The REAL Reasons Great Lakes Cruises Are So Expensive! (How To Get It Cheaper)

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The Great Lakes offer some of the most breathtaking scenery in all of North America. A cruise on those lakes gives you the opportunity to explore this scenery in luxury and visit some amazing destinations too – like Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago.

But you might still be surprised by the cost of a Great Lakes cruise when compared to an ocean cruise. Great Lakes cruises are so darn dear – Why?

Ocean Navigator ship sailing on the lake

Let’s find out why cruises on the Great Lakes cost so much. And how you can get one for much less than the price you’ll see at first glance.

How much are Great Lakes cruises?

Most Great Lakes cruises will cost at least $5,000 per person for between 7 and 10 nights. That’s at least $500 per person, per night. Just as with ocean cruises, there are different stateroom classes that may cost much more, including suites.

There don’t tend to be as many different stateroom classes as you might find on an ocean cruise – interior staterooms aren’t really a thing on these ships since they’re much smaller and the main point of the cruise is to enjoy the view.

But you would pay more for a higher deck with a better view. Meanwhile, a suite, which will be a larger room, will cost at least $10,000 per person.

suite room on a Great Lakes cruise ship
Suite Room

Great Lakes Cruise Prices 2024

Here are some examples of the cheapest Great Lakes cruise prices according to cruise line websites:

  • Viking Cruises – 7 nights from $5,860 per person
  • Ponant – 7 nights from $5,480 per person
  • Pearl Seas – 7 nights from $5,350 per person

The prices of a Great Lakes cruise are more in-line with the prices of luxury river cruises, because, in essence, they offer a very similar experience.

But instead of cruising on the Mississippi from New Orleans or the waterways of Europe, you’ll cruise on Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario and Lake Superior.

Lake Superior
Lake Superior

6 Reasons Why Great Lakes Cruises Are So Expensive

Here’s a look at why Great Lakes cruises appear to be so expensive when compared to ocean cruises.

1. Great Lakes ships are pretty small

In order to be able to sail the Great Lakes, the ships are limited in size. In order to travel through the St Lawrence Seaway, ships can’t be any longer than 740 feet (225.5 metres) and any wider than 78 feet (23.7 metres). 

St Lawrence Seaway
Twin railway lift bridges over St. Lawrence Seaway in Montreal
reivax from Washington, DC, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

That limits the number of guests that a ship can hold – normally a maximum of 400, and frequently less.

Fewer passengers on a ship increases the prices due to the economy of scale. The per-person cost of a cruise is going to be cheaper on a mega-ship with 4,000 guests than one with just 200. That’s because the fixed costs, such as the cost of fuel, port fees and crew members’ wages are spread out over a larger number of people.

Lower capacity also means there’s more demand – cruises will frequently sell out. Because of this, cruise lines can increase costs slightly and still sell their staterooms.

And there’s also the crew-to-passenger ratio – with fewer passengers, the ratios tend to be better than they are on ocean cruise lines. A higher ratio of crew to passenger means better service, and so cruise lines can justify charging more for a premium experience.

2. The Great Lakes cruise season is short

Ocean cruises are available year-round, but Great Lakes cruises have a more limited window.

The St. Lawrence Seaway, which is a system of canals, channels, and locks which connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, is only open between late March and early December each year.

Some cruise lines will operate from March to December, but generally, the main season runs from May to September and that’s it.

Fewer dates to choose from creates a higher demand – so these summer cruises often sell out quickly.

And that again means that cruise lines are able to charge more. They want to turn a profit and so they’ll charge as much as people are willing to pay. With fewer staterooms to fill, they are able to increase their fares without losing business.

Niagra Falls
Niagra Falls

3. There’s not much competition

There are a huge number of ocean cruise lines, with hundreds of ships between them. Fighting to attract customers leads to strong marketing offers and undercutting each other on price. This isn’t the case with Great Lakes cruises, where you’re limited to a handful of operators.

Basic business understanding will tell you that competition drives down prices – cruise lines look to charge as little as they can afford to, without sacrificing profit so that they secure the bookings ahead of their rivals.

With fewer rival cruise lines operating on the Great Lakes, this isn’t something the cruise lines need to worry about, so they don’t need to be super-competitive with their pricing models.

Ocean Voyager cruise ship sailing on the lake

4. Great Lakes ships are all high-quality

The quality of ocean cruise ships varies massively. There are some that are aimed at a mass market, while others are suited more to luxury cruising.

The Great Lakes ships tend to be more in line with the luxury six-star ships. They’re well-appointed, and designed for a premium cruise experience. Service is of a higher standard, as is the food.

A Great Lakes sailing is equivalent to a luxury ocean cruise line in a number of ways, which is why their prices are so similar.

luxury cruise ship sailing
Luxury ocean ship

5. There are no interior staterooms

Ocean cruises can sometimes be deceptive with their pricing – they’ll advertise the prices for an inside stateroom, but if you want to upgrade to an oceanview or a balcony room then you may have to pay a lot more.

With Great Lakes cruises, the minimum option available is an oceanview room – there are no cheap inside staterooms to bring the entry-level prices lower.

So when comparing, make sure you compare an oceanview stateroom on an ocean cruise with the lowest price on a Great Lakes cruise.

You’ll also want to make sure the views are comparable – many ocean cruise lines will class a room with a tiny porthole as an oceanview, as opposed to the large windows that the most basic Great Lakes ship staterooms offer.

room in a cruise ship with a big window

6. Great Lake cruises come with extras included

With a Great Lakes cruise, your fare is often more inclusive than a typical ocean cruise rate. You normally won’t have to pay separate gratuities, and your WiFi is often included too – not that you’ll need it if you have an inclusive data plan, since you’ll be sailing within the US and Canada.

