Maybe you’re in Michigan, with family in Wisconsin (or vice versa). Or perhaps you’re planning some sort of trip across state lines, and you came across the idea of using a ferry to save some time around the Great Lakes.
Whatever the reason is, these ferries do exist -- there are two of them that I considered for a recent vacation -- and I’m here to report back and confirm the entire experience is incredibly cool.
How many people can say they’ve crossed Lake Michigan on a ginormous boat?
Even if you’re never going to do it again, it’s one of those things you should try once, just to say you did it, if it’s at all convenient or can be worked into an upcoming trip.
Oh, and this goes well beyond the quickie ferry to Mackinac Island, for Michigan people!
So, I’ll share a little about my own circumstances, and answer some of the questions I got once we told our friends and family that we had booked the trip.
I travel between the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area and Michigan pretty often -- at least every other month or so; sometimes more.
Sometimes I’m heading to Metro Detroit, sometimes it’s the west side of the state, and sometimes it’s Northern Michigan, but either way, that massive lake is just in the WAY, you know?
I always have to ask myself: Should I go up and around Lake Michigan, as in, traveling north through Green Bay, the Upper Peninsula, over the Mackinac Bridge and down I-75? Or should I head south from Milwaukee, cutting through Chicago, which always looks like a shorter trip on Google Maps, but comes with city traffic, seemingly endless construction (I’m looking at you, Indiana), and almost guaranteed traffic jams?
Phew. There aren’t a lot of great answers. I’ve driven both ways (up and over, and down and around), my friends have even taken the Amtrak, and mostly, I survive the experience by timing my drives just right. I tend to leave late at night to avoid or minimize the whole Chicago traffic-jam situation.
And then I learned about the Lake Express.
The high-speed ferry goes from downtown Milwaukee right into Muskegon, Michigan. It’s about a 2 1/2-hour ride, and although the price packs a punch, my family finally tried it out this summer, and we found it to be well worth the cost.
So, we’ll address that next: The cost.
To ride in the classic cabin (which is just like, equivalent to a basic economy ticket on an airplane; nothing special is built in), it’s $99.50 for an adult, one-way, or $169 roundtrip. Premiere seats, for what it’s worth, will run you $121 one-way or $215 roundtrip (this is kind of like first class). A classic kids ticket is normally $43 (or $74 RT), but this summer, we were able to get our kids passes free of charge, thanks to a summer promotion. Oh, and children 4 and younger are always free.
To bring a vehicle on board is another expense. It’s $109 or $206, depending on if you’re going one-way or roundtrip. And it’s even more if you’re hauling a trailer, so you can check the website if you’re really curious about those details.
My husband and I decided we’d take the ferry across with our SUV and two children, for a July trip to the Gaylord, Michigan area. For two adults and one car, it was $373 total, once you added in port and security fees, and a fuel surcharge. And this was one-way.
So, it’s not exactly cheap. But with a 3- and 5-year-old in tow, we thought it would be worth a try. Plus, it’s an experience, right?
Here’s how it ended up working out
We got to the Milwaukee terminal in about 10 minutes. There was hardly any waiting around. You don’t have to get there too early, by the way -- the website recommends arriving about 45 minutes ahead of departure, just to be safe. I think we were right in that ballpark.
My husband drove our SUV onto the ferry and parked it, while I walked on board with the kids. He met us in the main cabin probably 10 minutes after we sat down. You can’t stay with your car; you leave it down below. You keep your car packed, as well. I had separated out some juice boxes and changes of clothes, just in case, but once your car is parked, you leave it down below deck for the duration of the trip.
My husband said the parking was ridiculously organized, too. These ferry employers seem like they have the process down to a science.
And then the ride across Lake Michigan was, as promised, 2 hours, 30 minutes. And once the boat docked, we drove about three hours to our family’s lodge near Gaylord.
If we had just driven? Google Maps said that would have been about 7 hours, 30 minutes down and through Chicago. I’m guessing it would have taken us closer to 9 1/2 hours, just based on frequent bathroom breaks, food stops and traffic. But we’re pretty slow-moving these days, so maybe you could go faster if you’re without small children.
