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Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Photo: Diego Grandi/Shutterstock)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Photo: Diego Grandi/Shutterstock)

Great Lakes Cruise Tips: What You Need to Know Before Great Lakes Cruising

Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Photo: Diego Grandi/Shutterstock)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Photo: Diego Grandi/Shutterstock)
Carolina Pirola

Last updated
Feb 24, 2023

Read time
8 min read

Great Lakes cruises might all seem similar, but with an offer that ranges from Niagara Falls to historic, cultural and big-city ports, there’s plenty to choose from. Regardless of the route taken, chances are high that stops on these itineraries are places you've never thought of as being cruise ports -- and you'll be quite impressed with your findings.

However, don’t expect your standard all-inclusive, big-ship vacation with tons of restaurants, activities and kid-friendly amenities. Rather, you’ll be cruising the Great Lakes in a smaller vessel with just a couple hundred other travelers. This is partly due to the size of the locks that connect the lakes, as only the smaller ships can pass through them.

Read on to discover more about Great Lakes cruising and why you should be closely considering doing so very soon.

What’s the Best Time for Cruising the Great Lakes?

Niagara Falls (Photo: Mikhail Kolesnikov/Shutterstock)
Niagara Falls (Photo: Mikhail Kolesnikov/Shutterstock)

The Great Lakes cruise season is a relatively short one, running from late May through mid-September. Beyond these months, the lakes freeze over. Generally, the best time for cruising the Great Lakes is from July on, when the days are warmer and sunnier. Leaf-peepers may catch fall colors in late August or early September, especially in the most northern areas.

Be prepared for thunderstorms at any time, and high winds have been known to delay departures from Chicago (the Windy City).

Great Lakes Cruises: Five Cruise Lines on the Five Great Lakes

American Queen Voyages' Ocean Voyager (Photo/American Queen Voyages)
American Queen Voyages' Ocean Voyager (Photo/American Queen Voyages)

Five companies cruise the Great Lakes from late May through October: American Queen Voyages, Pearl Sea Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd, Viking Expeditions and Ponant Cruises.

American Queen Voyages offers nine- to 16-day itineraries leaving from Chicago, Toronto, Milwaukee, Portland or Montreal aboard either the Ocean Navigator or the Ocean Voyager. There are also round-trip AQV cruises on the Great Lakes from Milwaukee and Montreal.

Pearl Sea Cruises operates the 210-passenger Pearl Mist on seven- or 11-night cruises between Milwaukee and Toronto or Midland.

Hapag-Lloyd’s Hanseatic Inspiration offers 10- to 18-day cruises departing from Milwaukee and traveling to Halifax, Toronto or Detroit.

Viking Great Lake cruise itineraries include two eight-day trips from Milwaukee to either Toronto or Thunder Bay, and a 15-day route from Toronto to Duluth. The longer route is always aboard Viking Octantis, while Thunder Bay is always visited aboard the Polaris. Both ships, however, are the same in terms of size, layout and design.

Ponant Cruises operates Le Bellot and Le Dumont d’Urville, both on seven-day itineraries between Milwaukee and Toronto.

Great Lakes Cruise Itineraries: Points to Note and Choices Abound

Downtown City Skyline, Duluth, Minnesota, USA, (Photo: Christopher Boswell/Shutterstock)
Downtown City Skyline, Duluth, Minnesota, USA, (Photo: Christopher Boswell/Shutterstock)

The five Great Lakes cover a vast expanse. Starting in Minnesota, they stretch eastward, touching the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

On the Canadian side, four lakes (Lake Michigan is entirely within the U.S.) border the province of Ontario. Given these distances, most lake cruises include a day or three of relaxing cruising time.

Not All Great Lakes Cruises Enter Lake Superior

Lake Superior is not on the basic lake-to-lake route of most Great Lakes cruises. Crossing it would mean backtracking to resume cruising on the other four lakes. If adding all five lakes to your bucket list is your goal, be sure your Great Lakes cruise ship actually enters Lake Superior, if only briefly.

Note that the one Great Lake cruise line that calls on Duluth and Thunder Bay on a regular basis is Viking.

The Most Common Great Lakes Cruise Itineraries

Viking Octantis passing through the Soo Locks on a Great Lakes cruise (Photo/Harriet Baskas)
Viking Octantis passing through the Soo Locks on a Great Lakes cruise (Photo/Harriet Baskas)

Picking an itinerary for Great Lakes cruising is no easy feat. There are seven-day cruises; two-week ones; those that call more ports in the US than Canada and vice versa; those that enter Lake Superior and those that only offer a quick transfer through Soo Locks.

In the end, the most important decisions are which ports you want to visit and for how long you wish to cruise the Great Lakes on a ship.

Great Lakes Cruises Length and Ports of Call

Chicago (Photo:marchello74/Shutterstock)
Chicago (Photo:marchello74/Shutterstock)

There are plenty of options for those who just want to cruise the Great Lakes. Trips of nine to 11 nights are usually one-way routes. Lake Michigan cruises are those that begin in Chicago or Milwaukee. Boats travel to Lake Huron (possibly Lake Superior), Lake Erie and end either in Lake Ontario or include a day sailing up the St. Lawrence River to end in Montreal, Quebec.

Ports of call on Great Lakes cruises vary slightly with Mackinac Island, Little Current and Niagara Falls among the scheduled highlights. Georgian Bay, often called the sixth Great Lake, is a large, picturesque, island-filled bay off the eastern side of Lake Huron. Some cruises on the Great Lakes might sail straight through the bay or call on Parry Sound.

Great Lakes Cruises That Include the Erie Canal

Longer cruises on the Great Lakes trace a similar route from Chicago, adding stops at Cleveland, Ohio and Buffalo, NY, both on Lake Erie. A stop is made at the Lake Ontario port of Rochester, NY, before entering the Erie Canal, passing through New York Harbor and ending in Warren, RI. There are also round-trip routes from Milwaukee and Toronto.

