If you're looking to book a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River, you might run into confusion when you begin to research the two main providers. The names of competing American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company sound a lot alike – and have a lot of similarities.
Both companies offer American river cruises, not only in the heartland on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, but also in the Pacific Northwest on the Columbia and Snake that run through Oregon and Washington state. Both have ships that look like old-fashioned paddlewheelers, although only American Queen Steamboat Company's vessels actually rely upon them. And both like to promote a healthy dose of Americana as their chief selling point.
American Cruise Lines offers the larger fleet, with 12 vessels offering river and coastal cruises throughout the United States.
American Cruise Lines has two riverboats on the Mississippi. Queen of the Mississippi is a 150-passenger vessel built in 2015 and styled like the grand riverboats of days gone by. The America, which debuted in May 2016, carries 185 passengers and offers similar styling. The two ships alternate routes on the Upper and Lower Mississippi River. The company also has two paddlewhellers in the Pacific Northwest: the 120-passenger Queen of the West and the 150-passenger American Pride.
American Cruise Lines also offers more modern, contemporary riverboats on the Mississippi. These include American Song, American Harmony and American Jazz – the latter launching in 2020 - all of which offer larger staterooms and a unique bow gangway system that lets these vessels dock in places normally out of reach to larger ships.
The cruise line's riverboats are only one part of its fleet, however. American Cruise Lines also has five coastal cruisers. These vessels sail a variety of itineraries, including the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Hudson River, Chesapeake Bay, the South Carolina coast and the rivers of northern Florida. Most carry about 150 passengers.
American Queen Steamboat Company, meanwhile, has a fleet of four classically-styled paddlewheelers. The legendary American Queen carries 436 passengers; it's the largest steamboat ever built, and offers grand interiors and public spaces to match. The ship sails the Upper and Lower Mississippi, as well as the Ohio River. Likewise, American Empress is the largest on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, with 223 passengers. Two new vessels – American Duchess and American Countess – have recently been added to the Mississippi. Built on the hulls of former gambling boats, these vessels offer large staterooms and opulent public spaces, even if the ship’s exteriors are somewhat boxier than their fleetmates.
American Cruise Lines passengers are a loyal bunch, and many go beyond river cruising to book coastal cruises with the company. The fleet of modern riverboats offers a nice twist on what can be a nostalgic itinerary. In addition, the same company owns Pearl Seas Cruises, an oceangoing line that sails a 210-passenger ship, Pearl Mist, on the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Canadian Maritimes, and the U.S. East Coast.
While its competitors' ships on the Mississippi have paddlewheels, they're purely for show. The American Queen is a true steamboat, built for the now defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Company, and its Victorian decor and furnishings fit the authentic vibe; there's even a calliope that plays when the ship arrives and leaves port. A similar, though modern, ship on the Columbia and Snake rivers – the American Empress – offers a paddlewheel that aids in propulsion but the ship is actually driven by a series of podded propellers known as Z-drives.
Mississippi River itineraries, in general, draw an older passenger than what you'd find on a European or Asian river cruise. That's because many people, as they get older, no longer want the hassle of long flights and foreign currencies; they may also have health or mobility issues and be wary of international hospitals.
Why do we mention this? It's to let you know that most shore excursions on the Mississippi River are on the sedate side, with coach tours as the norm. Both cruise lines cater to those with mobility issues, using golf carts to assist passengers with the levees. American Queen Steamboat Company skews slightly younger and offers bikes onboard for its passengers to use in port. Both lines offer at least one complimentary shore excursion in each port.
On most sailings, all of the tours -- with the exception of those where you tour a historic home -- are done by motor coach. While the line makes a shuttle bus into town available in several ports, only a handful of passengers take advantage of it.
American Queen has a unique approach to shore excursions. The line has its own branded Hop On, Hop Off buses that travel the route with the ship, allowing passengers to do their own thing in most ports (in addition to a selection of guided excursions on offer). In general, people on American Queen and American Empress seem a little more independent, and are happy to use these buses as a means to explore at their leisure.
