Almost completely surrounded by water, the two peninsulas of Michigan combine natural beauty and bustling city life. Plenty of activities in the state don’t cost a penny, like hunting for glow-in-the-dark Yooperlite stones on Lake Superior beaches or checking out classic cars in one of Detroit’s many car shows.
In line with the fact that Detroit was the center of the automotive industry in America, there are unfortunately few public transportation options in Michigan. None of its cities has a subway system, and navigating the spotty bus service is a challenge. Renting a car is the most practical way to see the state and should be factored into your budget. That said, food and drinks are generally quite inexpensive.
Daily costs in Michigan
- Basic hotel room for two: $60-120
- Bed-and-breakfast: $130-200
- Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from $80 per night
- Lakeside family cabin rental: from $90 per night
- Car rental: $40-60 per day
- Coffee: $4-5
- Coney Island hot dog with chili: $2.50-4
- Dinner for two: $50-80
- Pint of beer at the bar: $4-6
Average daily cost: $180–200
1. Plan to fly into Detroit and rent a car from there
Detroit Metropolitan airport is one of Delta’s major North American hubs, and many other airlines offer cheap flights in and out of DTW. The airport is about 20 miles from downtown Detroit, and there is no public transportation between the two.
A taxi or rideshare can cost upwards of $50, so if you can’t get a ride from a friend or family, which is how most locals get to and from the airport, it’s generally more cost-effective to rent a vehicle from one of the many car-rental companies on-site. (It’s always a good idea to reserve in advance.)
2. Make the drive part of the adventure
Cruising through a tunnel of trees along M-119 in northern Michigan or hopping from one scenic overlook to the next along the interstates, you can spot gorgeous fall colors and encounter all sorts of unexpected but delightful vistas. Helpful signs along the road and at pull-off spots alert drivers to especially great views. Many of Michigan’s rest stops are situated in beautiful, park-like settings, perfect for a picnic – and some even have grills for travelers.
3. Gas-station food is a great option
From Southwest Detroit’s amazing taquerias to roadside pasties (folded pastries with savory meat and root vegetables) in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan’s gas-station food is worth exploring. If there’s a line of people forming in the corner of the gas station or outside at a food truck, hop in and wait with them because they know where to find the good cheap eats.
Many of these mom-and-pop food sellers are entrepreneurs hoping to expand into their own restaurants. Others are local bakers, home cooks and even grandmothers from the area, making a few extra dollars by sharing their specialties.
4. Coney Islands aren’t just for New Yorkers, and they’re not just hot dogs either
A way of life in Michigan, the Coney Island is a hot dog loaded with chili, diced onions and mustard – a combination brought to Detroit by two Greek immigrants by way of New York.
Diners scattered across the state are also known as Coney Islands, from college towns like Lansing and Big Rapids and including the famous originals, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. These restaurants offer quick, inexpensive menus with a massive variety of options, including Greek salads, omelets, fried-fish dinners, gyros, sandwiches and much more. Coneys are a budget-friendly option at just about any time of day, since many of them are open all night or have early morning and late-night hours.
5. Get a state recreation passport and explore natural wonders
A state recreation sticker for motor vehicles costs $34 for nonresidents and lasts a full year, granting vehicle access to all state parks, recreation areas and trail heads. The passport also gets you into incredible places, like the iron-tinted Tahquamenon Falls and the spectacular Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Within the state parks and recreation areas are beaches, stunning landscape features, like Arch Rock on Mackinac Island; wildlife habitats for bald eagles, wolves and elk; and miles and miles of trails along lakes, hills, sand dunes and cliffs. Parks and recreation areas in the state also have plenty of amenities, like EV charging stations, boating and fishing access and kayak, canoe and bike rentals.
6. Consider camping
Michiganders love to camp, and the state park system evolved right along with the proliferation of the automobile in the early 1900s. Because of this, the state has a well-developed network of private and public campgrounds – no matter where you plan to visit, there’s likely a campground within a few miles.
Some are lavish private grounds with full electrical hookups, hot showers and other amenities. Others are bare-bones primitive camps that require hiking in with a map and a compass. No matter what level of creature comforts you’re looking for, there is probably an eminently affordable campsite to suit your needs.