Drinks are sometimes included too – not always the most premium options, but many will include soft drinks, wines and beers when served with food. Make sure you check your fare to see what you get, so you can budget accordingly.

On an ocean cruise, you may be left with just tea, coffee and tap water unless you pay extra for a drinks package.

food and wine on the table

7. Great Lakes cruises have an older demographic

A cruise on the Great Lakes is often a once-in-a-lifetime trip and something that retirees like to do as part of completing their bucket list.

The people that you’ll find onboard Great Lakes cruise ships are typically wealthy, so they aren’t afraid to spend what it costs. In contrast, those taking ocean cruises usually include younger people and families who may not have as much disposable income.

couple watching the sunset while on a lake cruise

8. The crew are paid more

On international cruises, cruise lines usually hire crew members from countries like India and the Philippines. The wages are low by US standards, but are generally higher than people would get from working in their home countries.

Because Great Lakes cruises never leave the United States, the cruise lines must abide by US law, including minimum wage laws. Most of the crew members are Americans who are paid a salary that matches American expectations.

This means that the payroll will be much more costly, something that is, of course, passed on to the guests with the higher ticket prices.

Tips To Make A Great Lakes Cruise More Affordable

There are a few ways that you can make your Great Lakes cruise a little bit less expensive if you’re concerned about the cost.

Be flexible with your dates

If you are flexible on when you want to travel, you can definitely save money with a Great Lakes cruise.

The weather won’t be quite as pleasant, as a trade-off – expect it to be a lot cooler during those months. But that might not bother you, and you’ll still get the amazing views and exciting destinations to explore, even if you need to pack an extra jacket to stay comfortable.

Book a room on a lower deck

Not every stateroom on a Great Lakes cruise is considered equal. If you want the cheapest rooms, you’ll want to pick an oceanview on the lowest deck. These tend to cost less because your view isn’t quite as impressive or far-reaching.

Aim for the centre of the ship too. Because you’re surrounded by other staterooms things may be a little noisier, but not really to the detriment of your cruise – the clientele that sail on Great Lakes cruises are hardly party animals.

But ships towards the front and rear of the ships do cost a little more, so a mid-ship location on a lower deck will be your most affordable option.

room in a cruise ship

Use a good travel agent

A lot of people make the wrong assumption that the best rates for Great Lakes cruises (or indeed any cruise) are if you book directly with the cruise line. After all, you’re cutting out the middle man, right?

The reason that’s not true is that the process of booking passengers onto a ship is quite costly for a cruise line – there’s a lot of admin involved. They prefer to outsource the work to travel agents, and so will often give them preferable rates.

Plus, they may sell a bundle of rooms to a travel agent at a reduced fare, since it means they book up their ships quickly. 

The pressure is then on the travel agent to sell those rooms or they lose out. So they may offer extra-special deals at cost price to them if it means they’ll either avoid losing their own money or they hit a bonus target with the cruise line.

That’s why you should always choose a travel agent for the best rates. And don’t forget, they’re the experts so they can also help you get the best price.

a smiling travel agent

Look out for deals

Last-minute cruises may offer a good deal, if a ship hasn’t fully sold out. If you’re able to travel at short notice, keep an eye on any late deals that may come up.

Suggested read: How Late Can You Book A Last Minute Cruise?

Sign up to the emails of local travel agents and keep an eye out for any offers that pop up.

Is a Great Lakes cruise worth it?

Sometimes, people rule out Great Lakes cruises, not just because of the high price tag, but also because they’re situated very close to home for those that live in the US. Many people prefer to travel to more exotic and foreign locations.

However, there are several reasons why cruises on the Great Lakes are becoming increasingly popular…

The Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth by total area, comprising of five lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. These lakes offer a diverse range of landscapes and experiences, from the rugged coastline of Lake Superior to the more than 30,000 islands that make up Georgian Bay.

The scenery is simply breathtaking, with stunning mountain ranges blended with lush forests and immaculate lakes, which sharply contrast the other more industrial ports scattered along the coastlines.

Great Lakes cruises offer passengers the opportunity to visit some of North America’s most iconic cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, and Toronto. They also offer a chance to explore a side of North America that most people simply don’t get to see. Since the region is so vast, there are numerous itineraries to choose from.

So while, yes, a Great Lakes cruise does seem expensive, many would argue that it’s worth it.

For a closer look at what you can expect on a Great Lakes cruise, I recommend that you take a look at this video:

The Bottom Line

Great Lakes cruises can’t really be compared to ocean cruising because the experience is quite different. They’re similar in some ways to six-star ocean cruise lines, but the most direct comparison would be with a luxury river cruise operator.

They are expensive, but they are worth it to many passengers – the onboard experience, the scenery and the destinations are highly sought-after.

But you can at least save a little if you follow these tips, helping to take the edge off those high fares if your budget doesn’t quite stretch.

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Cruise Mummy

Jenni Fielding is the founder of Cruise Mummy. She has worked in the cruise industry since 2015 and has taken over 30 cruises. Now, she helps over 1 million people per month to plan their perfect cruise holidays.

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1 thought on “The REAL Reasons Great Lakes Cruises Are So Expensive! (How To Get It Cheaper)”

  1. Good information on living aboard cruise ships, would love to consider the option in my old age but for now, I would need to think about it. again thanks


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