Last Updated on March 6, 2023
Since watching the Smithosian’s Aerial America television program, I’ve always wanted to visit the unique, no-cars-permitted Mackinac Island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The horse-drawn carriages, fudge, and Victorian cottages all called my name. But the island’s allure was slightly diminished when a friend warned me that visiting Mackinac Island on a budget can be challenging as it can be expensive.
She was right. Despite her kind warning, I was still floored by the prices I saw when searching for hotels, for example. With the ferry, dining, and accommodation, the costs can all add up very quickly, possibly exceeding $2000+ for a week-long trip!
Plus, in 2023, I imagine the prices will have increased, as with everything else, it seems. But even with the rising costs today, it is still possible to do Mackinac Island on a budget as long as you research, plan, and prepare for the unexpected.
To assist you with planning your vacation to Mackinac Island, I’ve listed below 10 tips on how to save money, so you can cross this tiny island in Northern Michigan off your bucket list without exceeding the budget.
Also, if you plan on visiting for one day, you may want to check out my guide, Plan a Day Trip to the Beautiful Mackinac Island, for tips about ferry and transportation information, things to do, and where to eat once you arrive.
Ten Ways on How to Do Mackinac Island on a Budget
1- Get Social, Check Web Pages for Specials, and Sign Up for Newsletters
If you know what you want to see or do on Mackinac Island, you’ll want to start following those businesses or places on Social Media and check their websites for deals and packages. Sometimes they will have newsletters where you can sign up for notifications to ongoing and future specials.
For example, the Star Line ferry sometimes runs bundle and save packages, including ferry tickets to the island and other activities. They even do giveaways with a chance to win a free visit to Mackinac Island. Usually, they will list these deals and giveaways on their website and social media, especially around major holidays.
The Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau also posts specials and promotions on its website and social media. For instance, they just ran a Valentine’s Day sale online. And if you sign up for their newsletter, you’ll receive more information about visiting Mackinac Island on a budget.
For accommodations, check the hotel, inn, or bed & breakfast website directly to see if they are running any specials. For example, the famous Grand Hotel has specials and packages on its website, including the best available rates, bed and breakfast packages, and more. I also try to look for a hotel with breakfast included, saving me from buying an additional meal.
2- Save Money with Black Friday and Cyber Monday Deals
Mark your calendars to check online for Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. Many businesses run specials to help you visit Mackinac Island on a budget.
To give you some ideas, Shepler’s Ferry had reduced tickets for adults and children on Cyber Monday last year. Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry Company had buy one, get one ferry ticket free. Harbour View Inn and Island House Hotels had discounted rates on accommodations for select dates.
And the discounts do not stop at accommodation and transportation – you can also find specials on Black Friday and Cyber Monday for gift and fudge shops!
3- Buy Ferry Tickets Online and Look at Ferry Combination Tickets and Add-Ons
You will save a few dollars if you purchase your ferry tickets online in advance. There are also packages and add-ons that you can buy.
For example, the Star Line ferry has the mackPASS, which includes a roundtrip ferry ticket and a 1.5-hour horse-drawn narrated carriage tour that starts in downtown Mackinac and stops at some of Mackinac Island’s highlights: Surrey Hill Museum, Arch Rock, and Fort Mackinac Avenue of Flags. There are also options for add-ons, such as a lunch buffet at the Grand Hotel or a visit to the Original Mackinac Island Butterfly House and Insect World.
If you are not staying on Mackinac Island but plan to visit frequently during your travel, both ferries offer savings on multiple departures to and from the island.
Depending on how many days you travel back and forth to Mackinac Island, Shepler’s has Mack and Back Unlimited Combination tickets from $42 to $73 per adult and $28 to $50 per child. Likewise, Star Line has multiple-day fastPASS tickets that allow unlimited departures over several days, saving you money.
Remember also to check both ferries’ online ticket combinations, including family specials. These combinations can include two adults, one child tickets, or two adults, two children tickets.
4- Avoid Peak Season and Festivals
Mackinac Island sees crowds and higher accommodation rates in the summertime when the weather is warm and kids are out of school. To avoid the price spike, plan to go in early to mid-spring, such as April or May, or fall, as in September or early October. The weather will be a bit colder, but rates are usually lower.
And if you really want to save more money, plan a trip in the winter. But be prepared for possible snow, icy conditions, and businesses closed for the season.
Also, you can visit Mackinac Island on a budget if you avoid major holidays, such as the Fourth of July, and festivals. For example, the island hosts the annual Lilac Festival in early to mid-June. We missed the parade but still saw so many beautiful lilac trees and bushes while saving money by going a few days before the festival began.
5- Look for Groupon Deals
There are not many, but sometimes you may find a Groupon on lodging, fudge, or things to do on Mackinac Island. And if you persist with searching before your trip, you might be able to snag a good deal.
6- Stay at St. Ignace or Mackinaw City
You can enjoy the island without having to stay overnight. With the multiple-day ferry options, you can visit Mackinac Island several times while staying at Mackinaw City or St. Igance. For example, we stayed one night in Mackinaw City, and it wasn’t even a fourth of the total cost we spent on our hotel in Mackinac Island.
Plus, during certain times of the year, the ferry departs from the island late in the evenings, allowing you to see Mackinac Island after the sun goes down. However, if you visit in the winter, be aware of fewer ferry departure times with the Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry Company. Also, they only depart from St. Ignace if the weather allows travel.
7- Don’t Rent Your Bike – Bring One Instead
Bringing your bike is more budget-friendly than renting one on the island. The rental duration, type of bike, and where you rent from determine how much you’ll spend. Prices can range anywhere from $8+ per hour to $80+ per day! If you have a family of four, that adds up quickly!
