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Lake Michigan ferry turns humdrum travel into unforgettable experience

Updated: Nov 13, 2021


(This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune April 14, 2017)

My first trip on a Lake Michigan ferry was 25 years ago, and it didn’t go as planned. I was working a Saturday shift at the Chicago Sun-Times, facing a six-hour, late-night drive to Frankfort, Mich., to meet my then-girlfriend/now-wife. There was a story in the paper about the SS Badger, a ferry between Wisconsin and Michigan. I’d read about crossing the lake by ferry in William Least Heat-Moon’s 1982 road-trip classic, “Blue Highways: A Journey into America,” and always wanted to give it a try. A plan was hatched.

I’d book myself on the midnight boat, walk the decks a bit and maybe have a beer or two, then spend the rest of the four-hour crossing sleeping in my car. We’d hit the dock in Ludington, Mich., at 5 a.m., and I’d roll into Frankfort for breakfast, bearing tales of my trans- great Lake adventure. Did I mention I’m not one of those people who reads the fine print?

“Oh no,” the friendly Northern accent told me as I rolled up to the loading dock and tried to wave him off. “We load and unload the car for ya. No access to the vehicles during the crossing.” Thus did I come to lie out under a blanket of stars, slightly shivering on a more-or-less comfortable deck chair, lulled in and out of sleep by the thrumming of the steam engines beneath me, and the surging water all around.

Don’t get the idea that this is a typical Badger crossing. Many people spend the extra $49 on a stateroom, which I did years later when traveling with my toddler son. Others curl up in one of the many warm and comfortable seating areas inside. And there’s only one overnight boat. Most people cross the lake during the day or evening. What they all share is the pleasure of turning a routine travel experience — the hectic drive out of Chicago, under the lake, and up into Michigan — into something memorable. You don’t need to take one of the two Lake Michigan ferries. Neither will save you time or money. I’m here to tell you that you should, at least once.

The aforementioned Badger is the elder of the two Lake Michigan boats, having operated daily, three-season service between Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington since 1953. At just over 400 feet with a capacity of 600 people and 180 cars, it’s more like a ship than a ferry. And there is a pleasant sense of stepping back in time, to when travel was more of an event. Passengers can walk the decks or sit out on the deck chairs. And there’s plenty of seating inside, along with a small movie theater, a museum and a snack bar. The staterooms are spartan but more than comfortable enough for the few hours they’re needed.

The high-speed Lake Express, running from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Mich., is more like a typical ferry, making the trip in 2.5 hours. Launched in 2004, its passenger area is newer than the Badger, with comfortable seats and handy tables. Screens overhead generally show a kid-friendly movie, with sound available on headphones, which is also helpful for those more interested in reading a book or getting some work done. It’s possible to walk on deck, but the wind and speed of the boat makes the experience more exhilarating than relaxing.

Neither boat will save you money from Chicago. The Badger is $59 each way per adult, plus $59 for your car. A stateroom adds a single charge of $49. The Lake Express is $91.50 per adult, plus $101 for your car. There is a “premier” cabin aimed at business travelers, with a $113 one-way ticket getting you complimentary Wi-Fi, electrical outlets and other amenities.

Both boats have discounted rates for children, with little ones under 5 sailing for free. Both also offer rates for trucks, trailers, RVs, motorcycles and bicycles.

As for me, I’ll always remember that first trip, sleeping under a dark sky and being grateful for the big fleece pullover I fortuitously bought at an outlet mall on the drive up to Manitowoc. A group of bikers next to me shared stories of their ride across the Great Plains from South Dakota. And a family of five hustled onto the forward deck and staked a claim, arranging deck chairs into a huge bed which they covered with sleeping bags and pillows for an epic family sleep-out.

I haven’t pulled that one off with my brood yet. We travel to northern Michigan several times a year, and we usually drive because it simply makes more sense. Still, my kids have sailed on each of the Lake Michigan ferries at least once. And while one never knows what lessons children truly absorb, here’s hoping they’ve at least learned that life is too short to always take the way that “makes more sense.”

John Carpenter is a freelance writer.

The SS Badger operates between Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington, Mich., from May 19 through Oct. 15 in 2017. The crossing time is four hours; 800-841-4243.

The Lake Express makes 2.5-hour trips between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich., from April 28 through Oct. 23 this year; 866-914-1010.



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