1. Home
  2. Cruise Styles
  3. River Cruises
  4. Mississippi River Cruise Tips
Mississippi River Cruise Tips (Photo: American Queen Steamboat Company)

Mississippi River Cruise Tips

Updated September 21, 2017

After sailing the seven seas, not to mention many of Europe's rivers, what is left for an avid cruiser to conquer? The North American rivers and lakes, of course.

The Mississippi River is the country's most iconic. It twists its way from northern Minnesota to New Orleans through the heartland, growing considerably wider (and browner) the farther south you go.

Itineraries along the Mississippi River are culturally intriguing and crammed with history. In a single day, you might witness someone being baptized in the river near your boat, learn about the worst floods in U.S. history and tour a Civil War battlefield.

If all you know is ocean cruising, be prepared for a surprise. First of all, most river itineraries are port intensive, so passengers spend considerably less time entertaining themselves on the boat. When you do find yourself with down time, the experience is more laid-back. You might attend a lecture and then spend the rest of your day relaxing on your balcony watching the world go by. Mealtimes are major focal points of each day, and evening entertainment is less sophisticated -- think performances by a small group of theater singers or local musical acts vs. high-tech song-and-dance revues.


Mississippi River Cruise Lines

Two companies ply the Mississippi on a regular basis. American Cruise Lines operates Queen of the Mississippi (through early 2016) and American Eagle on the Lower and Upper Mississippi, while American Queen Steamboat Company operates namesake boat American Queen on all of the Mississippi.

European river cruise operator Viking River Cruises plans to sail the Mississippi, using New Orleans as its homeport, although a launch date has not been specified. The ships will not be paddlewheelers. Instead, they will have the company's signature Longship style and focus on enrichment.


Choosing a Mississippi River Cruise Itinerary

Because it is so long, the Mississippi River is usually divided into three parts. Each segment typically takes a week, or you can combine them for a three-week cruise. The scenery along the river is generally prettier and the wildlife more prevalent the farther north you are on the river. All segments can be done in either direction.

Keep in mind that sailing against the current slows the boat and generally means fewer ports or less time in port, but you'll have more time to relax onboard.

Lower Mississippi (New Orleans to Memphis): A weeklong sailing, which can run in either direction, this stretch of the river can include port stops like Oak Alley and Nottoway plantations, Baton Rouge and St. Francisville in Louisiana; Natchez, Vicksburg and Greenville in Mississippi; and Helena, Arkansas. The occasional New Orleans (round trip) cruise, which can run from five to seven days, typically visits the same ports, minus Memphis.

Middle Mississippi (Memphis to St. Louis): Also weeklong itineraries that can run in either direction, these sailings typically feature stops at New Madrid and Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Paducah, Kentucky; and Chester, Illinois. Memphis to St. Louis sailings feature more scenic sailing and fewer port stops than other Mississippi itineraries, and, as such, fewer of these itineraries are offered.

Upper Mississippi (St. Louis to St. Paul): Considered the most scenic stretch of Mississippi, these weeklong sailings stop at ports that include Hannibal, Missouri; Davenport, Clinton and Dubuque, Iowa; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Red Wing, Minnesota. You might also find the occasional St. Louis round trip or St. Paul round trip sailing, each of which features an extra stop in either Illinois, Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Mississippi and Ohio rivers: Some Mississippi River sailings also spend time visiting Ohio River ports. 


Best Time to Cruise the Mississippi River

The Lower Mississippi River has the longest season, which typically runs from November through December and April to mid-June, with most sailings on the bottom one-third of the river (New Orleans round trip or New Orleans to Memphis). In the spring and early summer, the Upper Mississippi is generally too high for riverboats to traverse, so the Upper Mississippi itineraries don't typically begin sailing until July.

With Louisiana and Mississippi at their hottest and muggiest during the summer, the bulk of the summer season is split between Upper Mississippi sailings and Ohio River sailings, with the Upper Mississippi taking over again for the most of the month of October. Even on the Upper Mississippi, temperatures can climb into the 90s, and humidity is high during the summer. Always be prepared for sudden thunderstorms brought on by the humidity. The weather cools down quite considerably (especially in the morning and evening) come fall.

Mosquitos also can be a problem in several of these states, as they all experience high humidity in the summer, so be sure to bring bug spray.

For more about America's rivers, read our River Cruise Basics feature.


Find a Cruise

Mississippi River Port Highlights

New Orleans, Louisiana: Thick with atmosphere, New Orleans is world-famous for its annual Mardi Gras celebration, beautiful French Quarter neighborhood, great Southern and Creole cooking and some of the world's best jazz music.

Vicksburg, Mississippi: The site of a famous Civil War battlefield, Vicksburg also offers visitors a glimpse into its Southern heritage with antebellum plantations, old churches and restored train depots. A popular attraction is National Military Park, where visitors can learn about the siege and defense of the city. The park includes more than 1,370 monuments and markers, a restored Union gunboat and a national cemetery. Boat-lovers might like the Old Depot Museum, which features the world's largest collection of ship models, as well as a collection of riverboat models and U.S. Navy ships with Mississippi names.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana's state capital is an intriguing mixture of African-American and Caribbean cultures and a hot spot for Creole and Cajun cuisine. Visit Louisiana's Old State Capitol or new state capitol building -- or head to the LSU Rural Life Museum for a showcase of what life was like on a typical 19th century plantation. Visit the kitchen, slave cabins and grist mill before touring a replica of the town.