Shorter Cruises on the Great Lakes

Seven-night round trip cruises from Chicago sail primarily on Lake Michigan, entering Lake Huron to visit Mackinac Island. Another seven-night option is a one-way cruise from Chicago to Midland, ON, or vice versa. This cruise includes Lakes Michigan and Huron, plus Georgian Bay.

Keep in mind that, heading east, you’ll be dropping in elevation through one or more sets of locks (depending on your final destination). Going west, you’ll be gaining in elevation. There’s a one-hour time change between Chicago and Toronto or Montreal.

Great Lakes Cruise Port Highlights and Things to Do

Lake Michigan (Photo: elesi/Shutterstock)
Lake Michigan (Photo: elesi/Shutterstock)

Chicago, Illinois: Whether you stroll along the Lake Michigan waterfront, wonder at the paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago or shop 'til you drop in the Magnificent Mile's upscale stores, Chicago offers plenty of reasons to stay a few days pre- or post-cruise.

Don't miss taking a sightseeing boat along the Chicago River for an eye-opening architectural tour.

Holland, Michigan: Settled by Dutch immigrants in the mid-1800s, Holland happily shows off its roots with thousands of tulips (The Tulip Time Festival is held annually in May). Windmill Island Gardens boasts an authentic working Dutch windmill, dikes and canals. Costumed guides demonstrate traditional crafts, including making wooden clogs, at Nelis' Dutch Village.

Mackinac Island, Michigan: Step back in time to the Victorian era. Cars are banned from the island, so you tour in horse-drawn carriages (or by bicycle). Must-sees are the beautifully preserved 1700s Fort Mackinac and the opulent Grand Hotel.

Built of lumber in 1887, the Grand Hotel boasts the world's longest hotel porch. The renowned luncheon buffet overlooking Lake Huron is grand indeed.

Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan: The oldest city in Michigan is the site of the Soo Locks, leading from Lake Huron into Lake Superior. Stop at the viewing stand to watch the freighter traffic. An average of 10,000 ships a year pass through these locks. Explore the nooks and crannies of the Museum Ship Valley Camp.

The massive Great Lakes freighter, which was built in 1917 and retired in 1966, houses displays relating to maritime history in the cargo holds, including two lifeboats from the sinking of the legendary Edmond Fitzgerald in 1975.

Manitoulin Island, Ontario: You dock at Little Current, a charming community known for delicious ice cream and set on the world's largest freshwater island. Attend a pow-wow and colorful dance show performed by the native Ojibwe tribe. Learn about their customs and art at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation.

Parry Sound, Ontario: The world's deepest natural freshwater port is found on the east shore of Georgian Bay. Ride in a floatplane high above the scenic bay's 30,000 islands. Visit the Museum on Tower Hill near the base of a fire lookout tower. Historical artifacts tell the story of the town's role in shipping and logging.

Ambassador Bridge Crossing from Windsor, Ontario Canada to Detroit, Michigan (Photo: Simply Photos/Shutterstock)
Ambassador Bridge Crossing from Windsor, Ontario Canada to Detroit, Michigan (Photo: Simply Photos/Shutterstock)

Windsor, Ontario/Detroit, Michigan: Ships might dock at Detroit's renovated pier or in a park-like setting at Windsor, Canada's southernmost city.

Either way, the main attraction is the Henry Ford Museum, which houses a huge collection of American cars, planes and trains. Learn how Ford Model Ts were made, see John F. Kennedy's ill-fated limo and grab a snack in an old-time diner.

Niagara Falls, Ontario: Marvel at the famous falls, which are actually three distinct waterfalls, from the Canadian side. Then board a tour boat for close-up viewing.

You're given a plastic poncho to help keep you dry as the boat (not your Great Lakes cruise ship) motors up to Horseshoe Falls, the largest and most impressive of Niagara's cascades. It's said that the equivalent of one million bathtubs of water tumbles over the falls each minute.

Toronto, Ontario: Once a fur trading post, Toronto is home to intriguing neighborhoods that include Chinatown and trendy, boutique-filled Bloor-Yorkville. Attractions worth seeing are the turreted castle Casa Loma with its secret passageways, the Bata Shoe Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario for its collections ranging from First Nations artifacts to pop art.

Great Lakes Cruise Tips: Know Before You Take Any Great Lakes Cruises

Suitcase with Summer Clothes (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)
Suitcase with Summer Clothes (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Prepare for lots of "sea" days. The long distances covered by cruises on the Great Lakes mean lots of time spent on board. Bring a book or deck of cards. If you bring your laptop or iPad, be prepared for long periods without connections. If and when Wi-Fi is available, it can be slow. Cell phone service generally works well, but be aware of your location -- U.S. vs. Canada -- and roaming fees.

Beware of engine noise. Long distances between ports also mean cruising the Great Lakes at night. Choose your cabin carefully if engine noise keeps you awake. On small ships, forward cabins tend to be quieter.

Pack smart. What should you pack for cruising the Great Lakes? Passports are required as you'll be entering Canada. Flip-flops or sandals come in handy for the Niagara Falls boat tour. Yes, you can get seasick on the lakes. Bring your patches or seasickness medicine in case of rough waters.

There’s no need to pack a heavy jacket since you won’t cruise the Great Lakes in the coldest months. However, it can get windy and rainy, so pack a windbreaker.

Consider a pre- or post-cruise stay. Most Great Lakes cruises travel one way. Think about spending time before or after your cruise in Chicago, Toronto or Montreal. You won't have time to visit these great cities if you don't book some hotel time. Check with your cruise line for package cruise deals.

Publish date February 24, 2023
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