Visit Mackinac Island on a Budget: 11 Ways to Save

Ever since I watched the Smithsonian’s Aerial America television program, I’ve wanted to visit Mackinac Island, a unique car-free island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The island’s horse-drawn carriages, fudge, and Victorian cottages all called my name. However, the allure was slightly diminished when a friend warned me that visiting Mackinac Island on a budget can be challenging since it is an expensive destination. 

As it turns out, she was right. Even after her friendly advice, I was still floored by the prices I saw when searching for hotels. Transportation, food, and lodging expenses can accumulate rapidly, potentially surpassing $2000 for a week-long vacation! 

I anticipate that costs will go up in 2024, which seems to be a common trend across various industries. However, despite the current cost increase, it is still possible to visit Mackinac Island on a budget as long as you do your research, plan accordingly, and prepare for any unforeseen circumstances.

To help you plan your vacation to Mackinac Island, I’ve put together a list of 10 tips that will allow you to cross this tiny island off your travel bucket list without breaking the bank.

Also, if you plan to visit Mackinac Island for just one day, check out my guide, Plan a Day Trip to the Beautiful Mackinac Island. This guide includes helpful information about ferry and transportation options, things to do, and recommendations for places to eat during your visit.

Shops line the street in downtown Mackinac Island
Main Street on Mackinac Island

Eleven 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 have a clear idea of what you want to see or do on Mackinac Island, you should start following the social media accounts of businesses or places that interest you. Moreover, you should check their websites for any available deals and packages. Occasionally, businesses have newsletters that allow you to sign up for notifications regarding ongoing and future specials.

For example, the Star Line ferry sometimes offers bundle and save packages, including ferry tickets to the island and other activities. They even sometimes offer giveaways with a chance to win a free visit to Mackinac Island! You can find details about these deals and giveaways on their website and social media pages, especially around major holidays.

Another example is the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, which regularly shares special deals and promotions on their website and social media channels. Recently, they offered a Valentine’s Day sale that was exclusively available online. And if you subscribe to their newsletter, you’ll receive more information about visiting Mackinac Island on a budget. 

For accommodations, check the website of the hotel, inn, or bed & breakfast directly to see if they are running any specials or promotions. For example, the renowned Grand Hotel has packages on its website, including the best available rates, bed and breakfast packages, and more. Additionally, I always try to find a hotel that offers breakfast as part of the package, as it saves me from having to buy an extra meal.

Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island’s famous Grand Hotel has deals and packages on its website.

2 – Save Money with Black Friday and Cyber Monday Deals

Make sure to mark your calendar and check online for Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. Many businesses offer specials on these two days to help you visit Mackinac Island on a budget.

To name a few, Shepler’s Ferry often offers reduced tickets for adults and children during Cyber Monday. Last year, on Black Friday (2023), Star Line Ferry had a BOGO (buy one, get one) special where you could buy one ferry ticket and get another one for free. Harbour View Inn and Island House Hotels had discounted accommodation rates on Cyber Monday for select dates.

And the discounts do not stop at accommodation and transportation options—you can also find specials at gift and fudge shops on these two days!

3 – Avoid Peak Season and Festivals 

During the summertime, Mackinac Island experiences an influx of visitors, causing higher accommodation rates due to the warm weather and school being out. To avoid the price hike, plan to go in the early to mid-spring season, which falls in April or May, or in the fall season, which falls in September or early October. Although the weather may be slightly colder, the rates are usually lower during these times.

And if you really want to save money, plan a trip in the winter. But be prepared for possible snow, icy conditions, and business closures. 

You can also visit Mackinac Island on a budget if you avoid major holidays, such as the Fourth of July, and festivals. For instance, the island hosts the annual Lilac Festival in early to mid-June. While we missed the parade, we saved money by going a few days beforehand, and we still saw so many beautiful lilac trees. 

Lilac tree reaching towards the sky
The Lilac Festival in June is a popular time for visitors to see the island.

