'As the crow flies' is a wet trip for Wisconsinites heading back to
school in Michigan, or vice-versa

By Eli Davidian and Abigail Myers
Special to MilwaukeePress.Net

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (Aug. 31, 2005) -- It’s in the air . . . the end of summer and the start of the Fall Semester.

For the 274 Wisconsin residents who travel to UM Ann Arbor next month, getting past the 1.3 quadrillion-gallon water hazard that is Lake Michigan is the first test of the school year.

 And it’s a multiple-choice test -- car, plane, train, bus or car-ferry?

  • Driving

The decision to drive comes easy to many in the region of “The Big Three.”  Heading south, interstate highways funnel traffic from major cities in Wisconsin to I-94, the same highway that passes through Ann Arbor.

At a glance, driving seems to epitomize painless travel; no ticket-counter lines, no cancellations, and no tedious battles for the armrest. But travel through Chicago traffic is a crap shoot, threatening delays, construction dust and diesel exhaust from the stopped truck ahead asking, “How’s My Driving?”

 That’s to say nothing of the half-dozen toll booths dotted along Illinois and Indiana highways. Got change? Well, you won’t after stopping for gas. The price of crude is at record highs, double that of two years ago.

 But an economics major might look straight to the bottom line: it is relatively cheap. And cost is not to be taken lightly, given the University’s recent decision to raise tuition by 12.5 %.

  • Bus and Train

Amtrak: Bus and Train Service

Website: http://www.amtrak.com

Phone: 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245)

Greyhound: Bus Service

Website: http://www.greyhound.com/

Phone: 1-800-231-2222

For those with a little more time, patience, or just wanting to see the Midwest from a different angle, check out Amtrak. With nineteen stations in Wisconsin, Amtrak provides service as far west as LaCrosse, and as far north as Wausau.

Although Amtrak is best known for its trains, much of Wisconsin is serviced by Amtrak busses. From Madison, daily service is provided to Chicago’s Union Station, where passengers can catch a train to Ann Arbor. For all other service, Milwaukee is the state’s main transfer station. Passengers riding Amtrak’s Thruway bus from Wausau, or riding the Empire Builder from the east, can catch the Hiawatha, which runs six times daily between Milwaukee and Chicago. Trains leave Chicago for Ann Arbor three times daily, but scheduling allows passengers arriving from Milwaukee to make only two of these connections. 

Photo ©2005 Abigail Myers

While the train does take longer than its transportation rivals, and the schedules are less reliable, the ride need not be wholly unproductive. Most cars are equipped with fold down tables and power outlets for laptops and other electronics.

Combat hunger and fatigue in the snack car, but don’t get your hopes up; the pickin’s are slim and the prices are steep. Packing a snack for the ride may be a cheaper and tastier alternative.

Because Ann Arbor is relatively accessible via bicycle or public transportation, Amtrak is ideal for those who do not have a car, or wish to leave it in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, Amtrak does not provide for bicycle transport between Milwaukee and Ann Arbor.  However, the Ann Arbor station is just a ten-minute walk from downtown, and 1.3 miles from UM’s Central Campus. For those stopping in for a short visit, or in temporary need of a vehicle, Hertz has a car rental office just a block from the Ann Arbor station.

Fares between Milwaukee and Ann Arbor vary based on availability; the more availability the lower the fare. Fares generally range between $45 and $55 each way. Cheaper fares may be obtained through advanced booking.

The Nation’s larges bus line, Greyhound, also offers service between Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. With 45 stations throughout Wisconsin, Greyhound is the most accessible alternative to the personal automobile. However, it is also the most time consuming; trips between Milwaukee and Ann Arbor run between approximately 9 and 13 hours. At around $50 one-way, the Greyhound is not significantly cheaper than Amtrak, especially considering the difference in travel time.

  • Ferry Service

Given that only 100 miles separates the Wisconsin and Michigan shorelines, many become frustrated with the time and distance required to circumnavigate the Lake. Fret no more. Two car-ferries, the Lake Express and SS Badger, offer daily commercial service between Wisconsin and Michigan ports.