7. Peep some leaves
Michigan’s somewhat unwieldy Latin motto, “Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice,” translates as, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”
Leaf-peeping is a popular pastime, and weather apps and websites track peak viewing weather. The best time to catch the scarlet, gold and orange displays varies by about four or five weeks in the fall. In the far northern stretches of the Upper Peninsula, the Porcupine Mountains start their fall color change in mid- to late September. For the lower part of the state, fall foliage peaks closer to the end of October.
8. Remember how big the state is, and plan accordingly
Many visitors are surprised by the time it takes to travel around Michigan, so it’s good to know that the state is the eleventh-largest in the US and the largest east of the Mississippi River. Getting from the western to eastern sides of the lower peninsula takes about four or five hours by car. The trip from southern to far-northern Michigan is much longer, especially in winter weather or on Friday afternoons, when folks from the southern end head “up north” to their cabins.
Traveling from Detroit to Grand Marais, where Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located on Lake Superior, takes about six hours, and the journey to the western edges of the Upper Peninsula can take up to 11 or 12 hours. Very occasionally, flight deals pop up between Detroit and Traverse City, but they’re quite rare, so factor in the cost of gas – usually at or just a bit over the national average.
9. Go lighthouse-hopping
With more than 3200 miles of coastline, Michigan is home to more lighthouses than any other state. Most of Michigan’s lighthouses line the shores of the four adjacent Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie.
Hitting each of the 120-plus lighthouses might not be achievable, but stopping at a few along the coasts is a great way to get a real sense of the state’s beauty. Some of the lighthouses are closed to the public; others have been converted to museums, like the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Bay or the Fort Gratiot lighthouse, built in 1825.
10. Avoid Detroit at the end of September
If you’re looking to travel to Detroit in September, you’ll quickly realize that airfare and hotel prices in Detroit skyrocket during the North American International Auto Show, held the last two weeks in September. Hotels fill up early and prices are at a premium for transportation and restaurants, many of which are fully booked for big-name auto companies trying to impress clients.
11. Art and architecture are free to view
Detroit in particular has an impressively large collection of street art and murals, from the celebrated Eastern Market, which holds an annual “Murals in the Market” festival, to Grand Rapids’ collection of street art.
The Ann Arbor Art Fair in lower Michigan is actually four fairs in one, with nearly a thousand artists coming together in July every year. And just about any spring, summer, fall or holiday weekend, visitors can find handmade pottery, prints, textiles and more at art fairs in Grand Rapids, Saugatuck, Traverse City and Port Huron.
The state also contains some stunning architecture, especially in the art deco style. Both Detroit and Grand Rapids expanded rapidly in the 1920s and 30s, as the state became home to the automotive and furniture industries in the US. Detroit’s Fisher Building has been called the city’s largest artwork, and the Guardian Building, Maccabees Building and other skyscrapers are free to enter and marvel at the decadent and glittering interiors.
12. Shop for lunch or dinner at a local farmers market
Michigan produces an abundance of agricultural products, so fresh fruits and vegetables are in abundance, especially in the summer and fall. Farmers markets in small towns and larger cities highlight the best of the state, from tart cherries to asparagus to crisp apples and berries. It’s easy to cobble together a homegrown meal made entirely from food produced right where you are.
13. Consider staying at a cabin or a traditional bed-and-breakfast
Thanks to its legacy in the mining and lumber booms of the 19th century, Michigan has no shortage of capacious Victorian mansions, many of which have been converted to bed-and-breakfasts with charming local details you can’t find at a hotel or other short-term stay. Breakfast is usually included, so you can fuel up for the day and get tips on exploring the area from your host.
Many Michigan families own small cottages along the shores of the state’s inland waters and Great Lakes and rent them out when they’re not in use. There are also plenty of cottage rental communities, especially in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula, where scatterings of a dozen or so sparsely furnished rustic cabins are arranged around central firepits and grills.
If you’re traveling with friends or family members, costs can get as low as $20 or $30 per night per person for shared cabins equipped with cookware, board games and outdoor amusements, like horseshoes and croquet.