4 – Buy Ferry Tickets Online and Look at Ferry Combination Tickets and Add-Ons

You can save money on ferry tickets by purchasing them online in advance. There are also additional packages and add-ons available for purchase.

For example, the Mackinac Island Ferry Company (Star Line) sometimes offers the mackPASS, which includes a roundtrip ferry ticket and a 1.5-hour horse-drawn narrated carriage tour. The tour starts from downtown Mackinac and stops at some of Mackinac Island’s popular attractions, such as the Surrey Hill Museum, Arch Rock, and Fort Mackinac Avenue of Flags. You can also opt for additional add-ons, including a lunch buffet at the Grand Hotel or a visit to the Original Mackinac Island Butterfly House and Insect World.

Shepler’s Ferry offers various ticket add-ons that can save you both money and time, depending on your preferred activities. For example, you can add a Grand Hotel luncheon and admission to your ferry ticket, which is comparatively cheaper than booking them separately. Additionally, they provide ferry ticket combination options that offer reduced ticket rates based on the number of people in your group. You can find all the available add-ons and combination tickets by visiting their website here

If you plan on visiting Mackinac Island frequently, both ferry companies offer discounts for multiple trips to and from the island. Star Line offers multiple FastPass ticket options ranging from $31 to $62, and you can view more information about them here. Likewise, Shepler’s offers Mack and Back Unlimited Combination tickets ranging from $42 to $73; you can view more details here

Star Line Ferry on Lake Huron
Star Line Ferry

5 – 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. Ignace. 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. St. Ignace and Mackinaw City have several accommodation options, including hotels, motels, inns, and campgrounds. 

In addition, the ferry departs from the island late in the evening at certain times of the year. This means that even if you choose to stay in Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, you still have an opportunity to see Mackinac Island after sunset. However, if you are planning to visit during the winter, keep in mind that the Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry Company has limited departure times. Additionally, the ferry only departs from St. Ignace if weather permits travel.

View of the ferry dock on Mackinac Island from a window
A view of the docks.

6 – Don’t Rent Your Bike – Bring One Instead 

Another way to do Mackinac Island on a budget is to bring your own bike, which is more budget-friendly than renting one. The cost of renting a bike depends on various factors, such as the rental duration, the type of bike, and the rental location. Rental prices can range anywhere from $8+ per hour to $80+ per day! If you have a family of four, that adds up quickly. We drove fourteen hours to Michigan and didn’t have space in the car to bring our own, but I wish we could have after seeing our bike rental receipt!

How much does it cost to bring your bike on the ferry? The cost of taking your bike roundtrip on the Star Line Ferry is $16, whereas on Shepler’s Ferry, it is $21 (excluding tandem bikes, which cost more).

It’s important to note that electric bikes are generally not allowed on Mackinac Island, but there are some exceptions. Find more information on electric bikes and bicycle safety rules here.

Tuesday Cycle bike

7 – 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. That said, we ordered 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 throughout downtown. Near Hotel Iroquois and Windermere Hotel is a lakeside spot where you can eat while watching the ferries cruising by the two lighthouses in the distance. 

If you prefer to avoid packing food, you can still visit Mackinac Island without spending too much money by shopping for groceries or snacks on the island. Doud’s Market, the oldest grocery store in the United States, offers a wide range of items, including a deli, a bakery, pizza, liquor, and more.

Plus, Doud’s is a great option if you want to take some food with you while exploring the island; it’s a convenient place to grab food on the go. However, although you may save money compared to eating at a restaurant, grocery prices at Doud’s may still be higher than what you are used to seeing on the mainland.

8 – Sample Free Fudge 

Fudge and free are two words I like to hear in a sentence. Mackinac Island is famous for its delectable, rich 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 samples on display, don’t hesitate to ask for some!

Fudge on a table
The island has so much fudge; sometimes, they will have free samples!

