Updated August 21, 2018
A Mississippi River cruise is a journey into the heartland of the United States, as well as a voyage through the country's history, from the early 19th century through to the present. But the mighty Mississippi is a long river and unless you've got three weeks to devote to your sailing, you'll need to choose between the lower and upper half of the river. We've broken down the pros and cons of cruising each half of the river to help you decide whether an upper Mississippi River or lower Mississippi River sailing is right for you.
Lower Mississippi River Pros and Cons
Cruisers interested in lower Mississippi cruises typically have several choices: round trip from New Orleans, New Orleans to Memphis, Memphis to St. Louis, and New Orleans to St. Louis (the last three can be done in the reverse order as well). Popular stops might include Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi and Baton Rouge and Nottoway in Louisiana, among others.
There is no cruise option as deeply rooted in southern U.S. history as a lower Mississippi River cruise. Itineraries visit cities steeped in Civil War history, antebellum plantations and somber battlefields, and explore how the South's particular history inspired its cuisine and music. Food and music follow passengers on a lower Mississippi sailing, with lots of down-home, Cajun and Creole meal choices and plenty of jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll to get your toes tapping all night.
On the flip side, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri can get awfully hot during the dog days of summer. Be prepared for high humidity and mosquitos.
Upper Mississippi River Pros and Cons
Upper Mississippi River sailings are limited to just one itinerary: St. Louis to St. Paul (or vice versa). While different cruise lines might offer slightly different ports of call (American Cruise Lines visits Davenport, Iowa, while American Queen Steamboat Company visits Clinton, Iowa, for instance), an upper Mississippi sailing always begins and ends in St. Louis and St. Paul.
The scenery along the upper Mississippi River is beautiful; the farther north you are, the more likely you are to spot wildlife while cruising. You'll definitely see egrets, hawks and bald eagles, and, if you're lucky, spot turtles and otters in the river. Fans of modern engineering also will find something to love on upper Mississippi sailings, as only on the upper part of the river will your cruise go through a series of locks (more than 20 actually). In general, temperatures on upper Mississippi sailings are slightly less than on lower Mississippi cruises, and there is usually less humidity.
However, choosing an upper Mississippi itinerary can be a bit of a gamble. Water levels must stay even in order for riverboats to fit under the large number of bridges that span the Mississippi from St. Louis on north. Even a little bit of flooding along the Mississippi from too much rain can raise the level of the river, making it impossible for boats to get under bridges.
Upper Mississippi vs. Lower Mississippi River: Bottom Line
Choose a lower Mississippi itinerary if you're interested in U.S. history, particularly the Civil War. Also choose a lower Mississippi sailing if you want more Southern cuisine, a music-themed cruise or want a greater choice of itineraries. Choose upper Mississippi sailings if you're interested in mainstream Americana or want scenic views throughout your sailing. With an upper Mississippi sailing, always be prepared for a change of plans if there has been too much rain in the spring or early summer.