Great Lakes cruise guide: Best itineraries, planning tips and things to do

May 13, 2022

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The Great Lakes probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of cruising. But in recent years, the region has grown enormously as a cruise destination for good reason. Touring the Great Lakes by ship is by far the easiest way to see a wide range of the area’s attractions — from vibrant cities to natural wonders — in a single trip.

When planning Great Lakes cruises, you have many things to consider: when to go for the best Great Lakes cruise experience, which cruise line is best suited to your travel style, the best Great Lakes cruise ports to visit and which shoreside activities you want to prioritize. It’s not the kind of trip you want to throw together at the last minute, especially since the best fare deals typically go to organized travelers who book early.

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Here, The Points Guy offers up a guide to everything you need to know about planning a sailing in the Great Lakes.

In This Post

Why cruise the Great Lakes?

The Great Lakes region may not be a bucket list destination on the scale of Alaska or Antarctica. But it has a lot to offer — more than many people may realize.

Along the banks of the five lakes that are at the core of the region — Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior — you’ll find some of Middle America’s greatest cities, charming small towns, historic sites and wonders both natural and human-made. Plus, there are the lakes themselves, which together are roughly the size of the U.K. and make up the largest freshwater ecosystem on the planet. Accounting for 21% of all the world’s fresh water, they truly are a marvel.

The cruise ship Pearl Mist
Charming small towns such as Clayton, New York, are among the destinations for Great Lakes cruises. (Photo courtesy of Pearl Seas Cruises)

All this can be seen via an overland trip, of course, and many people explore the Great Lakes region by car or on motorcoach tours. But the region is so sprawling — the Great Lakes touch eight U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario — that logistically it’s almost impossible to experience the area in a broad way on a single trip without going by ship.

On a single Great Lakes cruise, you can see the world-class architecture and museums of Chicago, take a carriage ride through the carless streets of Mackinac Island, Michigan, and gaze upon the splendor that is Niagara Falls along the New York border — all without having to get behind the wheel of a car or unpacking and re-packing your suitcase more than once.

When do cruises go to the Great Lakes?

The Great Lakes cruise season is a short one, due mostly to the weather. With winters being cold and snowy in the region, cruise lines stick to the warmer months of May to September for Great Lakes sailings.

The weather isn’t the only limiting factor. The cruise season in the Great Lakes is also limited in its length by the opening and closing of the St. Lawrence Seaway — the system of locks, canals and channels that connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Cruise vessels that operate in the Great Lakes can’t access the region until the locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway open for the summer, something that typically happens the last week of March. They need to be out of the Great Lakes before the St. Lawrence Seaway closes for the winter (typically in December).

Great Lakes cruise weather can be chilly at the start of the season, with low temperatures in the 40s in May in some areas and highs in the 60s. It warms up considerably by July and August, with high temperatures in the 70s and 80s.

When you want to go will depend on which activities you want to do, how you feel about cool weather and the price. Cruises at the beginning of the Great Lakes cruise season in May are generally a bit less expensive than those in June, July, August and September.

Best Great Lakes itineraries

A relatively small number of ships sail in the Great Lakes during any given year. But, even so, they offer a wide range of Great Lakes itineraries. Some of the ships that operate in the region will alternate between three or even four different routes during the short summer season, giving you lots of choices.

Lengthwise, you’ll find Great Lakes voyages ranging from seven to 15 nights. Some of the sailings travel across all five of the Great Lakes. Others focus on just three or four of the interconnected bodies of water. Some of the ships also offer sailings that combine travel on one or more of the Great Lakes with a passage through the St. Lawrence Seaway. In some cases, these latter trips include travel all the way to Montreal.

An American Queen Voyages vessel in the Great Lakes. (Photo courtesy of American Queen Voyages)

The diversity in Great Lakes itineraries extends to their start and end points. A large percentage of all Great Lakes cruises begin or end in Chicago, Milwaukee or Toronto. But there also are Great Lakes sailings that begin or end in Thunder Bay, Ontario; Duluth, Minnesota; Montreal and Detroit.

