US River Cruises: Best Lines, Destinations, and Times To Go

If your typical ways of exploring the country are stressing you out, then a river cruise may be the perfect solution. River cruises, which have been popular throughout Europe for some time, are growing in popularity in the US due to the intimate experience a small ship can offer. Not only will you be able to sail closer to shore, but you’ll get an immersive experience with the scenic landscapes and wildlife along the riverbank.

The leisurely pace of a river cruise gives you plenty of time to relax and unwind while you explore the natural beauty, landmarks, history, and culture of the region you sail through on your cruise. Moreover, many river cruises offer all-inclusive packages that include shore excursions, making it a convenient and stress-free way to travel.

Popular River Cruise Destinations in the USA

usa river cruise map

River cruises are available throughout the US, each offering its own scenic foliage, history, and culture. Here are some of the most popular destinations for river cruises in the US.

  • Columbia and Snake Rivers

The Columbia and Snake Rivers run throughout the Pacific Northwest region and offer stunning scenery. Popular port cities include both Portland and Spokane. Note that summer tends to be the busiest season for cruises.

  • Mississippi River

Sail the historic Mississippi River. Depending on where you start, popular port cities often include St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.

  • Tennessee River

Running through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama, river cruises on the Tennessee river often port in Nashville, Chattanooga, or Memphis.

  • Ohio River

The length of the Ohio River gives you plenty of ports to explore throughout six states. Popular ports on this river include Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. You’ll also get spectacularly colorful views in the fall.

  • Hudson River

Explore the New York region on the Hudson River with ports in New York City, Albany, and West Point. The Hudson is especially busy in the fall for its foliage.

Top US River Cruise Lines

Throughout the US, you’ll find reputable river cruise lines known for the outstanding experience they give their customers. When choosing the river cruise line for your next adventure, you’ll want to first consider your itinerary. Many cruise lines only operate along specific routes, so your desired destination will play a role in which cruise line to choose.

In addition to destination, consider which type of experience you want. If you want an intimate, luxurious experience, choose a cruise line with a smaller ship, onboard amenities, and luxury accommodations. Some cruise lines also offer more on-land excursions than others, which may factor into your decision. And, of course, you’ll also want to consider your budget and customer reviews.

With so many options, it can be hard to choose, so we’ve done the hard work for you and have found the top river cruise lines to consider.

1. American Cruise Lines

American Cruise Lines offers an intimate experience with small-ship cruises on the Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, Hudson, Columbia, and Snake Rivers. Fully embracing the relaxed style of river cruising, American Cruise Lines offers cruises ranging from 5 days to 22 days with over 50 itineraries to choose from. Cruises range from $2,900 to $30,700 per person depending on your itinerary and room selection.

All of the company’s 17 ships house no more than 180 guests. They have each been built and flagged in America and are 100% American-owned and operated. On board, you’ll have nightly entertainment, a nightly cocktail hour, resident historians, and WiFi provided by Starlink. However, to preserve the intimate experience, you will not find any casinos, pools, or point-of-sales displays. When it comes to onshore excursions, each one is customized to give you an enriching experience exploring historic homes, farms, and more.

2. UnCruise Adventures

Unlike other river cruises that are based on leisurely travel and relaxation, UnCruise Adventures is geared towards having the experience of a lifetime. Offering eleven different itineraries in the Pacific Northwest on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, as well as additional international itineraries. This American business has a fleet of small boats that ensure an intimate experience with no more than 86 guests per boat, ensuring an intimate experience for your adventure.

UnCruise Adventures focuses on watching wildlife, spending time with locals, and digging into the culture in a hands-on way. Instead of simply observing from the deck, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for adventure with hikes, kayaking, paddle boarding, skiff rides, and more. UnCruise Adventures costs between $3,900 and $9,600 per person, depending on the specific itinerary. You can even find itineraries that include activities designed for kids ages 8 to 17, making it the perfect option for families.

3. American Queen Voyages

American Queen Voyages offers one of the most authentic river cruise experiences available in the US, with a fleet that includes paddlewheel riverboats, boutique expedition vessels, and expedition ships. All of these boats offer the intimate experience river cruises are known for, hosting no more than 200 guests per trip. Whether you’re looking for a cruise along the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Columbia, or Snake Rivers, one of American Queen Voyages’ 32 river cruise itineraries is sure to fit the bill.

Each of these itineraries offers you an off-the-beaten-path experience, with unlimited guided tours, onboard WiFi, Broadway-caliber performances, lectures from historians, spa services, and regionally inspired cuisine. Depending on the itinerary and the inclusions, American Queen Voyages river cruises cost between $2,500 to $12,200 per person. Note that some of these fares also include airfare and hotel stay before your voyage.  

4. USA River Cruises

A river cruise can be the trip of a lifetime, and USA River Cruises is ready to help you make your dream trip a reality. They offer a variety of itineraries along the Mississippi, Columbia, Hudson, and Ohio Rivers, each allowing you to get in touch with nature, wildlife, and the local culture. Specializing in small-ship cruises, all of the ships hold less than 900 passengers. Some itineraries also include rail journeys to enhance your exploration further.

Itineraries range from $2,100 to $16,000 per person, depending on destination and duration. Because USA River Cruises operates like a travel agency, they will help you take care of everything; all you need to do is choose the itinerary that works for your family, and they’ll help with all the planning to have the perfect trip. 

Use referral code JK2023 when you book online or on the phone and get $100 off and $100 on board credit per cabin.

5. Viking River Cruises

Famous for its European river cruises, Viking River Cruises has brought its expertise to the American heartland along the Mississippi River. With four different US itineraries to choose from, you can completely immerse yourself in American history and culture. Viking’s newest ships sail the Mississippi, featuring outdoor staterooms, plenty of private space, and beautiful public areas. Every port offers excursions exploring wildlife, museums, and cultural points of interest.

Whether you want to traverse the lengths of the Mississippi or just want a unique New Orleans trip, Viking River Cruises has the perfect itinerary for you, ranging from $4000 to $13,000 per person. With every itinerary, you’ll get one included excursion at every port, onboard WiFi, UNESCO site visits, enrichment lectures, performances, and a curated library.

Best Time to Take an American River Cruise

river cruise ship

Determining the best time to take a river cruise in the US will depend on your destination and your personal preferences (temperature, views, etc.). The best time of the year to take a river cruise is between April and October for most US river cruise destinations, as these months offer plenty of warm weather.

Just keep in mind that the summer months tend to be hot and humid, especially on the water. If you’re looking for a trip during peak summer months, your best bet will be Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest. If you want remarkable fall foliage, both the Hudson River and the Ohio River are excellent options. Keep in mind, however, that the fall season is the busy season for river cruises on the Hudson. So, if you want fall colors without the rush, look at booking a cruise on the Ohio River instead.

Plan Your Trip

Now that you know where to get started, you are armed with the information you need to start making your river cruise dreams a reality. Explore all of your options carefully, as some itineraries include hotel stays, airfare, and other costs like port fees, whereas others have these as additional fees. You’ll also want to ensure that excursion costs are included in the itinerary so you don’t have any surprises.

There are certainly plenty of ways to plan your trip on your own it can often be taxing. When it comes to finding the perfect river cruise while maximizing your budget, working with a travel agent can be helpful. Find a travel agent that is well-versed in US river cruises to get the most bang for your buck so you can have a trip of a lifetime.

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