After our recent Lake Express Ferry crossing Lake Michigan to Milwaukee, we arrived relaxed and ready to enjoy our visit to Wisconsin!
New Lake Express Ferry crossing Lake Michigan service took the pain out of our driving schedule!
Home in the Midwest after an absence of several years, we looked forward to visiting friends and relatives in Minneapolis and West Michigan. What we really didn’t look forward to was the lengthy drive between the two. When the opportunity came to work with Visit Milwaukee on a recent press trip, we really looked forward to the very first thing they suggested for our itinerary: the new high-speed Lake Express Ferry crossing Lake Michigan.
Folks like us who travel regularly between Minnesota or Wisconsin and Michigan know there traditionally have been only a few ways you can get between one and the other without flying. None of these occur without pain. If you’re taking the train, your route is priced in individual segments. Getting to Michigan is affordable, but getting back may not be. Or vice versa. There seems to be no reliable way to estimate what Amtrak’s pricing is going to be.
Driving the southern loop through Chicago generally brings all kinds of stress in terms of traffic, seemingly never-ending construction, highway tolls to pay, and a dearth of appetizing pit stops at which you might calm your nerves. No matter which route we take through Chicago – straight through, or one of the several bypass combinations – we invariably emerge frazzled and fatigued. If you take the bus, you’re subject to the same issues.
The second driving option is the more scenic of the two (but takes an hour or two longer), north through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This route has a breathtaking lakeshore stretch along U.S. 2 which leads to crossing the Straits of Mackinac on “Mighty Mac,” the iconic 5-mile long suspension bridge. But this choice, gorgeous as it is, can be fraught with stress, too, particularly in inclement weather. Winter roads can be icy with drifting from the “lake effect.” Gusty winds or blizzard conditions can require crossing with a leader vehicle. Limited visibility due to fog or blowing snow can shut it down indefinitely. And once we’re across at Mackinaw City, there are hours still to drive before we reach our destination in the lower part of the state.
I’ve crossed Lake Michigan by ferry several times in my lifetime on the stalwart, historic, coal-fired S. S. Badger, which has been in service between Ludington and Manitowoc since the 1950s. The crossing takes four hours, which doesn’t really shave off any time from your drive. Its terminals are rather out of the way in terms of locations. You can rent one of 40 spartan staterooms and try to get some sleep while it plugs across at an average speed of 18mph. The last trip I made a couple of decades ago was enhanced by a toddler who suffered all the symptoms of severe motion sickness during the entire voyage. Good times!
But that was then, and this is now. The Lake Express Ferry crossing Lake Michigan nowadays takes only 2-½ hours, on a schedule comprised of two or three round trips per day. Lake Express is an aluminum catamaran launched in 2004, which travels between Milwaukee and Muskegon. Its four 3000HP diesel engines drive independent Rolls-Royce Kamewa water jets, allowing it to reach speeds up to 40mph. Because computer-enhanced control systems adjust to lake conditions up to 248 passengers, 46 passenger vehicles and 12 motorcycles get a smoother ride.
Arriving in Muskegon well ahead of our 10:15am departure, we were immediately impressed with the organized check-in process at the Lake Express Ferry Terminal. Encouraged to leave our car in the pre-boarding queue, we entered the pleasant waiting area and grabbed a couple of coffees while we used the free wi-fi provided. Perusing the world wall map, we were amused to see that we were the first to travel the ferry from Hanalei, Kaua’i where we used to live, and placed our pushpin accordingly.
When boarding time approached, it was a simple matter to drive the ramp onto the vehicle deck. Lake Express personnel were smiling and efficient. We took our laptop bags out of the car, and left other luggage in it; you’re not allowed on the car deck while the ferry is underway.
Note: you don’t need a car to ride the ferry. Complimentary curbside luggage check for large items is available for passengers who don’t have a vehicle.
Note: you don’t need a car to ride the ferry. Complimentary curbside luggage check for large items is available for passengers who don’t have a vehicle. Carry-on items need to fit under your ferry seat. Fares are calculated by individual and vehicles, bikes or motorcycles. You can ride as a passenger and then rent a vehicle from Enterprise to be available upon your arrival, if you wish.
Passenger fares are organized by type of seating. Classic Cabin seating is offered in a variety of configurations (some with tables) and served by the L’Expresso Café.
Premier Cabin Seating is available for business travelers with extra steward services. In the Premier Cabin, non-alcoholic beverages, newspapers, and movie headsets are complimentary. There are convenient electrical outlets to keep devices charged, and this cabin is limited to those 12 years of age or older. Groups of 15 or more are eligible for discounts in either cabin. If your pet is traveling with you, you may reserve a complimentary pet kennel on a first come, first served basis.
We took our seats in the Premier Cabin and settled in comfortably. A personable steward took our breakfast order, and we worked on our laptops for quite a while. Note there is no wifi on board the Lake Express, but we tethered our devices to our smartphones. This worked until we were out of signal range on the water. We had plenty of space to spread out and the door to the outside decks was handy.
It was really amazing how quickly the time passed on the Lake Express Ferry crossing Lake Michigan. We were blessed with a beautiful sunny day, and the big Lake was silvery and calm. In no time, the signal was given to go below deck to our vehicle. Disembarking was just as orderly and efficient as boarding. The Milwaukee terminal is convenient to major roads and traffic moved out swiftly.
If you have reason to travel between Wisconsin and Michigan, we highly recommend you consider the marvelous Lake Express Ferry!
Tips and Practicalities: Book your trip easily online or phone Lake Express at 866-914-1010 to make reservations by phone. Car rental in both Muskegon and Milwaukee is available, and gift cards may be purchased. Frequent travelers can access corporate discounts when purchasing tickets in blocks of 15 or more. Ferry terminals in both Milwaukee and Muskegon are conveniently located.
Disclosure: Our trip aboard the Lake Express Ferry crossing Lake Michigan was compliments of Lake Express in conjunction with Visit Milwaukee.