In most cases, Great Lakes sailings are one-way trips. You’ll start in, say, Toronto, and work your way west to Chicago — or vice versa. But one line, American Queen Voyages, offers round-trip sailings from Chicago, in addition to multiple one-way itineraries. American Queen Voyages is, notably, the only cruise line that currently has the authority to begin and end voyages in downtown Chicago, with its ships operating from the city’s Navy Pier.

Some Great Lakes itineraries only include stops at relatively small towns such as Midland, Parry Sound and Little Current in Ontario; and Muskegon, Marquette and Houghton in Michigan. Others mix in calls at some of the bigger cities of the Great Lakes region, notably Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto. On longer sailings, vessels often will overnight in such places as Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Thunder Bay.

Chicago is a hub for Great Lakes cruises. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Car-free Mackinac Island at the top of Michigan is a common stop on Great Lakes voyages, as is Niagara Falls, which sits between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Pro tip: If your Great Lakes cruise begins or ends in Chicago, Milwaukee or Toronto, add a pre- or post-cruise stay of a night or two in the cities to see them in more depth.

Best Great Lakes cruise lines

Most of the world’s biggest cruise lines — including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line — can’t operate in the Great Lakes because their ships are too big to enter the region through the St. Lawrence Seaway. This has turned the Great Lakes into an exclusive zone for a handful of smaller cruise operators that focus on very small vessels.

The three main players in Great Lakes cruising are Viking (a newcomer in 2022), Pearl Seas Cruises and America Queen Voyages. The first two lines each have one vessel devoted to the region (Viking Octantis and Pearl Mist, respectively). The latter line has two Great Lakes vessels: Ocean Navigator and Ocean Voyager.

All three of these lines cater to a generally older crowd, which is the main market for Great Lakes cruises. Viking’s itineraries have the most outdoorsy options mixed into its itineraries. Pearl Seas Cruises offers trips with a lot of small-town stops. American Queen Voyages weaves in more bigger city stops.

Two more lines that occasionally operate sailings in the region are German line Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and France-based Ponant.

The new Viking ship Viking Octantis, shown here in Antarctica, will spend summers in the Great Lakes. (Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises)

All of the above lines operate ships in the Great Lakes that carry fewer than 400 passengers. Some carry as few as 202 passengers. In general, the vessels are intimate and relatively high-end, with pricing to match.

As a rule, Great Lakes sailings don’t come cheap. Nine-night Great Lakes voyages from American Queen Voyages that also include a pre-cruise night at a hotel start at $4,699 per person; seven-night Viking sailings in the region start at $5,995 per person.

Things to do in the Great Lakes

As noted above, the Great Lakes offer a wide mix of attractions and experiences. During a Great Lakes cruise, you might find yourself climbing aboard the bus where Rosa Parks took a stand at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit on one day and kayaking through the wild marshlands of Point Pelee, Ontario, the next.

Of all three main lines operating in the Great Lakes, as noted above, Viking has the greatest focus on outdoorsy stops such as Point Pelee (a tiny sandspit that juts into the northwestern corner of Lake Erie and is famous as a stopover for migratory birds). Some of Viking’s sailings include a call at Alpena, Michigan — the gateway to a National Maritime Sanctuary, where passengers can kayak past shipwrecks in shallow waters. Another destination that Viking visits, Silver Islet, Ontario, brings the opportunity for a trail walk through Ontario’s 94-square-mile Sleeping Giant Provincial Park — a rocky, forested park named for a long line of mesas that resemble a giant lying on its back.

Rosa Parks bus
The Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum. (Photo courtesy of Henry Ford Museum)

The city-oriented stops that Viking and the other lines make, such as visits to Milwaukee or Chicago on Lake Michigan, give you time to explore the urban sensibility of the region. Brew-town Milwaukee offers the chance to explore the city’s craft beer and brewing scene or to take a walking tour to the city’s many outdoor sculptures. Chicago is famous for its world-leading architecture (which you can see on walking and boat tours), its Magnificent Mile lined with more stores than you’ve probably ever seen in one place and its world-class cultural institutions.