Without the space constraints that limit European riverboats, the vessels on American waterways are delightfully spacious. Standard cabins with balconies are much larger than you find on European rivers and, in many cases, bigger than what you'll find on standard mainstream ocean cruises.
Because it's a bigger (and older) vessel, American Queen has a wider variety of cabins, including cozy interior and spacious river view. The ship plays up its historical heritage with Victorian chandeliers, wood and gingerbread trim; even the smallest cabins are a melange of polished wood, colorful Victorian patterns, framed photos that celebrate the steamship era and Victorian furnishings (antiques and reproductions). The same goes for American Duchess and the forthcoming American Countess, setting sail in 2020.
On the Columbia and Snake Rivers, American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress is similarly Victorian in style with ornate furniture, floral carpeting, brass, frosted-glass lampshades, lace curtains and elegant wallpaper throughout. The popular Paddlewheel Lounge – a cozy watering hole with views of the ship’s bright-red paddlewheel – is one of the ship’s best features.
American Cruise Lines' paddlewheelers pay tribute to the steamboat age, but since they are new vessels instead of refurbishments, they feel more modern (and perhaps slightly more generic). All the cabins on the paddlewheelers are fairly large sized, and almost all have private balconies. While both lines have cabins for solo travelers -- a boon for the more mature audience -- American Cruise Lines' are larger and all have at least a view, if not a private balcony.
Cabins on American Cruise Line’s coastal fleet are similarly-styled: quite large, although more modern. Don’t expect much in the way of fancy furnishings or trendsetting décor, though rooms offer up a mix of earthtones and pastels that make them feel welcoming and cozy.
The cabins on American Cruise Lines' Mississippi ships are among the largest on the river, starting at a whopping 290 square feet on its newest paddlewheeler, America. On this ship, the majority are 304 square feet and even the solo cabins start at 203 square feet without a balcony and 230 square feet with one. Out in the Pacific Northwest, the cabins aren't quite as big, but still large by river cruising standards; Queen of the West staterooms start at 183 square feet for a double and 149 square feet for a single (181 square feet if there's a balcony).
Cabins on American Queen Steamboat Company's American Queen range from suites with shared verandas (338 to 353 square feet of space) to rooms with private verandas (with about 230 square feet of space) to the eight minuscule inside singles (80 square feet). Keep in mind that not all veranda cabins are private; the majority open to promenade decks where people can walk by while you're using them. Many passengers prefer these balconies, seeing them as a nice way to people- watch and socialize.
On the American Duchess and American Countess, inside cabins are some of the best deals around. Furnished attractively and luxuriously, these price-conscious rooms are 180 square feet (170 aboard American Countess) and are located conveniently throughout the ship.
Of course, plenty of verandah cabins are available as well – including an owner’s suite that measures a whopping 550 square feet aboard American Duchess.
Both American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines tout the regional cuisine on their ships. That means Southern and Creole-inspired food on the Mississippi and fresh seafood, local craft beers and fruit from the Pacific Northwest on itineraries on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Desserts in particular are delicious, and you'll find copious amounts of ice cream served on both lines. Both lines do a heroic job of accommodating food allergies and preferences. Snacks and cookies are available all day on both lines.
On all of its vessels, American Queen Steamboat Company offers an informal alternative restaurant – the River Grill - where passengers can come and go during dining hours. The line also has tables for two in its main dining rooms, which give couples a chance for a private dinner (though plenty of large tables are available for those who want to mingle).
All meals on American Cruise Lines, including breakfast and lunch, are waiter served, which is another plus for the mobility challenged. One quirk of the line is that passengers are asked to place orders for lunch and dinner on cards at breakfast time; we found that you were able to get whatever you wanted, though, if you changed your mind or forgot.