Instead, try to bring your bike to save money. We drove around fourteen hours to Michigan and didn’t have car space to bring our own, but I wish we could have after seeing our bike rental receipt. It costs $21 to take your bike roundtrip on Shepler’s Ferry and $16 for Star Line.
Note electric bikes are not permitted on Mackinac Island, but a few exceptions exist. You can read more about electric bikes and bicycle safety rules here.
8- Buy Groceries at Doud’s Market or Pack Food
Eating at the restaurants on Mackinac Island is not cheap. My husband and I spent around $60 to $100 for dinner each night. With that said, we did order glasses of wine with our meals, but dinner was still expensive for three nights. Luckily, our hotel included breakfast in our rates, so we ate a hearty breakfast and skipped lunch.
Packing food from the mainland in luggage or a backpack is a cost-effective option. You can enjoy a nice picnic in Marquette Park or on one of the picnic benches scattered in various places downtown.
Near Hotel Iroquois and Windermere Hotel is a lakeside spot where you can eat your meal while watching the ferries cruising by the two lighthouses in the distance.
If you don’t want to pack food, shopping for groceries on the island is another way to visit Mackinac Island on a budget. You’ll find a great selection of groceries, a deli, a bakery, pizza, liquor, and more at Doud’s Market, the oldest grocery store in the United States.
Plus, Doud’s is convenient if you want to grab a snack to take with you while you are exploring the island. Just keep in mind that while you’ll probably save money compared to eating in a restaurant, grocery prices may still be higher at Doud’s than what you see on the mainland.
9- Sample Free Fudge
Fudge and free are two words I like to hear in a sentence. Mackinac Island is known for its delectable fudge. Sometimes the fudge stores will have free samples of various flavors for you to try. You can relish in your fudge sample while watching them make one of the best desserts in the world. And if you don’t see any free treats on display, ask!
10- Explore Places and Do Things That Are Free
I go more in-depth about things to do on Mackinac Island in my article, Plan a Day Trip to the Beautiful Mackinac Island. But below gives you an idea of free things to do on a budget:
Go Hiking or Bike the Island’s Perimeter
Mackinac Island State Park covers most of the island, and there are many hiking and biking trails, including the popular State Highway M-185 (the outer loop) that takes you around the island. There are also trails and roads along the bluffs and Arch Rock Road.
Many of these trails take you to other free places you can see, including the famous Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf Rock, the ominously-named Devil’s Kitchen, and Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery. If you’re really up for the hiking challenge, take Fort Holmes Road to see the small wooden fort. You’ll be rewarded with a nice 360-degree view of Mackinac Island, Lake Huron, and the Mackinac Bridge (the “Mighty Mac”) in the distance.
Visit the Carriage Museums
For an island that hasn’t allowed cars for over a century, Mackinac Island has become synonymously known for its horse-drawn carriages. The Surrey Hill Carriage Museum and Grand Hotel Stable and Carriage Museum have beautiful displays of antique carriages that are free to see.
You can learn about these carriages, meet some of the islands’ residents (horses) at the Grand Hotel Stable, and watch a blacksmith at work at Surrey Hill. There are also shops and places to eat at Surrey Hill, including delicious donuts at the Feed Bag.
Watch a Movie at Mission Point Theater
Usually, I’m not particularly eager to watch movies on vacation since I’d rather be out and about exploring and seeing things I can’t experience back home. But the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island had two famous Hollywood movies filmed here, This Time for Keeps and Somewhere in Time.
If you visit the Grand Hotel, you’ll understand why the location was chosen for these two movies. Its stunning long porch, beautiful gardens, and charming rooms make you feel like you have taken a trip to the past.
And the Grand Hotel wasn’t the only filming location. At the Mission Point Theater, you can watch both classical movies for free and sit in the same spot where Somewhere in Time was filmed. During the summer, they play Somewhere in Time every Tuesday at 7:30pm and This Time for Keeps every Sunday at 4:30pm (these times are subject to change).
They also play other movies made on Mackinac Island that are free on Sundays and Tuesdays, or you can purchase a ticket to see other movies that are showing.
Mackinac Island has many small shops to purchase local gifts and souvenirs. While I love to support small businesses, sometimes I window shop or make smaller purchases to save money.
There are many stores on Main Street where you can pop in, say hello, and talk to the friendly locals. Don’t forget to also check the stores on the streets that intersect Main Street.
Enjoy the View at the Mackinac Island Public Library
The Mackinac Island Public Library is a gem with its blue teal walls and the lovely view of Lake Huron in the back. Visitors to the island cannot check out books, but if you love reading like me, you’ll want to stop by and visit this unique little library.
After perusing through the rows of books, step outside in the back and watch the ferries cruise back and forth on Lake Huron while sitting in their white Adirondack chairs. It’s an excellent way to relax after a busy, adventure-filled day.
Watch the Glorious Sunrise or Sunset Over Lake Huron
Watching the sun rise or set over the Great Lakes is a beautiful way to start or end your day, and we did just that when the weather permitted.
As the sun descended, we took a light stroll through downtown Mackinac, passing the last few shops on Main Street. We came upon a cute row of charming Queen Anne cottages. Across from a bright, big yellow cottage (Hotel Windermere), we found a lovely beach area with a few people sitting by the lakeshore.
Kids were skipping pebbles in the water while dogs ran over the rocks and sand, getting the last bit of energy out before night fell. It was the perfect spot to watch the sunset behind Mackinac Bridge, turning the skies a dark rich blue, pink, and purple. I imagine the sunrise is just as spectacular.
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