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Why Are Great Lakes Cruises So Expensive? [13 Reasons 2023]


An excursion on the Great Lakes offers guests the opportunity to explore natural and manmade wonders, as well as local history.

Considering all of the ports and opportunities that the Great Lakes offer, the trip can become quite expensive.

A large cruise ship, alongside some smaller boats, docked in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The city sits around Lake Michigan, which is part of the Great Lakes. Photo: Ken Mattison / Flickr / CC BY NC ND 2.0

Great Lakes Cruises tend to cost a lot because they are all-inclusive. Packages offer on and off-board entertainment, personalized attention from staff, and excellent dining options. Additionally, all of the rooms offer seasonal scenic views, and docking can be done in native and Canadian ports. Travel accommodations, gratuities, and extras add up to operational factors and are reflected in the total cost.

1. All-Inclusive Packages

The Great Lakes are not as vast as the ocean. Cruise companies use “river” cruise ships, or longships, instead of large ones designed for the ocean. 

Ships used for Great Lakes cruises have less room on board for multiple restaurants, entertainment options, and so on. However, a Great Lakes cruise may offer food and entertainment options both on and offboard along frequent dockings. 

This takes care of their guests’ needs and offers a variety of services and experiences throughout the trip.

The cruise may also include guided tours off the ship with visits to museums, local history, and more in their packages.

2. Itinerary Length And Season

While cruises do not typically take place in the winter season in the Great Lakes, spring blooms and fall foliage offer breathtaking scenery. These views are higher in demand and therefore cost more.

The week of the 4th of July is a popular holiday which can offer a view of fireworks on a more expensive trip.

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Additionally, the longer a trip is, the more it will cost. This refers to both the distance traveled and the number of days you are on the trip.

3. Entertainment

Since Great Lakes cruises have more docking opportunities than what you would find in the ocean, there are opportunities for different kinds of entertainment. 

These could involve local events, hiking adventures, shopping excursions, and natural wonders. 

Entertainment options may come on board the ship at different docks and offer shows on-site, could be offered directly by the crew, or seen when you get off the ship at a dock. 

Regardless, the fees associated with these are likely included in your overall cost. And, as a bonus, you can see the performance up close in a smaller guest crowd.

4. Guest Population

River cruise boats hold considerably fewer guests than ocean cruise ships, at about 190 passengers versus 6,000 respectively. 

Travelers may like this smaller size to avoid huge lines and wait times or lack of access due to overcrowding at entertainment events. 

As a result, the demand for a spot on a cruise boat for the Great Lakes may be higher. When demand is high, and the supply of spots on the ship is low, the costs will be higher.

5. Guest-To-Crew Ratio

With a lower guest population, people will get quicker and more immediate attention from onboard staff for their needs. Staff may quickly learn your names, and interact with you more so than on a large ship. 

This personalized feeling can offer a more pleasant trip, and as a result, higher costs.

Additionally, anyone working on a cruise ship, including the captain, needs to be paid for their job. The cost of employees’ labor is reflected in your bill.

6. Staterooms With A View

Ocean crew ships have exterior rooms that face the water, for a higher cost, and then lower-cost interior rooms without a view. On river cruise boats, all of the staterooms view the water. Having a pleasant view costs more for the experience.  

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Great Lakes cruises will show you natural and manmade wonders, such as bridges, waterfalls, wildlife, and more. Whereas on an ocean ship, you are going to see water, sun, rain, and clouds while traveling to a port.

Other room-associated costs that could affect the overall price may include the following:

  • Room size (standard room vs. suite)
  • Pricing differences between deck levels
  • Location of room and how close it is to foot traffic

7. Quality Of Food Services

Ocean cruise ships offer a lot of options for food and entertainment on their ships that people can choose and pick a la carte for additional costs. 

When chefs make food for thousands of people on an ocean ship, they take measures to produce food quickly, safely, and cheaply. This can lead to inconsistencies or poorer quality. 

However, when chefs are only feeding less than 200 guests on a river cruise ship, more attention can be given to detail and overall quality.

Bar services may also be included in packages. However, refer to your package information for your particular cruise, since there may be cash bars or a limit on how many drinks are included.

8. WiFi

Guests may wish to take pictures and live videos to share with social media while they enjoy a cruise. 

Internet connectivity may be available on your ship so you can check your emails, text, and more without using up your data plan. 

A ship may charge a WiFi usage fee per minute, per day, or as a flat rate on the cruise package price.

9. Operational Costs: Skilled Crew, Sanitation, And Safety

Part of the job of crew members is to ensure you have a trip that is hygienic and safe. Crew members clean high-touch areas, such as handles, tables, bathrooms, and railings to reduce the spread of germs.

Crew members and the captain are trained in safety procedures and how to operate the boat. It is essential to have skilled professionals looking after you on your trip. 

Skilled professionals cost money to hire.

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Any energy used to power and maintain the “health” of the ship are other operational costs that contribute to the charges guests incur.

10. International Waters

The Great Lakes, Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior, (H.O.M.E.S.), split the border between Canada and the United States, except for Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is the only lake that is completely in the United States.

Since the Great Lakes share international waters with Canada, the cruise line must meet regulations when docking on foreign land. 

This could involve custom inspections and permits or licenses for the protection of both countries. This type of paperwork or regulations can cost money.

If the cruise stops at any Canadian ports, you’ll need your passport or other documents on hand to verify your citizenship.

11. Docking

Cruise ships can dock easily near stops along the route. However, ocean ships can dock in areas that can handle the sheer size of their boats with transportation to the day’s agenda. 

These docking fees may vary depending on where they are and could be added to the final bill. The convenience of a river cruise boat makes travel easy, and convenience can cost money. 

There will not be any port fees or additional taxes for your stops (if any), since they are likely included in your travel package purchase.

12. Prepaid Gratuities

Cruise ships may have a “no tipping” policy. For their personnel to have fair and consistent tips, you will be charged a gratuity automatically on your trip’s bill. 

These policies can vary depending upon the cruise line you are traveling on. You may be charged a standard fee per day or a percentage of your overall bill. 

These funds go to cabin and room service stewards, bartenders, restaurant staff, and baggage handlers.

13. Additional Transportation

If you need to fly to the Great Lakes cruise destination, packages may (or may not) include the cost of airfare or travel to the excursion.  

Cruise packages may also include ground transportation for getting to the port from the airport and back, or for your port visits.

Check the fine print for details on the trip package you purchase.


All-inclusive Great Lakes cruises are expensive. Their cruise packages typically include costs to reflect gratuities, dining and drinks, entertainment, personalized attention, and transportation to and from the ship. 

Additionally, costs associated with traveling in international waters between the U.S. and Canada, the length and season of a trip, and operational costs are included in the final bill.