American River Cruises: Top Tours and Itineraries

American river cruises are poised to pick up right where they left off when the pandemic struck, as one of the most popular forms of travel for people looking to see the U.S. in a whole new way.

We may not always think of domestic river cruises when we think of this popular travel mode, but the fact is river cruises in the United States can literally take you from sea to shining sea.

Here are the most popular waterways for North American river cruises, and some of the sights you can see along the way.

Also read: Why Travel Insurance is Crucial for Cruise Trips

Lower Mississippi

The Lower Mississippi is the most popular waterway for American river cruises, with everything from paddlewheel “steamboats” to boats modeled after the European river cruisers. Amenities run the gamut as well, from standard accommodations to full-on luxury suites.

There’s some difference of opinion on where the Upper Mississippi ends and the Lower Mississippi begins, but somewhere between St. Louis and Memphis the river truly becomes the Big Muddy, the vistas change from bluffs and hills to sloughs and flats, and the waterway widens and thickens.

Activities on Lower Mississippi cruise ships include tours of Civil War sites and other historical landmarks, walking tours of iconic destinations like Memphis’ Beale Street, and eventually, a spin or two around New Orleans, with its incredible food and music.

Also read: 6 Fantastic Food Tours and Travel Destinations Around the World

Lower Mississippi

There are fewer cruises on the Upper Mississippi, in part because the upper river is more locked-and-dammed and navigation can be trickier. The season is also shorter, thanks to Old Man Winter.

Though the river starts in northern Minnesota, it truly becomes navigable for larger ships around St. Paul. The Twin Cities are also a fun destination by themselves, and a great place to kick off a river cruise.

The terrain surrounding the Upper Mississippi is drastically different from the Lower Mississippi. Tall, dramatic bluffs predominate, with the land sloping off to high prairies to the west and rolling moraines and glacial drumlins to the east.

The river towns are different, too: resort towns like Lake City, Minn., and hard-working old towns like Dubuque and the Quad Cities. Activities run the gamut, with museum tours, architecture walks, fishing expeditions, bike rides, and even a bus trip to architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Taliesin.

Also read: Why Travel Insurance is a Great Idea for Travel within the U.S.

Columbia and Snake rivers

The big rivers of the west provide a distinctively different sort of river-cruise experience. Here the waters are clearer and the landscapes are more wide-open and wild.

Excursions tend to be less about history and more about scenery like Multnomah and Bridal Veil Falls, Mt. Hood, and The Dalles. 

Cruises generally start or end in Portland, which is a fine, fun city with outstanding food and incredible scenery.

Also read: Where to Travel for the Most Scenic Drives in America

Ohio and Cumberland rivers

The great historic and hard-working rivers of the Midwest turn out to be great for river cruises. Itineraries generally include Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, with stops in undiscovered gems like Madison, Ind., and Maysville, Ky.

Can you tour Churchill Downs on an Ohio River cruise, or take a side trip through horse-and-bourbon country? Why yes, you can.

The Cumberland River, which runs mainly through Tennessee but touches Alabama and Kentucky, is winding, picturesque, and full of unexpected pleasures. And any cruise that includes an excursion to Nashville can’t be all bad.

Also read: Tips for Planning a River Cruise -- When, Where and What to Expect

Great Lakes

Okay, they’re not technically rivers but they aren’t oceans or seas, either. They’re American waterways, and they’re wonderful for cruising. Itineraries can include Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, and many smaller towns that combine the vistas of the East Coast with the friendliness of the Midwest.

Visiting Chicago, Mackinac Island, Niagara Falls, and Cleveland in one trip would be daunting and exhausting by car. By water, it’s the trip of a lifetime.

Also read: How to Choose the Best Cruise Line for You

St. Lawrence Seaway

Similarly, a cruise up the St. Lawrence Seaway is as much or more of a cruise through Canada as opposed to the United States, but why quibble? The scenery is wild and beautiful, Quebec and the Maritimes are absolute gems, and many cruises start or end in Boston, one of America’s greatest cities.

If you’re looking for a cruise that combines the best of river and ocean cruising, a St. Lawrence Seaway/East Coast cruise is tough to beat.

Also read: The Ultimate Cruise Packing List, Tips and Hacks

American river cruises are fantastic trips, and while you don’t need a passport to enjoy these great vacations (except parts of the St. Lawrence Seaway), you should always insure them with Generali. We have decades of experience covering cruises, and we offer three plan options, so you can pick the perfect plan to cover whatever river trip you have in mind.

Get a quote today and see for yourself.


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