Everything You Need to Know about River Cruises in the U.S.

A complete guide to U.S. river cruises and cruise lines.
American Empress is one of four U.S. river cruise ships operated by American Queen Voyages (Photo: American Queen Voyages)
Photo: American Queen Voyages

When you think of river cruises, you’re probably imagining the enormously popular river cruises in Europe. But there are U.S. river cruises too, and they’re just as spectacular as their overseas counterparts. From making your way down the mighty Mississippi River to gliding past the cute seaside villages of New England, there are river cruises in U.S. to meet every interest and budget.

On U.S. river cruises, the ships tend to be smaller and more intimate than traditional ocean liners. These smaller ships are designed to better navigate the country’s narrow rivers, and they come in a variety of styles. On some American river cruises, the ships are the iconic southern paddlewheel boats outfitted with luxury in mind. Others are modern riverboats that look more like miniature ocean liners similar to what you’ll find in Europe.

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What’s Included on a River Cruise in the United States?

American Symphony river cruise ship (Photo American Cruise Lines)
The American Symphony river cruise ship has a four-story glass atrium in the center of the ship (Photo: American Cruise Lines)

With U.S. river cruises, most things are included in a single price. Your stateroom, meals, activities, onboard entertainment, and some excursions are all part of the package. Depending on the river cruise line or destination, a pre-cruise hotel stay may also be included. Sometimes, river cruise lines operating in the United States will also offer free one-way airfare promotions, so if you have the flexibility to wait for a deal, you can probably find one.

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If pre-cruise hotel stays aren’t bundled into the up-front cost, some river cruise lines will offer it as an add-on cost. As with any cruise, it’s always a good idea to arrive a day before your embarkation so that you don’t miss the boat.

What Is the Target Audience for U.S. River Cruises?

Outdoor dining area on the American Queen (Photo: American Queen Voyages)
U.S. river cruise ships like the American Queen allow passengers to enjoy the landscape as they dine outside (Photo: American Queen Voyages)

While the primary audience for river cruises in the U.S. is older travelers who are retired or semi-retired, American river cruises are becoming increasingly popular with younger couples, families, and multigenerational groups.

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Younger couples often find that the activities available away from ship are exciting and not typically something that can be booked except through the river cruise line. Families traveling on a multigenerational vacation are drawn to river cruising because there’s something for every age group, from family bike rides to lounging on the sun deck. And since there are no passports or international travel to navigate, U.S. cruises are easier from the get-go.

How Many Passengers Are Typically on River Cruises in the United States?

American Jazz U.S. river cruise ship (Photo: American Cruise Lines)
U.S. river cruise ships generally accommodate between 100 to 400 guests (Photo: American Jazz via American Cruise Lines)

While the numbers can vary greatly depending on both the U.S. river cruise line and the destination, typical river cruises in the U.S. can have anywhere from 100 to 400 guests. Most are in the 150 to 200 range. That’s small enough to feel friendly and big enough that you get the chance to meet new people every day.

Can I Book Direct or Should I Go Through a Travel Agent?

Your choice entirely, since either is a good choice. Cruise lines have specialists you can call to book, and if you plan on bundling airfare in with your cruise, this is an easy and direct way to book. Booking directly with the cruise line also means if you have a special request or want to make a change you can just call them to arrange it, instead of calling your travel agent who then calls the line.

If you’re more comfortable with a travel agent, and want someone who will be able to help you narrow down choices and offer professional advice, plus be on call in case you have issues along the way, the travel agent route will probably be the right fit for you.

What Are the Best Best River Cruises in the USA?

Currently, three cruise lines offer river cruises in the United States: American Cruise Lines, American Queen Voyages, and Viking River Cruises. Here’s what you need to know about each of these U.S. river cruise companies to help you choose the best fit for your cruise vacation.

