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American Queen
American Queen

United States River Cruises: 9 Things to Know

American Queen
American Queen
Dori Saltzman

Last updated
Apr 19, 2023

Read time
5 min read

If you've explored the waterways of Europe, how about setting your sights on United States river cruise? Mississippi River cruises are undoubtedly the best-known, conjuring images of traditional paddlewheelers, but there are other waterways to explore, too.

To help paint a clearer picture of what it's like to take a United States river cruise, Cruise Critic has put together a list of nine things you probably don't know about cruising on U.S. rivers.

On This Page

1. It's a Boat, Not a Ship

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

Most cruisers, having been on larger oceangoing cruise vessels have been trained to call them ships. Boats, we're often told, must be small enough to be carried on a ship. And so it's easy to forget that even though you're cruising on a river, the vessel you're on is not a ship, but a boat. But that definition only applies if the vessel is built to sail the ocean. Vessels built specifically for lakes and rivers are called boats.

2. There Are Both a Captain and a Pilot Onboard U.S. River Boats

(Photo: American Cruise Lines)
Queen of the Mississippi TA Listings Page Image

Technically, there are two captains onboard, as all pilots also have their captain's licences. But because you cannot have two captains in command of a ship, one captain is the master and the other the pilot. Both stand watch (take command) for alternating six-hour shifts. When the boat is in a situation where both are needed (heavy fog or docking during bad weather, for instance), the master will concentrate on boat operations, while the pilot is in charge of navigation. On big ocean ships, local pilots come aboard to help the captain dock in specific ports, but river pilots often do not have intimate knowledge of specific stretches of water. This is particularly true because rivers (their shapes, depths, etc.) change on an almost daily basis.

3. Distances are in Regular Miles, not Nautical Miles on U.S. River Cruises

Image: Map of a cruise route along the Columbia and Snake Rivers - Map provided by UnCruise Adventures
Columbia and Snake River cruise map (Image: UnCruise Adventures)

Don't know what the captain of your mega-ship is trying to tell you when he says you're 50 nautical miles from a Caribbean island? Neither do we most of the time. Oh, we know it's something like 1.15 regular miles to the nautical mile, but who can be bothered doing maths when the waterslide is calling your name? So it's nice to know that when the captain of your river boat says it's 19 miles to Memphis, he means 19 plain old miles. Of course, we still have to do the maths to find out how long it's going to take to get there.

4. You Will Encounter Traffic on U.S. River Cruises

Artist rendering of Viking Mississippi  in St. Louis, Missouri, USA (Image: Viking River Cruises)
Viking Mississippi (Image: Viking River Cruises)

Sure you've seen other ships out on the big blue ocean, but they're usually far away and too hard to make out. On the river, though, you can practically reach out and touch the barge you're passing, and if you wave to the deckhand, he's going to see you and wave back. Plus, you can be sure the experienced pilots in your boat's wheelhouse are working the controls to make sure no one gets hit. Stand at the front of the ship during one of these encounters, and you'll be able to see as the boat is manoeuvred to avoid the traffic.

Exterior shot of American Harmony cruising along the river
American Harmony (Photo: American Cruise Lines)

5. Sometimes You Have to Stop on United States River Cruises

Exterior shot of American Song cruising the Columbia & Snake Rivers at sunset
American Song (Photo: American Cruise Lines)

Traffic isn't the only impediment on a river; locks (and occasionally dams) also slow boats down and bring them to a complete stop. Not all rivers have locks, which generally keep waters at an even level, but many do, including the Mississippi, Ohio and Columbia Rivers.

6. As with Ocean-faring Cruises, Weather Matters on the U.S. Rivers, Too

Forget about grey and rainy days hampering fun in the sun. Just as a hurricane can force an oceangoing cruise ship to change course, so too can bad weather -- in particular, heavy rain and droughts -- make or break a river itinerary. For instance, a drought along the Mississippi River in 2012 kept waters so low that riverboats couldn't sail upriver, and American Cruise Lines and American Queen Voyages had to push some of their Upper Mississippi sailings onto the Ohio. In 2013, 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.

7. Seasickness Will Not be a Problem on a U.S. River Cruise

Even during bad weather, you never have to worry about the "motion of the ocean." US river water pretty much only goes one way, and while you might bump into a log and feel the boat give a small jolt, it's never going to be rocking from side to side. So leave your seasick patches and pressure point bands at home; you don't need them.

8. River Cruises Dock Can Dock in the Centre of Towns and Cities

St. Louis (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)
St. Louis (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)

American riverboats don't need to dock only at large piers like their oceangoing counterparts. If you can offload a fishing boat into the water at the town's edge, you can dock a 400-passenger riverboat there, too. That means riverboats are capable of pulling up and disembarking passengers within easy walking distance of town. In St. Louis, the landmark Arch is less than a 10-minute walk from where the riverboats moor. In Cincinnati, though the boat is technically docked in Newport, Kentucky, you're just 20 minutes from the heart of the city. So even if you don't want to spend anything to do an excursion, it's easy -- and free -- to make your way into just about any town or city you visit.

9. It Probably Won't be Your Last United States River Cruise

New Orleans (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)
New Orleans (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)

You may think you're only giving one United States river cruise a try to see what all the buzz is about, but don't be surprised if you've got your second river cruise planned before you're even done with the first. River cruise companies have some of the highest repeat rates in the cruise industry. People just can't get enough of them. Whether it's the bucolic towns and quaint cities, superb service and excellent food, all-inclusive pricing and sociable clientele or a mix of all and more, most river cruisers can't wait to sail the next river. It's also worth noting that the ships that ply American waterways are much larger than their European counterparts and have more onboard facilities, such as theatres.

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