A couple of weeks ago, Trip Advisor, the world’s largest travel website, named Mackinac Island the number one summer destination in America. Trip Advisor also broke down average costs in their article and came up with the number $2,905 per person for a week on Mackinac Island. Yikes! I can take my family to Europe for that! We are visiting Mackinac again this summer, but we will not be spending almost $12,000! Read on for my tips to save money on Mackinac Island.
In the article Trip Advisor cited features like the island’s, “old-timey seaside,” vibe, all the fudge you could ever eat and the gorgeous natural attractions as reasons to love Mackinac Island. I agree! It is a special place. Adults and children both enjoy this automobile-free island with lovely Victorian architecture and horse-drawn carriages. It’s perfect for a leisurely vacation on the water, shopping, dining and relaxing with a view of the Straits of Mackinac. You can also hop on a bike, take a hike or kayak, if you prefer a more active, outdoorsy trip.
Luxury hotels, top-notch restaurants and every amenity you need is available for rent or purchase on the island. But what it you’re a traveler on a budget? Well, don’t worry. There are ways to save money on Mackinac Island and still have a great trip.
Buy ferry tickets online.
There are only three ways to get to the island. Well, four, but it’s a pretty long swim and the water is cold. If you have your own boat, you can use that. You can also take a charter flight to the island from St. Ignace or Pellston. But since we’re talking about money-saving options, I’m assuming you’ll want the least expensive, and that’s the ferry service from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace.
There are two companies that operate ferries, Star Line and Sheplers. They both have docks in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. If you’re not familiar, Mackinaw City is at the south end of the Mackinac Bridge and St. Ignace is on the north end. The bridge is the only way to get back and forth between Michigan’s two peninsulas, unless you want to take a very long drive around Lake Michigan via Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay. I think that would be a fun road trip, but most folks don’t have time for that.
Both Mackinac Island ferry companies have base round trip ticket prices that are identical, $26 for adults and $14 for kids, 5 – 12. If you have lots of children under five, the good news is they all ride the ferry for free.
To save money on Mackinac Island, online deals are where it’s at. Both ferry companies have discounted tickets and packages for purchase online. You can get two adult tickets and one child ticket or three adult tickets. The Star Line packages are $2 less than Sheplers. Purchasing a package from either company will save you between $9 and $14 dollars. You must buy the packages online. If you don’t need a package, both companies offer a $2 discount on single tickets purchased online ahead of time. It will also save you time waiting in line at the dock to buy tickets. Remember, everyone is going there this summer, thanks to Trip Advisor.
If your trip is a year out, there’s one more way you can save big on ferry tickets. Star Line offers half price tickets online on Black Friday and again on Valentine’s Day. The tickets are good for use anytime the following April through the end of October. Sign up for their newsletter to be notified about sales.
Both ferry services offer free day parking. Only Star Line offers free overnight parking. Check out their websites and decide where want to park before you visit. Some of the parking lots are off-site, and you’ll need to take a free shuttle to the dock.
Stay on the mainland.
There are many places to stay on Mackinac Island, from the exclusive Grand Hotel to B&Bs to rental cottages. But, they’re all pretty expensive, especially during the main tourist season. You can’t camp on the island, and there’s no Motel 6.
Another way to save money on Mackinac Island is to not stay on the island. Mackinac City and St. Ignace have hotels,motels and rentals to fit any budget. The state parks and other campgrounds near those towns are even more affordable. Some campgrounds even have cabins if you don’t have an RV or a tent. If you plan to stay on the mainland, but visit the island more than one day, the ferries offer multi-day tickets with discounts. No matter where you stay, you’ll need to book your accommodations fairly far in advance, especially if you’re going near a holiday. Because — say it with me –everybody is going there this summer!
Visit The Grand Hotel for lunch instead.
The world-famous Grand Hotel is indeed grand. The Victorian hotel, built in 1887, brags that it is home to the world’s longest porch, which overlooks a spectacular view of the Straits of Mackinac. Inside you’ll find luxury decor and accommodations, as well as impeccable service. A stay there will also set you back about $360 per person on a weekend night, just for a standard room. If you have the bank, by all means, I recommend making The Grand Hotel, which has hosted U.S. presidents and other celebrities, your home base.
If a stay at the Grand Hotel isn’t in your budget, you can still experience a little taste of the good life by dining at one of the Hotel’s restaurants. I recommend the Grand Luncheon Buffet served in the Main Dining Room from noon to 2 p.m. each day. For $47 per person, you’ll be treated to a selection of hot and cold entrees, seafood, salad, fresh fruit, cheeses, meats and fresh-baked desserts. It’s still pricey, but if there was ever a reason to splurge, the The Grand Hotel is a great one! You can also have breakfast at The Grand Hotel for $30 and dinner for $80. If you go to dinner, there’s a dress code after 6:30 p.m. requiring women to wear a dress, skirt or dress slacks and men must wear dress pants with a coat and tie.
If eating at the Grand Hotel is still a bit too steep for your wallet, you can tour the hotel and grounds for just $10 per person. During the day there is still a dress code, but it’s more relaxed. No midriff baring tops for women and no sleeveless shirts for men. No sweatpants or cut-off shorts for anyone. Children 12 and up are expected to dress similar to adults. It might seem a little stuffy, but once you see the opulent atmosphere of the hotel it will all make sense.
If you don’t want to splurge at the Grand Hotel, eating pizza is another way to save money on Mackinac Island, especially if you have a whole family to feed. The Murray Hotel offers a pizza buffet at Mama LaRose’s Pizza Parlor for $10.99 for adults. It includes a salad bar. Island Slice Pizzeria is an affordable sit-down dining option as well.