Then there are stops at quieter places such as Mackinac Island, where your sightseeing might include an excursion by horse-drawn carriage to historical sites. Of the three main lines operating in the Great Lakes, as noted above, Pearl Seas Cruises focuses the most on the region’s small towns, with fewer stops at bigger cities.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

One thing that all three of the main lines operating in the Great Lakes have in common is that they include tours during at least some stops and sometimes every stop in their base fares. Pearl Seas Cruises and Viking are particularly known for including lots of shore excursions in their base fares.

Included tours are part of what you’re paying for when you pay the high prices noted above. So you can go off on your own in any of the places these ships visit. But you might just have a no-extra-charge outing including many of the highlights of each place already planned for your voyage.

Best Great Lakes cruise ports

The best Great Lakes cruise ports include the handful of relatively big cities in the region, such as Chicago, that are loaded with cultural sites, nightspots and restaurants, as well as charming small towns such as Holland, Michigan. Great Lakes cruises also bring days that are all about getting up close to wonders both natural and human-made — from towering Niagara Falls to the engineering marvel that is the Welland Canal.

Thunder Bay, Ontario

Known as “Canada’s Gateway to the West” because it’s the final navigational point on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay is one of Ontario’s most vibrant cities and a center for art and culture. It’s also a hub for outdoorsy pursuits including mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking and angling, as it’s nestled within boreal forests.

Chicago

Great architecture and cultural institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago — along with lots of nightlife, shopping and world-class dining — make Chicago the premier city destination in the Great Lakes region. Many Great Lakes cruises begin or end in Chicago, with some including an overnight in the city, allowing time to explore. Don’t miss a stroll down the Magnificent Mile and a sightseeing boat ride on the Chicago River (a great way to get an overview of the city and see some of its architectural gems).

Milwaukee

Wisconsin’s biggest city is often surprisingly delightful to first-time visitors, home as it is to a Santiago Calatrava-designed art museum with a world-class collection, a Harley-Davidson Museum that our sister site Lonely Planet has dubbed “badass” plus stylish eating and shopping enclaves. Settled by Germans in the 1840s, “Brew City,” as it’s known, also is a mecca of sorts for beer lovers — and not just because it’s home to the original Miller Brewing Company complex, which is open daily for tours. You’ll also find lots of craft breweries that you can visit on your own or as part of a tour, and you can tour (and drink at) the original Pabst Brewery.

Holland, Michigan

As the name suggests, Holland is a little bit of The Netherlands transported to the Americas. Settled by Dutch immigrants in the 1800s, it’s home to the annual Tulip Time Festival, which takes place every May, and offers up such Holland-themed attractions as Windmill Island Gardens, where you’ll find a working Dutch windmill, canals and dikes. Holland’s downtown is a charmer with cobblestone sidewalks and more than 100 specialty shops, breweries and restaurants.

Sault Saint Marie, Michigan

Located at the northeastern edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Sault Saint Marie is the site of the Soo Locks, a marvel of engineering that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron. The locks themselves are the big attractions in Sault Saint Marie — head to the observation deck at Soo Locks Park to watch freighters passing by and learn more at the Soo Locks Visitor Center.

But there are other allures, including the Museum Ship Valley Camp. It’s a retired Great Lakes freighter (named Valley Camp) that you can climb into and explore. In addition to touring the living quarters for its 29-person crew, you’ll find a 20,000-square-foot maritime museum in its cargo hold with exhibits on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and more.

