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If you are looking for a fun experience as well as a shortcut across Lake Michigan between Michigan and Wisconsin, the S. S. Badger carferry is a must-do. Not only does it shorten your trip, but it’s a lot of fun for kids and adults as well.
They say that the shortest way between two points is a straight line. For those who live in (or are traveling through) Michigan and Wisconsin, this is certainly true, as the much longer drive around the bottom half of Lake Michigan, through Chicago, definitely isn’t a fast one. Lake Michigan may not be the largest of the great lakes, but it is certainly big enough when you need to get to the other side!
There are two passenger ferries that create a straight line across the lake. The SS Badger has provided a leisurely way to cross from Michigan to Wisconsin (and back) in style for over 60 years.
What is the SS Badger?
The SS Badger is a carferry service which makes runs across Lake Michigan from Ludington on Michigan’s west coast to Manitowoc on Wisconsin’s east coast and back. Ludington is about 95 miles from Grand Rapids, MI and Manitowoc is about 80 miles from Milwaukee, WI.
The ferry had its maiden voyage in 1953 and is the last coal-fired passenger steamship running in the United States. The SS Badger is also designated as a National Historic Landmark. There is a sister ship to the Badger, the SS Spartan, which is not currently in service.
The ship is 410 feet long and can carry up to 600 passengers and 180 vehicles at a time. This includes cars, but also motorcycles, RVs and trucks – even semi trucks.
The SS Badger is under new ownership for 2021. The new owner is the Middleburg Heights, Ohio-based Interlake Holding Company (Mark Barker, President) who purchased it from Lake Michigan Carferry.
How often does the SS Badger run?
The S. S. Badger car ferry makes one crossing each way per day. The sailing season is from May through October each year. In 2021, the Badger leaves Ludington, Mich. at 9:00 am ET and arrives in Manitowoc, Wisc. at noon CT. The ship then leaves WI at 2:00 pm CT and arrives back at the MI port at 7:00 pm ET.
How long does it take to cross Lake Michigan?
Each crossing takes approximately four hours. The ship has an average speed of 18 miles per hour.
Note that you will likely lose cell service during the trip since there are no cell towers in the middle of Lake Michigan. Although the SS Badger website does state that it has wi-fi coverage, I was not able to access wi-fi on my recent trips in May 2021.
Can I take my vehicle on the SS Badger?
Yes, the SS Badger is a car ferry, so you are welcome to bring a vehicle aboard. It is not required however. And there is free parking at both the Ludington and Manitowoc ports for ticketed passengers.
A few things to note if taking your vehicle aboard. First, passenger fare to ride the Badger is separate from vehicle fare so make sure to account for both fares in your budgeting if you are bringing a vehicle. Also, you will not have access to your vehicle during the trip so make sure to bring everything you will need when you leave your vehicle to board.
If it’s your first time bringing a car on board, don’t worry! The SS Badger crew takes care of driving your vehicle onto and off of the ship so you do not need to worry about how to maneuver it on board. The crew is very quick and efficient and it’s fun to watch vehicles being loaded and unloaded, especially the larger semi trucks and motorhomes. It’s amazing to realize how well everything fits on the ship!
How much does it cost to ride the SS Badger?
Shoulder season fares (May 20-June 10 and September 7-October 10 in 2021) are slightly lower than regular season fares (June 11-September 6).
For one adult, the 2021 one-way regular season fare is $69 and round-trip is $125. They do offer discounts for seniors, college students (with ID), active military and children/teens. Kids who are four years old and under ride for free.
Vehicle-wise, the 2021 cost for an automobile is $75 one-way and $135 round-trip. There is an additional cost if you have a vehicle extension such as a bike rack or a trailer. RVs and motorhomes are charged according to their length (in feet). There is a lower cost for motorcycles and bicycles but you do still need to pay a fare for them.
The SS Badger does offer group discounts, as well as a specific round trip ‘Mini Cruise’ discount if you are traveling without a vehicle and returning within 48 hours. This is a great option for those who want a weekend away in either Ludington or Manitowoc (or have other means of transportation upon arrival).
