Head to Head: The SS Badger vs. The Lake Express



She is the largest car ferry ever to sail Lake Michigan, and has provided a safe, fun, and reliable shortcut across the huge inland sea for more than fifty years. The S.S. Badger is a national treasure, offering a cruise experience that links us to an earlier time when a sea voyage was the ultimate travel and vacation adventure.

As the only coal-fired steamship in operation in North America, the S.S. Badger operates on domestic fuel, and the company has  an extraordinary commitment to maintaining a unique propulsion system that has been designated as a national mechanical engineering landmark. The S.S. Badger offers an authentic steamship experience unmatched anywhere else. 



She is the first high speed auto/passenger ferry to operate on a route on both the Great Lakes and within the Continental United States.  The aluminum hulled catamaran was built at Austal USA, LLC's  aluminum shipbuilding facility in Mobile, Alabama and was launched on March 20, 2004.  The ship began service on the route between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Muskegon, Michigan on June 1, 2004.

Both are impressive ships, carting people and their rides across Lake Michigan to avoid the travel around the lake, or just for plain fun.  But which is the best way to travel?  How do they compare?  The following information was mostly gleaned from their respective websites:





SIZE:  SSB:  410' X 60'

          LX:  192' X 57'

--Winner:  Badger


SPEED:  SSB:  18 mph (avg)

               LX:  40 mph

--Winner:  Lake Express


CAPACITY:  SSB:  600 people/ 180 cars

                    LX:  248 people/ 46 cars

--Winner:  Badger


CREW SIZE:  SSB:  50-60

                      LX:  8

--Winner:  Badger


TIME TO CROSS:  SSB:  3.5-4 hrs.

                             LX:  2.5 hrs.

--Winner:  Lake Express, if in a hurry

               Badger:  if not




ADULT (1 Way/Round Trip):

          SSB:  $69/$109

          LX:  $85/$129

--Winner:  Badger (by $16/$20)


CHILD (5-15 y.o.)

          SSB:  $24/$39

          LX:  $15/$24

--Winner:  Lake Express (by $9/$15)


SENIOR (65+, 62+ for LX):

           SSB:  $63/$99

           LX:  $68/$103

--Winner:  Badger (by $5/$4), if over 65 y.o.

               Lake Express(by $1/$26) if 62-65 y.o.



           SSB:  $59/$118

           LX:  $92/169

--Winner:  Badger (by $33/$51)



           SSB:  $6/$12

           LX:  $9/$18

--Winner:  Badger (by $3/$6)



           SSB:  $38/$76

           LX:  $38/$76

--Winner:  Draw



          SSB:  $45/$90

          LX:  $93/$185

--Winner:  Badger (by $48/$95)



          SSB:  None at terminals

          LX:  $5 at MILW., $4 at MUSK.

--Winner:  Badger


At a score of 10-4, the SS Badger wins in the head to head comparisons.  Other comparisons could include that the Badger allows you to bring your own food on board, they offer more activities on board, they ride more smoother in rougher waters, and can travel in weather in which the Lake Express can't.  The Lake Express is a sleek vessel and very helpful if you are in a hurry to get to Wisconsin with a cleaner fuel.  But for the consummate tourist, the nostalgic feel of the Badger, the slower pace, and the value seem to make it the clear choice. 


If you haven't rode either, get out and do so before the season is over.  For two adults and a car it would cost you $197 on the SS Badger, $262 on the Lake Express, but check out the discounts and deals on each site.  A mini cruise on the badger could cost you under $160 for a round trip if you leave the car at home and come back within two days, and you can even bring four kids along for free.

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I'd like to take either of the ships over to Milwaukee sometime. Been wanting to go over there the last few years to visit a few people I know and then drive back down through Chicago to visit my brother and maybe take in a sporting event or 2. One of these days I will.
Very good post XL. I am moving here in a few weeks. I have yet to take my wife across but I should in case she becomes a relic before I get back to see Ludington as a tourist. I have always liked the slow mini cruise type atmosphere of our Badger.
Before who/what becomes a relic, Guido? LOL
Probably me Mary TYVM!!! :) My father was a 2nd engineer on one of those ships but wasn't well excepted here so he went back to lower lakers before retiring in the 70s. I was always interested in getting tours of the out of bounds places on the ship when I was younger lol.
You forgot an important category. "destination". I think most people would prefer Milwaukee.
I considered this category, but found it difficult to compare. Granted, Milwaukee has more things to see and do, but Manitowoc is a city much like Ludington, with simple charms. Personally, for similar reasons, I would choose Manitowoc over Milwaukee, just like I choose Ludington over Muskegon as my destination. Plus you're a lot closer to Green Bay.
If you want to ride the SS Badger while it still is a steam ship, you may just only have two more years. I see in yesterday's paper the City of Ludington is applying for a federal grant to change it to a diesel powered knockoff of the Lake Express. If they take that route, I would not be surprised if they do go belly up. It is still not even clear if the taxpayers in the city will be hit if the LMC does go belly up. The taxpayers of the country definitely would. Don't do it.
Agreed. I hope this grant does not go through. For if it did, the Badger would likely lose its historic status, look hypocritical for arguing against the federal guaranteed loans the Lake Express eventually got, and lose a lot of fans.
Edie- Is the proposed switch to diesel a result of the Badger dumping coal ash into the lake, something which environmentalists have objected to?
We just took a Grand Rapids to Wisconsin Dells trip and my wife had problems with motion sickness on the Badger (the kids and I were fine). Does Lake Express have a more smooth or less smooth ride? Thanks in advance.
Less smooth invalid. You only have to look at how many days the Lake express stayed docked due to bad weather this last season. It can not even sail in seas the Lake Michigan car ferry sails in. the rough ride part is more lake Michigan weather which can sink much larger vessels at its worse. With The lake express your dealing with a boat with less than 1/3rd the beam of the Badger. Larger boat equals less wave lift.
Statistically, the beams are almost the same, at least per the thread statements above, 60' vs. 57'. The displacement hulls are the big difference imho. The Badger is twice the length of the Express, and has a v-hull configuration, versus a catamaran hull on the Express. Cats are made for high speed and agility, their drawback is high seas issues of safety and possible break-up. The Badger however, is built for great lakes year-around service. It was designed for high seas with very high freeboard sides and bow, thus allowing it to incur much worse waves and weather. The Badger was also specifically designed by railroad companies to carry box cars on the main bottom decks, thus the main reason for such high freeboard. I like the availability of having both vessels as a choice to cross Lk. Michigan. If I have the time and money someday, I would enjoy doing both crossings on the same trip to see the Packers at Lambeu Field. I recommend either as an alternative to driving thru the loop or UP, and as a novel vacation.


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