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American Heritage on the Mississippi (Photo: American Cruise Lines)
American Heritage on the Mississippi (Photo: American Cruise Lines)

5 Things to Know Before Cruising the Mississippi River

American Heritage on the Mississippi (Photo: American Cruise Lines)
American Heritage on the Mississippi (Photo: American Cruise Lines)
Contributor
Dori Saltzman
Assistant SEO Editor
Marilyn Borth

Last updated
Jul 17, 2024

Read time
6 min read

Mississippi river cruises are a great way to explore the myriad top destinations along the fourth-longest river in the world: the Mississippi River. The Mississippi snakes its way from northern Minnesota to New Orleans for 2,340 miles.

Cruises on the Mississippi River usually include one section -- either Upper or Lower of the Mississippi -- of the river for week-long cruises, but it's possible to book a three-week itinerary to take in as much of America's heartland as possible.

Whether you're looking to see where Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) was born, explore Civil War sites or take in the music, food and culture of the South, you'll find a wide variety of Mississippi river cruises that suit your interests. Here are five things you need to know prior to the life-changing experience of cruising on the Mississippi River.

1. Mississippi River Cruise Itineraries Split the Waterway into Three Segments: Upper, Middle and Lower

Mississippi River Map for Cruises
Mississippi River Map for Cruises (Photo: Viking)

Because of its length, the Mississippi is usually divided into three parts for river cruising: Upper, Middle and Lower. 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 go. 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 Cruises (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 Cruises (Memphis to St. Louis): These are 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.

Upper Mississippi Cruises (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.

2. Cruises On the Mississippi River Are Offered By Two Main Lines

Exterior aerial rendering of Viking Mississippi cruising the Mississippi River in autumn
Viking Mississippi (Image: Viking River Cruises)

After American Queen Voyages closed down in February 2024, there are two Mississippi River cruise lines to choose from: American Cruise Lines and Viking River Cruises. American Cruise Lines operates five ships -- a mix of old-style paddlewheelers and new modern riverboats -- on 11 itineraries, anywhere from five to 22 days, along the Mississippi, as well as the Ohio River, Cumberland River and Tennessee River.

The world's largest river cruise operator Viking River Cruises launched its first ship on the Mississippi -- and first-ever vessel in the U.S. -- in 2022. Breaking away from the tradition of paddlewheelers, the Viking Mississippi features the line's trademark Scandinavian design elements. It sails on four weeklong itineraries and one 14-night voyage.

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3. Cruise the Mississippi in a Traditional Steamboat or a Modern River Cruise Ship -- You Choose

Exterior aerial shot of Queen of the Mississippi cruising down a North America river
Queen of the Mississippi (Photo: American Cruise Lines)

If you want to experience cruising the Mississippi River in a more "traditional" way (but with modern comforts), go for a steamboat; if you’d rather travel in something less traditional, opt for one of the modern cruise ships. In terms of itineraries, all three cruise lines offer a wide range of options.

American Cruise Lines offers a dozen itineraries ranging in length from five to 22 days. Options include round-trip cruises from New Orleans, Lower and Upper Mississippi itineraries, and themed cruises such as Music Cities and Great Smoky Mountains.

The cruise line has five ships on the Mississippi, including the traditionally-styled paddlewheelers American Heritage and American Splendor. It also runs its more modern-style riverboats -- the first of their kind in the U.S. -- American Melody, American Serenade and American Symphony on the Mississippi.

Viking has only one ship on this river, the upscale, 450-foot Viking Mississippi. The eight-day New Orleans & Southern Charms is the shortest itinerary available, while the 22-day Grand Mississippi Voyage covers the entire river, from New Orleans to St. Paul.

4. The Best Time to Take Cruise on the a Mississippi River Is Anytime

Mississippi River Cruise Tips (Photo: American Queen Steamboat Company)
Mississippi River Cruise Tips (Photo: American Queen Steamboat Company)
Given that the river courses through 10 states, there’s not a bad time for a Mississippi River cruise, but a good rule of thumb is to opt for the spring and fall. Cruising the Mississippi River during these two seasons especially will allow you to avoid the extreme humidity and heat of the warmest months in the South, and the coldest days of winter in the Midwest.

However, there are slight differences depending on the section of the river you’re looking to cruise. It’s best to cruise the Upper Mississippi in the spring, fall and summer, when temperatures are milder. This section should be avoided in the winter.

The Lower Mississippi has the longest season, typically running 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). The Lower Mississippi is best in the spring, fall and winter. High temperatures and humidity levels make the summer less enjoyable.

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, so be prepared for sudden thunderstorms. The weather cools down quite considerably (especially in the morning and evening) come autumn. Mosquitos can also be a problem, so be sure to bring insect repellent.

5. Be Wary of Weather on the Mississippi River Changing Your Cruise Itinerary

The Mississippi River at Natchez at sunset (Photo: David Sanchez/Flickr)
The Mississippi River at Natchez at sunset (Photo: David Sanchez/Flickr)

The same way a hurricane might force an oceangoing cruise ship to change course, bad weather on the rivers can alter itineraries. For instance, one year's drought along the Mississippi 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.


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