An Inside Look at Our Cruise of the Great Lakes (Part 1: Pre-Cruise)

(This article turned out to be way too long, so I broke it into three parts. Part 1: Pre-Cruise is the preplanning and the three days we spent in our embarkation city. Part 2: The Cruise is all about the ship and the cruise. Part 3: Post-Cruise is the three days we spent in the disembarkation city and our mishap getting home.)

Recently I have been discussing vacationing in my blog, so I thought I would give you an inside look at what we do on vacation to combine adventure and rejuvenation. Technically, since I am retired, every week is a vacation, so we have to draw some lines as to what we actually consider to be a vacation.

When I was working, if I traveled for a work-related event like a lecture or a CME course, I usually didn’t take my wife or family as it was a work trip. When no work was involved, we traveled as a family, and it was a vacation. Once a year the kids enjoyed time with a family member and my wife and I went on a vacation as a couple. 

We markedly increased our traveling after I retired from medicine and have finally started traveling again post-shutdown, but at a slower pace since we now watch our grandkids two days a week during the school year.

Our travels are divided into two categories: travel and vacation. If we are traveling, I still spend a few hours a day “working” as a coach and author. I essentially keep the same schedule as I do at home, but our location changes. We are simply living life on the road. When we go for a walk, it is in a new and exciting location.

At other times we declare our adventure to be a vacation and take a break from the normal routine to enjoy a change of pace. I still need time to rejuvenate just like when I was working full time as a surgeon. When on vacation I do not complete articles for publication on my blog and I don’t schedule any coaching calls. I am not prohibited from writing if I feel the urge and feel it would be fun.

This trip is a cruise on The Great Lakes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Toronto, Canada. We will traverse all The Great Lakes except Lake Superior on the Viking Octantis which holds 378 passengers. We plan to stay three days in both the starting and ending cities to take advantage of already being there. We will fly there and back on United Airlines. 


I believe one of the keys to having a relaxing vacation is to preplan and prepay for the trip as much as possible. For this reason, I do my research a few months before we leave instead of while on vacation. I love to search for plays, musicals and concerts that will be in the area so I can purchase good tickets ahead of time. If I wait until I get there, many times the tickets are sold out or I end up in the nosebleed section.

I like to search out these event opportunities before I buy our airplane tickets. I would hate to miss a great concert because we arrived a day late. Our travel dates are established based on the activities and shows I find. Then I buy the airline tickets. We usually use our frequent flyer miles, so the airfare is free. But on this trip, I used some credits from canceled trips, so I paid cash for the airline tickets and used up my remaining credits.

When I searched for things to do in Milwaukee, I was happy to find a play, Agatha Christy’s Spider’s Web. I bought tickets in the center of the 5th row. That turned out to be the only event tickets I pre-purchased in the starting city. I also found several things to see in Milwaukee, so we had a list of things to see and do once we arrived.

The same process was done for Toronto, where I found the play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the Shania Twain concert ($750!!!). I scored good seats for both. I also made a list of things I wanted to see and do in Toronto. 

We then perused the ship’s excursions. Viking offers a free excursion at every port as well as some optional excursions for an additional fee. This is one of the reasons Viking is the top rated cruise line. We chose what we wanted to do in each port and made the reservations. If you wait until you have boarded the ship to make your choices, one or more of the excursions you want will likely already be sold out. Plan early to get your favorite adventures to cut down on tasks to do during the vacation.

Some people don’t do the excursions the ship offers because cheaper options can often be found by booking independent tours. I find making your own arrangements to be an extra burden. The ship provides a list of the best things to do in each port and it is so easy to just sign up for your preferred excursion in each port. I don’t mind paying for a higher level of convenience. Also, if you are on a ship arranged tour and something happens to delay your return, the ship is aware of the delay and will wait for the tour to get aboard before leaving. If you book your own tours and you don’t arrive back to the ship on time, the ship will leave without you since they don’t know where you are or if and when you will return.

Pre-travel day

If you want a trip to be relaxing and rejuvenating, include the day before you travel in your plans. This day will set the tone for your trip. We spent this day getting loose ends tied up around the house and packing. We go to sleep at a decent hour with everything ready to travel the next day.

Since we would be gone for two weeks, we packed two checked bags and one carry on for the trip. We divided our clothes between the bags, in case one of them gets lost. If you each pack your own bag, and it is lost, one of you has nothing. We leave the bags open and ready for any last-minute items to be added.

