How I wish this review could be positively glowing, because steamboating on US rivers ought to be a glorious experience.
Our recent cruise on the American Queen, however, showed that this enterprise is not only suffering from a number of Start-Up-Company ills, but seems to be run by people who are actually amateurs in the cruise business. We all know that you only get one change to make that all-important, great First Impression, but Great American Steamboat made poor impressions at every single opportunity. The short version of my review is this: Do Not spend your vacation money on the American Queen until at least 2014 - if this company is still in business in 2014, they will probably have fixed their boat and their operations, and may have even reached the point where they have looked at how the passenger experiences their performance, rather than being so fixated on managing their procedures and frequent mistakes.
To be more specific, first the cabins. Even though we expected our Inside Cabin to be substantially smaller than staterooms on an ocean cruise ship, our room was so small that the two of us could not unpack, dress, or move around the cabin at the same time. The foot of the beds were so close to the wall of drawers / closet that we had to sidle in sideways, and could not turn around. Furthermore, there was only one electrical outlet in our cabin, and that was located just above the bathroom sink. If a passenger has a cell phone / laptop that needs recharging or has to use a C-Pap machine at night, the only electricity is right above the water taps in the bathroom. That is not only inconvenient - it is downright dangerous.
The plumbing aboard was a constant source of problems, and these did not seem to be related to the plugged-toilet issues that are common on vessels with vacuum toilet systems: some cabins had no running water at all, while others had Cold water faucets that gave only warm water. There were almost daily water problems, especially leaks and floor flooding in the Front Porch food area. There were also other equipment failures, such as the table linens on the first night being completely un-ironed because some machine was broken.
The food aboard was either much too fancied up, especially with strange-tasting sauces and spices, or was - at best - average for cruise ship fare. Buffet food often sat out in the open air (and sometimes in the sun) for too long to be totally safe to eat. Afternoon Tea food was consistently blah. The one, very bright spot in the dining aboard was the Front Porch, where a good selection of self-serve drinks, cookies, fruit, and snacks are available 24/7, free of charge, and where continental breakfast is available every day. The casual dinner venue at the stern, where the Dress Code is nicely relaxed, was, however, uncomfortable, over-crowded, noisy, and sometimes sooty from the boat's smokestack, and the selection of food was quite limited.
The public areas on this boat are very pleasant, especially the Front Porch and the Library. The theater seating is not altogether comfortable, but the most disappointing part of the entertainment on our recent cruise was that, although the cruise ads led passengers to think they were in for a week of Big Band entertainment by the Glenn Miller Band, those musicians actually performed on only the last 2 nights of the cruise. Lynn Roberts, the band singer, was excellent, but the Band was only slightly above average, and the house musicians that supplied music before the Miller Band came aboard were nothing special at all. Many passengers felt they had been hyped and ripped off by the company.
The average age of passengers the week we were aboard seemed to be well above 70 years old, and somewhere between 60%-80% of the passengers were aboard because they had sailed on one of the old Delta Queen boats. These folks seemed, for the most part, willing to put up with just about anything, because they had such fond memories of the old Delta Queen days. But for those of us who were new to steamboating, no matter how much or how long we had looked forward to the experience, found many things, each day, to be just plain sub-standard or even unacceptable.
The very worst part of the experience was the extraordinarily poor handling of both the embarkation and the disembarkation processes. These two events - always stressful for passengers and crew alike - were completely botched, start to finish. Passengers were given incorrect information at nearly every turn, were seriously inconvenienced again and again, and then were dealt with by rude, unprofessional staff. Many members of the crew are hard-working people, and some even seem to know how to do their jobs with real expertise, but those are over-shadowed by the inept, and sometimes hostile, people-skills of other crew members. Even some of the good crew members show signs of disliking the way the company is being run, and the way both passengers and crew are treated by supervisors and top management. All in all, there is an atmosphere of an unhappy work environment that experienced travelers cannot miss. Anyone who expects sustained, polished, gracious hospitality will be unhappily surprised.
Two huge positives are the Riverlorian, whose daily presentations add greatly to the quality of the passenger experience aboard, and the Steamcoach transport system in each port of call. Both of these amenities are unusual in the cruise industry, and they were much appreciated. People thinking about cruising on the American Queen need to be aware, however, that anyone with mobility issues is going to be seriously challenged: the boat itself has many steps and stairs, and every port involves not some nice cruise pier but a very steep river embankment (and often a flight or two of stairs without railings) that passengers must negotiate every time they get on or off the boat. There are crew members who will assist those who have difficulty walking or climbing, but the truth is that there are many times when passengers with mobility problems will be unable to get where they want to go while also maintaining their dignity and independence.
This review surely makes us sound as if we are unreasonably picky travelers, but we are not. The two of us have lived and traveled all over the world, know well the reality that the unexpected and the inconvenient happen whenever you travel, and are just as willing as anyone else to be good sports. That being said, however, our experience with Great American Steamboat Company (or whatever they are calling themselves THIS week - yet another sign that they put their business into operation well before they were actually ready for Prime Time) was astoundingly disappointing, day after day. The company appears to be using income from current passengers to fund things that should have been taken care of before they started selling cruises to anyone, and savvy travelers will notice. People who are devoted to the old Delta Queen company, or who simply adore steamboats or river trips, or who love cruise living and entertainment regardless of consistent quality - these passengers may be well satisfied. We, however, were not, and we won't be back ... at least not until we know for certain that this company and this boat have improved tremendously. There are just too many other wonderful, reliable alternatives these days to put up with such poor overall vacation quality.