Updated October 10, 2018
River cruising remains a mystery to most people. Few people understand what it means to actually be on a river boat ... especially in the United States, where only a handful of boats ply the American waterways.
To help paint a clearer picture of what it's like to take a U.S. river cruise, Cruise Critic has put together a list of nine things you probably don't know about cruising on U.S. rivers.
1. It's a boat, not a ship.
Most cruisers, having been on larger oceangoing cruise vessels have been trained to call them ships. Boats, we're often told, must be small enough to be carried on a ship. And so it's easy to forget that even though you're cruising on a river, the vessel you're on is not a ship, but a boat. But that definition only applies if the vessel is built to sail the ocean. Vessels built specifically for lakes and rivers are called boats.
2. There are both a captain and a pilot onboard U.S. river boats.
Technically, there are two captains onboard, as all pilots also have their captain's licenses. But because you cannot have two captains in command of a ship, one captain is the master and the other the pilot. Both stand watch (take command) for alternating six-hour shifts. When the boat is in a situation where both are needed (heavy fog or docking during bad weather, for instance), the master will concentrate on boat operations, while the pilot is in charge of navigation. On big ocean ships, local pilots come aboard to help the Captain dock in specific ports, but river pilots often do not have intimate knowledge of specific stretches of water. This is particularly true because rivers (their shapes, depths, etc.) change on an almost daily basis.
3. Distances are in regular miles, not nautical miles.
Don't know what the captain of your mega-ship is trying to tell you when he says you're 50 nautical miles from St. Thomas? Neither do we most of the time. Oh, we know it's something like 1.15 regular miles to the nautical mile, but who can be bothered doing math when the waterslide is calling your name? So it's nice to know that when the captain of your river boat says it's 19 miles to Memphis, he means 19 plain old miles. Of course, we still have to do the math to find out how long it's going to take to get there.
4. You will encounter traffic.
Sure you've seen other ships out on the big blue ocean, but they're usually far away and too hard to make out. On the river, though, you can practically reach out and touch the barge you're passing, and if you wave to the deckhand, he's going to see you and wave back. Plus, you can be sure the experienced pilots in your boat's wheelhouse are working the controls to make sure no one gets hit. Stand at the front of the ship during one of these encounters, and you'll be able to see as the boat is maneuvered to avoid the traffic.
5. Sometimes you have to stop.
Traffic isn't the only impediment on a river; locks (and occasionally dams) also slow boats down and bring them to a complete stop. Not all rivers have locks, which generally keep waters at an even level, but many do, including the Mississippi, Ohio and Columbia Rivers.
6. Weather matters.
Forget about gray and rainy days hampering fun in the sun. Just as a hurricane can force an oceangoing cruise ship to change course, so too can bad weather -- in particular, heavy rain and droughts -- make or break a river itinerary. For instance, a drought along the Mississippi River in 2012 kept waters so low that riverboats couldn't sail upriver, and American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company had to push some of their Upper Mississippi sailings onto the Ohio. In 2013, too much rain flooded the river, making it impossible for riverboats to get under bridges and forcing the closing of several locks. The result was the same as during the drought. Boats scheduled to sail the Upper Mississippi were diverted onto the Ohio.
7. Seasickness will not be a problem.
Even during bad weather, you never have to worry about the "motion of the ocean." U.S. river water pretty much only goes one way, and while you might bump into a log and feel the boat give a small jolt, it's never going to be rocking from side to side. So leave your seasick patches and pressure point bands at home; you don't need 'em.
8. You can walk if you want to.
American riverboats don't need to dock only at large piers like their oceangoing counterparts. If you can offload a power fishing boat into the water at the town's edge, you can dock a 400-passenger riverboat there, too. That means riverboats are capable of pulling up and debarking passengers within easy walking distance of town. In St. Louis, the Arch is less than a 10-minute walk from where the riverboats moor. In Cincinnati, though the boat is technically docked in Newport, Kentucky, you're just a 15-minute walk across a pedestrian bridge from the Great American Ballpark where the Reds play, and 20 minutes from the heart of the city. So even if you don't want to spend anything to do an excursion, it's easy -- and free -- to make your way into just about any town or city you visit.
9. It probably won't be your last (river) rodeo.
You may think you're only giving one U.S. river cruise a try to see what all the buzz is about, but don't be surprised if you've got your second river cruise planned before you're even done with the first. River cruise companies have some of the highest repeat rates in the cruise industry. People just can't get enough of them. Whether it's the bucolic towns and quaint cities, superb service and excellent food, all-inclusive pricing and sociable clientele or a mix of all and more, most river cruisers can't wait to sail the next river.