SheBuysTravel Tip: If you are unsure if you will want a one-way or a round-trip ticket, be aware that you can get the round-trip discount at any point during the 2021 season. All you need to do is call the ticket office to schedule your return trip. This worked well on my recent trip and was very easy to set up once I decided for sure to return to MI using the ferry.
What is there to do aboard the SS Badger?
The SS Badger has plenty to keep everyone occupied, fed and amused while on board. There are outdoor and indoor seating areas and you are allowed to move around as much as you want.
The outdoor decks have benches and loungers available, although keep in mind that especially during shoulder season the weather may not be amenable to spending much time outside. There are a variety of indoor options as well, including private staterooms (for an additional cost). Staterooms contain twin beds, a sink and toilet.
The small museum offers a look into the history of the SS Badger and other car ferries across Lake Michigan. There is lounge seating available in the museum as well for those wishing a quiet place to rest and relax during the voyage.
The movie lounge has theater-style seating and offers either one or two movies per crossing. While these aren’t first run movies, they are usually recent showings. On my trips across in May 2021, the movies offered were Wonder Woman: 1984, Soul and Emma.
There are also several lounges with satellite tv available.
Whether you’re looking for snacks or that perfect souvenir of your trip across Lake Michigan, the ‘Boatique’ has a ton of options at reasonable prices. I purchased a fridge magnet to add to my collection, as well as a candy bar, sticker and a t-shirt. They always have an item of the week available to purchase at a 20% discount. On my trips, this was the book, A Final Crossing – Murder on the SS Badger.
If you miss out on buying that special something, they do offer an online store as well.
Along with the movie theater, there are other options to help keep kids occupied during the crossing. A scavenger hunt offers kids the opportunity to find their away around the ship. There are also normally board games available for use. An onboard arcade and gaming room provide plenty to do as well.
Although the ship typically has a play area for smaller kids, this is currently closed due to COVID restrictions.
The ship’s motto is, “Big Ship, More Fun” and this is certainly something they do their best to live up to. For much of the crossing, you can enjoy live entertainment in the main indoor lounge. This includes a variety of jokes, trivia and the famous, “Badger Bingo”.
Badger Bingo is free for all to play (only one card per player) and there are multiple prizes available to win on each trip. These are usually items from the Badger gift ship, such as decks of playing cards, hats, pens and cups. They also often give away free food coupons for the Badger Galley or local restaurants in Ludington or Manitowoc.
I have to admit to a competitive streak, but I was unfortunately not a lucky winner on either of my recent crossings. It was a lot of fun to play though, and did help entertain me along the way.
What is there to eat aboard the SS Badger?
You are not allowed to bring coolers or outside food aboard the Badger, although I asked and was told it’s fine to bring a single water bottle for your own use. The Badger Galley has items such as soft drinks, hot dogs, pizza, chips and more available for purchase. For those aged twenty-one and above, there is also a full service bar on board.
There is also a cafe on the upper deck, but this cafe is currently closed due to COVID pandemic restrictions.
What happens if the weather is bad?
The SS Badger does sail in just about every type of weather from May to October. Cancellations or delays may occur, but they happen rarely.
On both of my recent crossings, the weather was a factor. On my way from MI to WI, it rained and was cold and foggy. The trip was otherwise smooth. On my return trip however, although a sunny day, the wind was high and the lake was choppy. This created a lot of motion on board the Badger, which rocked from side to side throughout much of the trip. I tried to visit the upper outside deck, but between the wind and ship motion, I couldn’t stay up top.
I suffer from motion sickness. Help!
I am usually fine on board a boat or ship, but I definitely struggled on that return trip. The Badger does provide motion sickness meds that you can buy at both ticket offices and in the gift shop on board. They also offer sea bands at the Cruise Director’s office that you can use by providing a deposit.
The bar on board does give out free cups of ginger ale during rough crossings, but don’t wait too long as this is only while supplies last. I thought to wait it out and was not thrilled to learn that they were out of ginger ale when I did finally ask for some. Thankfully, my stomach wasn’t too upset and I managed fine as long as I was sitting down and NOT looking outside at the rough waters.
If you do happen to get sick on board, the crew is very efficient at clean up. I saw one poor kid who just wasn’t able to keep everything down, and they had both him and the floor cleaned up very quickly.
Find out more information about the SS Badger at ssbadger.com.