What else can I tell you? The ferry experience was ... well, I’ll say it again. Incredibly organized.
When we pulled up to the terminal, feeling a little apprehensive about having never taken the ferry before and having young kids in tow, the staff was super helpful. The signage at the port was well-marked, the four of us got all checked in from our car, and the instructions inside the waiting area were more than clear. Basically, as long as you show up on time, the staff will help you with the rest.
It was also a much faster process than you might imagine -- loading onto the ferry, unloading, and dealing with a vehicle, as mentioned.
I assumed we’d have way more waiting-around time, but that really wasn’t an issue.
They call you over a loudspeaker, by the way, when the boat is about to arrive at its destination. That’s when my husband took our keys and went down below to retrieve our vehicle.
I swear, by the time my kids and I disembarked in Muskegon, I thought it’d be a half-hour before we connected with my husband in the parking lot. He swung around in the SUV to pick us up not even five minutes later.
It was WINDY up top aboard the boat, and you really can go explore the ferry as it’s moving, but you might not want to, especially with young children.
But it’s really neat! And it feels like the boat is going fast, so my kids were slightly overwhelmed by the windy conditions and how loud it was outside. If it were just me, I’d have spent more time up top. Maybe another time!
Still, things are pretty nice inside the cabin. There’s ample seating, there are little tables where you can set up and have a snack or a meal (we did bring food and then ordered some more once we were about a hour into our trip, which was basic fare but fine), and you can even see where the boat is on its trek across Lake Michigan, like on a digital map.
We walked around a bit inside, kept busy, chatted with our neighbors and used the bathroom as much as my 5-year-old’s little heart desired -- for her, it’s the experience. Go figure. It sure beat pulling off the freeway every hour or so!
The trip really did seem quick. And then once we docked in Michigan, it was like, THAT’S when the annoying “travel” part really started. The boat didn’t feel like a mundane car ride. That was just part of the adventure.
And docking in Muskegon was beautiful. Plenty of boaters were out, it was a gorgeous afternoon, and the views were unbeatable. By that point, the boat had slowed way down, so it felt calmer. We ventured up top to wave to the passersby and take in the scenery.
I’d heard horror stories beforehand, involving the boat breaking down or travelers experiencing seasickness. We didn’t have any of that, and although I’ve spent a lot of time on boats growing up and throughout the years, I didn’t notice anyone else on our ferry who was outwardly struggling or downing Dramamine. Now, maybe that was the case for someone and I just didn’t notice, but the waters were relatively calm and smooth on the day of our ride. Maybe under choppier conditions, this can be an issue, but whenever I scanned the cabin, it just looked like happy people playing cards and enjoying a beverage or two.
I do think for the price, all passengers should be allowed to use the WiFi. Upon realizing I’d be locked out due to my middle-class status, I got all, “Help me, I’m poor,” a la “Bridesmaids,” but really -- $380 and I couldn’t even respond to Snapchats? That just seemed wrong.
Seeing as it was our first time on the ferry, I couldn’t justify roundtrip tickets (what if my kids hated it?), so like I said, we only took the boat to Muskegon, and not back to Milwaukee.
And then we got stuck in severe traffic and the trip back took WAY too many hours, and I got all, “I should have just sucked it up and paid for the ferry!”
Hindsight is 20/20.
But it was a really cool option. It felt kind of surreal to be crossing a Great Lake by ferry.
The experience might not save you a ton of time, depending on your final destination, but if you have kids, if you can afford it, if you want to see what the middle of Lake Michigan looks like, it’s well worth it for the memories. And it should save you from a traffic headache, that’s for sure.
I’ve already gotten some recommendations to try out the Badger, which goes between Manitowoc, Wisconsin and Ludington, Michigan. It’s not high-speed, but the cost is comparable, so perhaps next summer we’ll test it out and I’ll report back.
Have you tried this ferry, or something similar? Let us know in the comments below. I’d love to hear about your experience.
This story was first published in 2021. It has since been updated.