Lake Express

Website: http://www.lake-express.com/

Phone: 1-866-914-1010

Photo ©2005 Abigail Myers

With its maiden voyage in 2004, the Lake Express is the first domestic high-speed car ferry in the US, and the only one on the Great Lakes. Powered by four diesel engines, the 192-foot catamaran can carry 44 cars and 248 passengers between Milwaukee and Muskegon at a brisk 40 miles per hour.

The trip takes about two and a half hours, during which time passengers can explore the sun/moon deck or rent headphones and catch and on-board flick.

In addition, a few power outlets are available throughout the main cabin for laptop use. Although Lake Express asks passengers not to carry their own food aboard, the snacks available for purchase are quite tasty. The Lake Express operates from mid-May through the end of December.

SS Badger

Website: http://www.ssbadger.com/

Phone: 1-800-841-4243

Though antiquated, the robust SS Badger continues its legacy of barging people and vehicles between Manitowoc and Ludington. Priding itself on sheer enormity, the 53 year-old coal-fired ship can cart 620 passengers and 120 vehicles across the Lake at about 18 miles per hour. Total trip time is four hours. Consistent with its “Size Matters” motto, the SS Badger’s smorgasbord of activities ensures that no passenger is left without something to do. Amenities include open-air decks, free films in the movie lounge, satellite television, a video arcade, free lectures, historic maritime displays, shopping, and a children’s play room. Buffet-style and snack bar dining facilities are offered, but passengers are also welcome to bring their own food aboard. The SS Badger operates from mid-May until mid-October.

The remote location of Michigan’s ports, on the west side of the State, necessitates post-arrival travel arrangements. At 229 miles, the trip from Ludington to Ann Arbor will take about three and a half hours. In contrast, the 172 mile drive from Muskegon to Ann Arbor will take about an hour less. Passengers in need of a rental car can pick one up at either of the Lake Express docks. SS Badger passengers can arrange to be picked up by a rental-car agency at the dock. Public transportation is available at both SS Badger terminals, whereas private transportation is available at the Lake Express dock in Milwaukee.


SS Badger

Lake Express

Adult Passenger (one-way)



Adult Passenger (round-trip)



Vehicle (each way)



Bicycle (each way)



Travel Time

4 hours

2.5 hours

  • Flying

While time and money often influence our travel decisions, distance is perhaps the most important factor. Some feel that the distance between Wisconsin and Michigan is a bit too far to drive, but also too close to fly.

Nonetheless, both states have major airports that offer daily service to the other. However, because passengers are unable to take their car, ground transportation is required to and from the airport. Ann Arbor is less than a half-hour drive from the Detroit Metro Airport, Michigan’s largest airport. But, most of Wisconsin’s flights are out of Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field Airport, a considerable drive for most of the State’s residents.

Although flying is clearly the fastest way to get from one to the other, it is arguably the most stressful. Lines, delays, the fear of losing precious baggage, and theatrical security checks can put a damper on the experience. In addition, most airlines have cut meal services on short flights.

Compared to the alternatives, flying is the costliest travel mode. Airfare between Milwaukee and Detroit will vary depending on carrier, number of stops, and the time of booking. Recent rises in oil prices have also caused fluctuations in airfare over the last year.

Current round-trip fares for travel at the beginning of September hover between $250 and $400; one-way fares are higher. Seven to twenty-one-day advanced purchases generally result in cheaper airfare. Searching the web for low fares and comparing websites such as Travelocity-, Orbitz-, Hotwire-, and Priceline.com, can also uncover cheaper fares. Finally, flexibility in date of departure can substantially affect prices; weekdays are generally the cheapest days to fly.

Don’t let travel planning cast a shadow over those precious final days of summer. While the semester lurks on the horizon, planning ahead can make the journey a cheap, easy, and interesting summer adventure.