Memphis, Tennessee: The king of rock 'n' roll called Memphis home, and Elvis' home is the city's biggest tourist attraction. But Memphis is more than just Graceland. The National Civil Rights Museum is a must-visit, as is Shelby Farms, one of the country's largest urban parks.

St. Louis, Missouri: Known as the Gateway to the West, the iconic Gateway Arch offers great views of the city, as well as the mighty Mississippi. Other attractions include the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and Missouri Botanical Garden.

Hannibal, Missouri: Rediscover the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in Hannibal as you visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Other Mark Twain sites include the Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher houses.

St. Paul, Minnesota: One of the Twin Cities, St. Paul offers several historic homes open to the public, as well as museums, art galleries and Indian Mounds Regional Park, with its scenic overlook. A unique attraction is the Wabasha Street Caves, a cave-turned-event hall that was once the haunt of Prohibition-era gangsters but today is used mostly for weddings.


Mississippi River Cruise Tips

Prepare for small towns. Itineraries might incorporate major cities like New Orleans and Memphis as cornerstones, but your experience will also focus on smaller towns along the way.

Prepare for calm waters. Inland waterways are much calmer than those on ocean-based trips, which is great news if you're prone to seasickness.

Listen up. Because of the short distances between ports, full days of river cruising are rare. However, when you spend time sailing, there is usually commentary from a "riverlorian" over the public address system explaining some of the sights you pass.

Mother Nature rules. The same way a hurricane might force an oceangoing cruise ship to change course, bad weather on the rivers can alter itineraries. In particular, heavy rain and droughts can make or break a river trip. For instance, one year's drought along the Mississippi River kept waters so low that riverboats couldn't sail upriver, and operators had to push some of their Upper Mississippi sailings onto the Ohio. Another year, 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.

Popular on Cruise Critic

8 Best Luxury Cruise Ships
The moment you step aboard a luxury cruise ship, a hostess is at your arm proffering a glass of bubbly while a capable room steward offers to heft your carry-on as he escorts you to what will be your home-away-from-home for the next few days. You stow your things (likely in a walk-in closet) and then emerge from your suite to get the lay of the ship. As you walk the decks, friendly crew members greet you ... by name. How can that be? You just set foot onboard! First-class, personalized service is just one of the hallmarks of luxury cruise lines. You can also expect exotic itineraries, varying degrees of inclusivity in pricing, fine wines and gourmet cuisine as well as universally high crew-to-passenger ratios. That being the case, you might think any old luxury cruise ship will do, but that's not quite true. Like people, cruise ships have their own unique personalities -- and some will be more suited to your vacation style than others. Lines like SeaDream might not offer the most spacious suites, but their intimate yachts can stealthily visit ports that large ships can't manage. Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises are owned by the same parent company but Regent offers a completely inclusive vacation experience, while Oceania draws travelers with a more independent streak. Take a look at Cruise Critic's list of best luxury cruise lines and ships to see which one resonates with you.
Best Time to Cruise
It's one of the most common cruising questions: When is the best time to cruise Alaska, Australia, the Caribbean, Canada/New England, Hawaii, Europe or the South Pacific? The answer depends on many variables. Fall foliage enthusiasts, for instance, will find September and October the best time to take that Canada/New England cruise, whereas water sports-lovers (and families) much prefer to sail the region in the summer when school is out and temperatures are warmer for swimming. The best time to cruise to Alaska will vary depending on your preferences for viewing wildlife, fishing, bargain-shopping, sunshine, warm weather and catching the northern lights. For most cruise regions, there are periods of peak demand (high season), moderate demand (shoulder season) and low demand (low season), which is usually the cheapest time to cruise. High season is typically a mix of when the weather is best and popular travel periods (such as summer and school holidays). However, the best time to cruise weather-wise is usually not the cheapest time to cruise. The cheapest time to cruise is when most travelers don't want to go because of chillier temperatures or inopportune timing (too close to holidays, the start of school, etc.). But the lure of cheap fares and uncrowded ports might make you change your mind about what you consider the best time to cruise. As you plan your next cruise, you'll want to take into consideration the best and cheapest times to cruise and see what jibes with your vacation schedule. Here's a when-to-cruise guide for popular destinations.
How To Choose a Cruise Ship Cabin: What You Need to Know
Your room on a cruise ship is called a cabin (or stateroom) and is akin to a hotel room, but typically much smaller. Choosing a cruise ship cabin can be fun and challenging at the same time, and not just a little bit frustrating on occasion. Cabins fall into different types or "categories," and some cruise lines will present as many as 20 or more categories per ship. Before you get overwhelmed, it's helpful to remember that there are essentially only four types of cabins on any cruise vessel: Inside: the smallest-sized room, with no window to the outside Outside: a room with a window or porthole (a round window) with a view to the outside, often similarly sized to an inside cabin or a bit larger; also known as oceanview Balcony: a room featuring a verandah that allows you to step outside without going up to a public deck Suite: a larger cabin, often with separate living and sleeping areas, and a wide variety of extra amenities and perks It's the permutations (size, view, location, amenities and price, for example) of the four basic cabin types that can make choosing difficult. In addition to knowing your cabin options, you need to know yourself: Do you tend to get seasick? Do you prefer to nest peaceably on your balcony rather than hanging with the crowd around the pool area? Conversely, is your idea of a stateroom simply a place to flop into bed at 1 a.m. -- no fancy notions necessary? Are there certain amenities you are willing to splurge on, or can you simply not justify paying for unnecessary perks? The answers will help guide you toward selecting the best stateroom for your money. If you're feeling overwhelmed by choice, we'll help you get started with this guide to choosing the best cruise cabins for you and your travel party.