1. American Cruise Lines

American Pride river cruise ship (Photo: American Cruise Lines)
American Cruise Lines has a large fleet offering river cruises in seven distinct destinations around the U.S. (Photo: American Cruise Lines)

You can choose from seven different U.S. river cruise destinations with American Cruise Lines, and each river cruise makes multiple stops up and down the route to visit cities and towns along the way. American Cruise Lines’ fleet off 15 ships range from modern riverboats to remodeled paddle wheelers to small ships for coastal cruise. With daily entertainment that include musicians, historians, and naturalists, there’s always something to do onboard.

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American Cruise Lines offers U.S. river cruises all around the country, including the Mississippi River, New England, Southeast, Puget Sound, Alaska, California, and the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Voyages range in length from four nights to two weeks, and you can expect to pay between $2,000 and $10,000 per person depending on the length and destination of your river cruise. Most staterooms on American Cruise Lines ships have a balcony with unobstructed views.

American river cruises with American Cruise Line are all-inclusive. Dining, entertainment, Wi-Fi, and many shore excursions are built into the package price. Beer and wine are complimentary at lunch and dinner, as are evening cocktails. All river cruises (and some coastal itineraries) include a pre-cruise hotel stay. Flat-rate domestic airfare is also offered for every cruise.

2. American Queen Voyages

American Empress near the Hood River Bridge (Photo: Action Now Photography)
Like the other ships in American Queen Voyages’ fleet, American Empress is known for its paddlewheel design (Photo: Action Now Photography)

Known for its luxury paddlewheel ships that glide along the Lower Mississippi River, Upper Mississippi and Illinois River, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, and Colombia and Snake Rivers, American Queen Voyages (also sometimes known as American Queen Steamboat Company) has a reputation for being as comfortable as as it is upscale. Each of its four river cruise ships is unique, so picking the right vessel is as crucial as picking the right cruise itinerary:

  • American Queen is the largest steamboat ever built and feels like a blast from the past.
  • American Countess features a more contemporary design and spacious top-floor sun deck.
  • American Duchess is known for its two-story loft suites.
  • American Empress boasts a large collection of artifacts and artwork from Alaska, Russia, and the Gold Rush era, and is a good fit for history buffs.

With prices starting as low as $999 per person for a nine-day itinerary, American Queen Voyages’s river cruises in the U.S. are more conducive to budget-friendly vacations than some competing river cruise lines. Its rates cover a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay, unlimited guided tours, unlimited drinks including alcohol, dining, Wi-Fi, onboard entertainment, bike rentals, and hiking sticks. American Queen Voyages sometimes runs free airfare promotions for select cruises.

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3. Viking River Cruises

Viking Mississippi sailing past St. Louis (Photo: Viking)
Viking River Cruises offers U.S. river cruises as well as its well-known European river cruises. Here, the Viking Mississippi sails past St. Louis (Photo: Viking)

Recognized worldwide for its overseas river cruises, Viking‘s river cruises in the U.S. focus on the Mississippi River and its many ports of call. Currently Viking River Cruises sails five different itineraries along the Mississippi, including a festive holiday season river cruise from Memphis to New Orleans. This is a super fun domestic alternative to European Christmas market cruises, and they cost a lot less.

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The aptly named Viking Mississippi is an upscale modern river cruise ship that can host up to 386 guests in 193 outside-facing staterooms. Even the ship’s smallest staterooms clock in at a comfortable 268 square feet, including a private verandah. 

Each of Viking’s Mississippi river cruises include one complimentary shore excursion in every port. Wi-Fi, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and enrichment activities are also included. Viking’s U.S. river cruises start at $3,999 per person. 

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Megan duBois
Megan duBois is a freelance writer who covers theme parks, cruising, food and drink, and family travel. Her work has appeared on Buzzfeed, Popsugar, Insider, Orbitz, FamilyVacationist, The Daily Meal, Family Vacation Critic, TravelPulse, and more. Megan has been quoted as an expert and thought leader on theme parks for Forbes and other outlets.