Mackinac Island

The Jewel of the Great Lakes has been a summer getaway for Midwesterners since the Victorian era and it retains much of its Victorian-era charm. The iconic attraction on the island is the 135-year-old Grand Hotel, with its seemingly endless, rocker-lined front porch (the longest in the world). Afternoon tea in the hotel’s parlor, or a game of croquet at its Tea Garden, are among Mackinac Island’s allures. Tours in a horse-drawn carriage are another popular pastime; cars are banned on the island, leaving horse-drawn carriages as one of the main ways of getting around, along with bicycles. When visiting, don’t miss Fort Mackinac, which dates to the 1700s.

Niagara Falls

Located on the short waterway between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls is one of the world’s most spectacular waterfall complexes (it’s actually three waterfalls, not one) with a flow rate greater than any other waterfall in North America and a vertical drop of more than 160 feet. Visitors can take it in both from viewing areas on land and from a tour boat.

(Photo by Stephen Matera / Destination Niagara USA Media Library)

Note that Great Lakes cruise vessels don’t travel directly on the 36-mile-long strait that connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, which is known as the Niagara River (lest they go plunging over the falls). Instead, they use the Welland Canal — another marvel of engineering and an attraction in its own right.

Detroit

Motor City should probably be called Museum City, as it’s home to a wonderful array of museums worth a visit, from The Detroit Museum of Art and the Motown Museum to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. Passengers on Great Lakes cruises will find that stops in Detroit often revolve around an included visit to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, a sprawling history museum complex that is home to the limousine that President Kennedy was in when he was assassinated, George Washington’s camp bed, Buckminster Fuller’s prototype Dymaxion house, the bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested and countless other rare artifacts.  

When to book a Great Lakes cruise

The best time to book a Great Lakes cruise is right when a cruise line first opens bookings on that sailing, often more than a year in advance. You’ll have your pick of itineraries and cabins and often the best fares.

Because the Great Lakes has such a short season with a limited number of ships, sailings in the region are often in high demand and people plan early. Newcomer Viking, notably, has told TPG it has seen brisker sales this year for its Great Lakes trips than sailings to Antarctica — one of the world’s ultimate bucket list destinations.

If you wait to book, you’re not entirely out of luck. Cruise lines often run sales in the fall or in the early months of the year (a period known in the cruise industry as “wave season”). You can take advantage of discounted fares and other perks. Some of the most desirable cabins might be sold out; being flexible about your sail date or itinerary can help.

The cruise vessel Pearl Mist
The 202-passenger Pearl Mist visiting Holland, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Pearl Seas Cruises)

In general, waiting until the last minute is not the best idea, unless you live in a gateway city such as Chicago, Milwaukee or Toronto and don’t need to book flights. While some less preferred sail dates or cabin categories may have availability a few months out, spurring cruise lines to drop rates, you might have trouble finding affordable airfare and pre- or post-cruise hotel accommodations that do not eat up your cruise savings.

What to bring on a Great Lakes cruise

When it comes to packing for a Great Lakes cruise, your mantra should always be: dress in layers. It can be chilly in the morning in the more northerly parts of the Great Lakes, particularly at the start of the Great Lakes cruising season, but then warm up fast.

If you’re planning to do some outdoorsy pursuits, such as kayaking or hiking, be sure to bring appropriate activewear. And don’t forget to pack a rain jacket, if not a complete rain gear outfit, including a wide-brimmed waterproof hat, rain pants and waterproof shoes or boots.

Also, and this is critical: Don’t forget your passport. Many of the places you’ll visit in the Great Lakes will be in the United States and do not require a passport. But every Great Lakes cruise includes at least a few — and sometimes many — stops in Canada, where a valid U.S. passport, passport card or NEXUS card is required to enter if you’re a U.S. citizen.

Bottom line

There’s a lot to see and do in the Great Lakes region, and it’s hard to argue that there’s a better way to see and do it than on a cruise. Cruise vessels departing from such cities as Chicago and Toronto can take you to all of the highlights of the region — from the breweries of Milwaukee to thundering Niagara Falls — in a single trip. That’s something that you’ll be hard-pressed to accomplish any other way.

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Featured photo of Pearl Mist in Milwaukee courtesy of Pearl Seas Cruises. 

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