As far as scheduling, we always try to arrive at the embarkation city at least one day before the ship sails. This allows for travel problems to not mess up our cruise (see part 3). If the plane gets delayed or our luggage is lost, the extra day provides a buffer for everything to arrive so we can get to the ship on time with our luggage. I have seen many people without luggage or miss the ship because their tight flight connection was missed or their flight was delayed. It could take a week for a lost bag to reach a moving ship. 

Travel day

We have stopped traveling at unreasonably early hours simply to save money. Our plane left at 1 pm so we were able to sleep in. At our leisure we showered, had breakfast, packed the last items needed, closed and locked our suitcases, and drove 30 minutes to my parents’ home near the airport.

We left our car with my parents so as not to pay a two-week parking fee. Since my parents live just under two miles from the airport they can easily dropped us off and pick us up. We even had time to visit with them for a while before catching our plane.

We arrived at our small airport about an hour and a half before the flight and checked our bags. Then we went through the TSA PreCheck line and for the first time ever we both got selected for a random screening. We were pulled aside while our electronics were tested for explosives. This included one lap top computer, two cell phones and a kindle eBook reader. We then went to our gate and read our books while waiting to board.

We flew to Denver, had a one and a quarter hour layover allowing for a quick dinner before flying to Milwaukee. We took a taxi to our hotel downtown. I prefer to take taxis leaving the airport as they are right there in line waiting to serve us. I usually use an Uber for all other trips. 

We checked in and went to bed at about 10:30 pm local time. We are scheduled to spend three nights in Milwaukee before boarding the ship.

Day 1

We had a nice chance to sleep in on the first day of the vacation. Since we vacationed in Milwaukee last year, we have already taken in the river boat tour, the Harley Davidson Museum, a coffee roasting plant and the river walk. Today we decided to walk a few blocks to tour the Pabst Mansion, which was built with beer money. It was a nice stop and a great example of life at the end of the 19th century. 

Following the tour we bought a couple of Christmas tree ornaments in the gift shop. We collect ornaments commemorating our travels, then we relive our many adventures every year as we decorate the Christmas tree.

We then walked through the Marquette University campus and down to the river front for dinner at a Thai restaurant. After dinner we walked along the river before heading back to our hotel.

On the way back, we happened to walk right through the Milwaukee night market, an array of food trucks, crafts, and other handmade items on blocked off streets which occurs on Wednesday nights. It was wall to wall people. By the time we got back to the hotel we had walked about five miles. We settled in and watched a movie before going to sleep.

Interestingly, two people stopped us to say how nice it was to see us walking hand in hand down the sidewalk. I guess that is rare for mature couples, but not rare for us. I have never had anyone point it out before and today it happened twice.

Day 2

After breakfast in the hotel we walked 1.3 miles to the Milwaukee Public Museum. We arrived as it opened at 10 am. That was a fantastic museum and we stayed until it closed at 5 pm. We saw all the exhibits on all three floors, had lunch in their cafeteria, and watched two shows in the planetarium that were included in the admission price.

Then we walked back to our hotel for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. They served the best Crème Brulee I have ever tasted, which was so good my wife ate half, and she never has more than one bite of my favorite dessert. 

We summoned an Uber to take us to the Sunset Playhouse and saw a great performance of Agatha Christy’s Spider’s Web.  

After the play we took an Uber back to the hotel and called it a night. Tomorrow we board the ship between 11 am and 3 pm, so I called the front desk and got a late check out.

Day 3

After sleeping in, packing, and eating breakfast, we took the hotel’s free shuttle to the cruise ship. Since the ship is small, with a 378-passenger capacity, the check in was the fastest and easiest we have ever experienced. 

(This story will continue next week as we board the ship in Part 2: The Cruise)

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2 thoughts on “An Inside Look at Our Cruise of the Great Lakes (Part 1: Pre-Cruise)”

  1. Some great tips!
    Recently a friend of mine went on a cruise with her husband and her luggage was lost by the ship staff during check in! It was never found . The cruise company only offered a small discount on a future cruise as compensation but she won’t travel with them again.

    • These things happen. If they haven’t happened to you, you simply haven’t traveled enough yet. Wait until part three of this story when things don’t go as planned as we try to get home. I will still fly with that airline even though in this instance, things didn’t go as planned.

      Happy travels and may you luggage never get lost.


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