Both cruise lines promote folksy, low-key fun. Daily lectures with a "riverlorian" (a combination storyteller and historian who sails onboard) are a highlight each day. We have yet to hear of a boring river historian; many of them work on both lines and have cult followings where passengers follow them from ship to ship. No matter which ship you're sailing, a Mark Twain impersonator is almost a given on Mississippi sailings, while tales of Lewis and Clark are likely to crop up on Columbia and Snake River sailings.
Otherwise, daily entertainment depends on the itinerary and how much free time you have on your sailing. On Columbia and Snake River sailings, wine and craft beer tastings are common, which makes sense, given the Pacific Northwest’s penchant for both libations. Activities on the Mississippi, such as kite flying and sing-alongs with root-beer floats and huge ice cream sundaes, are more laid back, with almost childlike simplicity. Neither line offers a casino, but American Queen Steamboat Company offers a small fitness center on almost all of its vessels, and spa treatments aboard the American Queen.
One of the highlights of the American Queen Steamboat Company is its Grand Saloon theater, which aboard the American Queen is a replica of the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. The line uses this space for performances that range from big band sounds to a revue of made-in-America classics and Broadway favorites. Depending on your sailing, you might also be treated to magicians or Mark Twain impersonators. Some voyages have themes such as Elvis Presley, swing music or the Rat Pack.
American Queen’s entire fleet also offers dedicated bars onboard, open during the day and after dinner for late-night nightcaps.
American Cruise Lines has a complimentary cocktail hour before dinner but no bars or alcohol are for sale.
With much smaller vessels, American Cruise Lines has a limit on the type of entertainment its ships can provide. Expect jazz and blues duos or magic demonstrations that are short and sweet. While some dancing takes place onboard, this is a ship that retires early; very little activity is seen on the boat after 9 p.m. There is a well-attended complimentary cocktail hour before the evening meal that boasts a full active bar; passengers are welcome to take a complimentary bottle of wine after dinner to enjoy either at the entertainment, up on deck or in their room. They can also bring their own alcoholic beverages onboard.
As befits its larger vessels, American Queen Steamboat Company has more public spaces and amenities onboard than its competitor. The line’s fleet also features elevators that run to all decks, a plus for those who can no longer navigate the sometimes steep stairs on a moving vessel.
Although considerably smaller than most oceangoing vessels, American Queen's ships have some of the amenities you expect from cruising, including a bar, lounge, multiple dining venues and other niceties. The line also carries bikes onboard for passengers who want to explore in port.
American Cruise Lines' smaller vessels do not have the amenities mentioned above -- and we found that passengers were OK without them. The boats do have plenty of lounges for reading or playing cards and extensive outdoor deck space.
Neither American Cruise Lines or American Queen Steamboat Company are what we'd call inexpensive. Because the ships are required to pay American wages (and overtime) to an all-American crew, fares are significantly higher than what you see in Europe or in ocean cruising. A seven-day Mississippi River cruise can cost as much as a luxury cruise with Seabourn.
Comparing direct prices is difficult, as both cruise lines have specials and fares can vary depending on itinerary and time of year. In general, American Cruise Lines' prices seem to be higher than American Queen's, but keep in mind that their ships on the Mississippi are significantly smaller and cabins are larger – hence the higher prices.
With both lines, you do receive quite a bit included in your fare. On American Cruise Lines, prices include wine, beer and soda at lunch and dinner; a full bar at daily cocktail hour; Wi-Fi; and a daily shore excursion. Fares include gratuities, a pre-night stay at a hotel and transfers. American Queen Steamboat Company’s rates also include a pre-cruise hotel stay on most itineraries; transfer to the boat; soft drinks, coffee and tea all day; beer and wine with dinner; a complimentary set of shore excursions; and use of bicycles during port calls. Both lines also have included Wi-Fi.
Choose American Cruise Lines if you're a senior cruiser who is looking for a small ship cruise that is thoughtful about mobility issues and offers plenty of low-key, old-fashioned entertainment.
Choose American Queen Steamboat Company if you're looking for a larger vessel with bustling public areas and more active entertainment that often draws a slightly younger crowd.
Updated December 23, 2019