $5 purchase fee. Once you register your card online or by phone, that $5 will become transit value on your card.
• If you don't have a Ventra card, be prepared with cash to reload your CTA card. Ventra machines are replacing CTA vending machines at rail stations. Gone by Sept. 9 will be Express machines, which can dispense cards or add value through credit or debit card payment only, and Visitor Pass machines, which accept cash and credit for one-day, two-day and seven-day passes. That means you'll need cash to use the more prevalent Transit Card Machines, which will be replaced more gradually over the next few months. Many stations have ATMs in the station or customer assistants who can direct you to the closest one. Here's an online guide about the vending machine phase-out.
• You can transfer fare balances from Chicago Cards and full-fare or reduced-fare magnetic-stripe cards for free, with the help of Ventra representatives as they visit parks across the city from Sept. 17 through Dec. 13. To find out when they'll be in your 'hood, scroll down to the full list at the bottom of this article.
• You cannot transfer balances from one-day, three-day and 30-day passes. Additionally, you can't transfer balances from more than five cards at a time, or fares that total less than $5 across the five cards.
• Chicago Cards will phase out earlier than magnetic-stripe cards. You can't add money to plastic Chicago Cards or Chicago Plus cards starting Oct. 7, and they will not be accepted on "L" trains or buses starting Nov. 15.
• Magnetic-stripe cards will not be accepted as of Dec. 15. You can't buy them in stations starting Oct. 7, and you can't load money onto them starting Nov. 15.
• If you don't use the balance on your CTA cards before Dec. 15, you're out of luck. Actually, you get one more chance. From January to March 2014 you can get your balance transferred by mailing the cards to the Ventra Customer Service Center, 165 N. Jefferson St.
Here's the full list of where you can get balances transferred in the next few months. A more detailed schedule for September is here.
Warren Park, 6601 N. Western Ave., 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sept. 28
Hamlin Park, 3035 N. Hoyne Ave., 5-8:30 p.m. Oct 3
Clarendon Park, 4501 N. Clarendon Ave., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 2
Gompers Park, 4222 W. Foster Ave., 5-8:30 p.m. Sept. 19
Eugene Field Park, 5100 N. Ridgeway Ave., 5-8:30 p.m. Sept. 26
Portage Park, 4100 N. Long Ave. 5-8:30 p.m. Oct. 8
Norwood Park, 5801 N. Natoma Ave., 5-8:30 p.m. Oct. 15
Humboldt Park, 1440 N. Humboldt Drive, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 26
Fosco Park, 1312 S. Racine Ave., 6-8:30 p.m. Sept. 23
Columbus Park, 500 S. Central Ave., 6-8:30 p.m. Sept. 25
Garfield Park, 100 N. Central Park Ave. 6-8:30 p.m. Oct. 9
Douglas Park, 1401 S. Sacramento Drive, 6-8:30 p.m. Oct. 16
Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph St. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Nov. 30
Gage Park, 2411 W. 55th St., 5-8:30 p.m. Sept. 17
McKinley Park, 2210 W. Pershing Rd., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 21
Carver Park, 939 E. 132nd St., 5-8:30 p.m. Sept. 24
Lindblom Park, 6054 S. Damen Ave., 5-8 p.m. Oct. 1
Marquette Park, 6743 S. Kedzie Ave., noon-4 p.m. Oct. 5
Ogden Park, 6500 S. Racine Ave., noon-4 p.m. Oct. 19
Washington Park, 5531 S. Martin Luther King Drive, 9 a.m.-noon Oct. 19
Owens Park, 8800 S. Clyde Ave., 6-8 p.m. Nov. 8
Foster Park, 1440 W. 84th St., noon-4 p.m. Nov. 16
Tuley Park, 501 E. 90th Place, 6-8 p.m. Dec. 13