9 – Earn Rewards and Save With Mackinac’s Loyalty Program 

If you plan to stay at Mackinac Island for a few days or visit the island multiple times, you might find it beneficial to join the 906 Mackinac Island Reward Club for free. As a member, you can earn 10 percent spend like cash rewards at select locations such as Island House Bike Rental, Starbucks, 1852 Grill Room, Ryba’s Fudge Shops, Ice House BBQ, and more. In addition, you can earn 5 percent rewards on accommodations at Island House Hotel or Pine Cottage Bed and Breakfast.

By signing up for the loyalty program, you’ll also receive insider perks on deals and seasonal promotions. They even have an annual getaway giveaway. Find more information about the 906 Rewards Club here

10 – Look for Groupon Deals

Although a Groupon isn’t always available, you can find deals for lodging, fudge, and activities on Mackinac Island if you check frequently before your trip. You can search for deals on Groupon’s website here

11 – Discover Locations and Activities 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. However, below are some free activities that you can enjoy on a budget:

Go Hiking or Bike the Island’s Perimeter

Mackinac Island State Park spans over most of the island. It offers numerous hiking and biking trails, including the well-known State Highway M-185, which takes you around the island’s outer loop. Roads and trails also run along the bluffs and Arch Rock Road.

Many of these trails take you to other free attractions you can see, including the famous Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf Rock, the ominously named Devil’s Kitchen, and Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery. 

And 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. 

Panoramic view of Mackinac Island and the Mighty Mac from Fort Holmes
The Mighty Mac bridge can be viewed from the top of Fort Holmes.

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. Surrey Hill and Grand Hotel Stables 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 Stables, and watch a blacksmith at work at Surrey Hill. Surrey Hill also has shops and places to eat, including the Feed Bag, which serves delicious donuts.

Horse-drawn carriage going past the Mackinac House hotel
Horse-drawn carriage going past the Mackinac House hotel. Cars have been banned for over 100 years!

Watch a Movie at Mission Point Theater 

If you’re like me, you may not be keen on watching movies while on vacation. I prefer to explore and discover things I cannot experience back home. However, after seeing the Grant Hotel, you might make an exception for this vacation. 

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is famous for being the filming location of two Hollywood movies, This Time for Keeps and Somewhere in Time. Once you visit this historic place, 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 traveled back in time. 

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 Monday at 5pm and This Time for Keeps every Tuesday at 6pm (these times and days may change each year). 

They also sometimes play other movies made on Mackinac Island on Mondays and Tuesdays for free, or you can purchase a ticket to see different films. 

Window Shop

Mackinac Island is home to several small shops where you can find unique gifts and souvenirs. While I try to support local businesses, I sometimes just window shop or buy something small to save money.

There are many stores on Main Street where you can pop in, say hello, and converse with the friendly locals. Don’t forget to browse the stores on the streets that intersect with Main Street.

Main Street on Mackinac Island
There are many shops on 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. Although visitors to the island cannot check out books, if you are an avid reader like me, you will definitely want to stop by and pay a visit to this unique little library.

After perusing through the rows of books, head out to the back and watch the ferries cruise back and forth on Lake Huron while sitting in the comfortable 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

When the weather permitted, we enjoyed watching the sunset over the Great Lakes. It was a beautiful way to end the day.

As the sun began to set, we took a leisurely stroll through downtown Mackinac, passing the last few shops on Main Street. We came upon a row of cute, charming Queen Anne cottages. Across from the big, bright yellow cottage, Hotel Windermere, we found a lovely beach area where a few people sat by the lakeshore.

Kids skipped pebbles in the water while dogs ran over the rocky sand, trying to expend their energy before nightfall. The place was perfect for watching the watercolor sunset behind the immense Mackinac Bridge.

I imagine the sunrise is just as spectacular.

Did you find this article on how to visit Mackinac Island on a budget helpful? Please leave a comment and share below!

A dog runs on Lake Huron's shoreline with Round Island Light in the distance.
A dog was enjoying the early evening on the Huron lakeshore.

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