Updated July 29, 2019
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 -- so much so that the former has sued the latter over the verbiage.
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. 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 Americana as their chief selling point.
Itineraries and Fleet
American Cruise Lines has two riverboats on the Mississippi. Queen of the Mississippi is a 150-passenger vessel and America, which debuted in May 2016, carries 185 passengers. The two ships alternate routes on the Upper and Lower Mississippi River. The company also has two ships in the Pacific Northwest, 120-passenger Queen of the West and 150-passenger American Pride.
The cruise line's riverboats are only one part of its fleet, however. American Cruise Lines also has four coastal cruisers with another, American Constellation, set to join in 2017. 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 has a much smaller fleet, with only two vessels. Both are larger than the ones run by American Cruise Lines, however. American Queen carries 436 passengers; it's the largest steamboat ever built. 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.
Choose American Cruise Lines if you like lots of itinerary choices.
American Cruise Lines passengers are a loyal bunch, and many go beyond river cruising to book coastal cruises with the company. 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 Caribbean. Pearl Seas even sells cruises to Cuba (although the company has yet to receive approval from the country's government for berths).
Choose American Queen Steamboat Company if you want the old-fashioned paddlewheel experience.
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.
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 also has bikes onboard for its passengers to use in port. Both lines offer at least one complimentary shore excursion in each port.
Choose American Cruise Lines if you want mostly guided tours.
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.
Choose American Queen Steamboat Company if you like a little more independence.
American Queen has a unique approach to shore excursions. The line has its own 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 guided excursions). In general, people on American Queen seem a little more independent.
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 ocean cruises.
Because it's a bigger (and older) vessel, American Queen has a wider variety of cabins, including interior and 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). American Empress is similarly Victorian with ornate furniture, floral carpeting, brass, frosted-glass lampshades, lace curtains and elegant wallpaper.
American Cruise Lines' paddlewheels pay tribute to the steamboat age, but since they are new vessels instead of refurbishments, they feel more modern (and 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.
Chose American Cruise Lines if you want or need large, spacious cabins.
The cabins on American Cruise Lines' Mississippi ships are among the largest we've seen in cruising, both on the river and ocean, starting at a whopping 290 square feet on its newest vessel, 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).
Choose American Queen if you don't mind taking an inside cabin or a shared veranda.
Cabins on 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.
Both American Queen and American Cruise Lines tout regional cuisine on their ships. That means Southern and Creole inspired food on the Mississippi and fresh fish and fruit from the Pacific Northwest on those itineraries. Desserts in particular are delicious, and you'll find copious amounts of ice cream served on both lines. (In general, we'd rate the food on American Queen as slightly more sophisticated and flavorful.) Both lines do a heroic job of accommodating food allergies and preferences. Snacks and cookies are available all day on both lines.
Choose American Queen if you want an alternative place to dine or want to dine as a couple.
On both of its vessels, American Queen has more informal alternative restaurants 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.
Choose American Cruise Lines if you eschew buffets or don't mind ordering meals in advance.
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. There's only one dining room, and there are no tables for two.
Enrichment and Entertainment
Both cruise lines promote folksy, low-key fun. Daily lectures with a "riverlorian" 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.
Otherwise, daily entertainment depends on the itinerary and how much free time you have on your sailing. On Columbia and Snake River sailings, wine tastings are common, which makes sense, given the location. 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 has a casino or spa on its boats.
Choose American Queen if you want larger productions and dancing, or bars.
One of the highlights of the American Queen vessel is its Grand Saloon theater, which 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 and American Empress also have bars onboard, open during the day and after dinner. (American Cruise Lines has a complimentary cocktail hour before dinner but no bars or alcohol for sale.)
Choose American Cruise Lines if you like low-key entertainment and don't mind early nights.
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 trick demonstrations. 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. Both ships also feature elevators that run to all decks, a plus for those who can no longer navigate stairs on a moving vessel.
Choose American Queen if you want the familiar comforts of a larger vessel.
Although considerably smaller than most oceangoing vessels, American Queen's ships have some of the amenities you expect from cruising, such as a small spa, walking track and pool. The line also carries bikes onboard for passengers who want to explore in port.
Choose American Cruise Lines if you simply like watching the river roll by.
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.
Price and Inclusions
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.
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 through 2017 include gratuities, a pre-night stay at a hotel and transfers. American Queen rates also include a pre-cruise hotel stay; 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 if you're looking for a larger vessel with bustling public areas and more active entertainment.