Shop for a picnic lunch at Doud’s Market.
Doud’s Market is America’s oldest family operated grocery store. Stepping inside is a bit like walking into an old-fashioned general store, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about their selection. You can get all the groceries you need while you’re on the island, if you’re staying in a room with a kitchenette. You can also pick up the makings for a picnic lunch for an affordable meal option. The deli offers fresh-made sandwiches, salads and beverages.
Bring your own bike.
Automobiles are banned on Mackinac Island. In summer, bicycles are the best way to get around town and tour the rest of the island. You can take your own bike to the island on the ferry for just $11 round trip. If you don’t have a bike, you can rent a bike at one of the many bike rental shops. Prices start at around $50 a day, and vary between rental locations. I would shop around online and decide where and what to rent before you go. Half-day, hourly and longer-term rentals are also available. They have adult and children’s bikes, trailers and tag-alongs. You can even get a tandem bike, if you want to take a romantic ride for two around the island.
Take a Walk.
If you don’t have a bike, and you don’t want to rent one, walking the island is always free, of course! Ferries drop you off at the dock right downtown. It’s not a very big island, making everything within reasonable walking distance. If you want to see some of the natural attractions in the state park, you’ll have to walk between one and three miles, depending on how much you want to see. It’s a flat, eight-mile walk all the way around the island, which is still doable for a lot of folks. Take your picnic lunch from Doud’s and make a day of it! You can’t find a walk with a better view.
Buy your horse-drawn carriage tour in a package.
The popular horse-drawn carriage tour is a one hour and 45 minute tour around the island. It costs $29 for adults and $11 for children. The only way I found to get a discount is to purchase a package online from one of the ferry services that includes the carriage tour. Based on current online rates, Star Line has the best price on that package.
Get Mackinac State Historic Parks tickets online.
A visit to Fort Mackinac on the island teaches you about life on the island during colonial times. Re-enactors in period costume tell you the history of the fort. If you’re there at the right time, you can even watch them fire the canon and muskets. It’s really interesting for adults and kids. The Art Museum on the island and Fort Michilimackinac, Mill Creek Discovery Park and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse on the mainland are also a part of the Mackinac State Historic Parks.
If you plan to visit all the attractions, the $85 Family Heritage Pass is the best deal. It gets two adults and all dependent children or grandchildren into all the parks all season for one low price. Even visiting just once, a family of four saves money if they go to all the included sites. Online discounts are also available for individual attractions. There are other combo packages if you plan on only going to some of the sites. And once again, buying tickets ahead of time will probably save you some time waiting in line when you get there.
Stay on the right side of the bridge.
If you stay off the island, you may want to pick which side of the bridge you stay on based on where you plan to do most of your exploring on the mainland. Every time you cross the Mackinac Bridge in a car you pay $4. It’s not a lot, but a few trips each day could add up if you’re visiting for a week or so.
Get a room with a kitchenette.
I make this recommendation for budget travel whether you’re going to Mackinac Island or Disney World. If you can get a hotel room with a kitchenette or a rental with a kitchen, you can save big bucks on eating out. Quite a few hotels, suites and cottages on both the mainland and island offer these options. Some just have microwaves and mini fridges and others have more complete furnishings. Look around online to find what’s best for you.
Bring your own Groceries.
If you’re staying on the island and plan on cooking several of your own meals, bring your own groceries from home. While you can probably buy everything you need on the island, groceries are pricey there. The ferries will transport a tote or cooler of food along with your luggage for no extra charge. Many of the accommodations on the island offer free porter service that will transport your belongings to your room.
Go in the off-season.
If you have your heart set on staying on the island, you’ll get the best prices on rooms during the off-season. You’ll find the best deals in the spring and fall. Watch hotel websites and sign up for their newsletters to be the first to learn about specials they’re offering. As an example, The Grand Hotel ran a special this spring offering rooms for $139 a night per person. That’s a big discount! Of course, deals like that fill up fast, so you have to really keep an eye out for them.
If you fly, take a drive.
If you live too far to drive, you may be planning on flying to Mackinac. You can’t get jet service to Mackinac Island. Pellston International Airport is 21 miles from the island and is serviced with regional jet service, but you’ll pay a premium for flying into such a small airport. The Cherry Capitol Airport in Traverse City is larger. It’s about 90 miles away, and the airfare is less. For even more savings, you can fly into the Grand Rapids airport. That will give you about a four-hour drive to the island. Detroit is the least expensive airport to fly into, and that’s also about a four-hour drive. You’ll need to rent a car, but what you save on airfare more than pays for the car rental. Traverse City, Grand Rapids and Detroit are all great places to visit too, so you might even want to spend a day or two exploring those cities, if you decide to fly into one of them. The drive from the airports is also scenic with lots of interesting towns and roadside attractions along the way.
Just buy the fudge. It’s worth it.
Sorry. There aren’t any online discounts for fudge. But the shops do offer quantity discounts, and it’s pretty affordable anyway. Besides, if you use all these other tips, you’ll have plenty of cash leftover for a few bites of fudge. And trust me, it’s worth every penny.
And now I’m craving fudge!
Have you been to Mackinac Island? What’s your favorite part? Do you have any other tips? Are you going soon? What are you most excited about? Let us know in the comments.
*Prices were accurate at the time of this writing, but may have changed.
Check out my Mackinac Island Bucket List for what to see and do on the island!