The rise of the river cruise

Luggage was being stowed on the ship as passengers trickled in after a night in Pittsburgh.  A tall, trim, 30-something man in uniform was helping to load the bags and making it look effortless, smiling while he worked. That happy crew member turned out to be the captain of the Queen of the Mississippi, a paddle-wheeler that was docked on the North Shore near Heinz Field in July. 

“I like keeping busy,” explained Capt. Max Taber of American Cruise Lines. He started his marine career as a deckhand more than a decade earlier and was used to swabbing decks, loading luggage and doing whatever was required. Although he has risen through the ranks, he still pitches in whenever necessary.

“Pittsburgh is a popular city,” he said. “There was so much demand, we added extra time here to the itinerary this year.” The Golden Triangle was the starting point for the American Cruise Lines 10-day, 11-night journey down the Ohio River ending in St. Louis. The cruise also goes in the opposite direction.

He often tells the passengers — most of whom are retirees — the story of his career path to captain and how he has sailed on every ship in the American Cruise Line fleet, which just serves to instill more confidence in this master of U.S. rivers.

River cruising is the travel industry’s fastest-growing segment, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Worldwide, there were 184 river cruise ships in 2015, with 18 new ones ordered for 2017 — an increase of 7 percent, according to the association’s 2017 Cruise Outlook Report. River cruising attracts more than 1 million passengers each year, and that number is rising.

Baby boomers are fueling much of the growth. “When you look at river cruising, baby boomers represent the core of all the travelers on cruise ships,” Patrick Clark, managing director for Avalon Waterways, said in an October 2016 article for Travel Weekly. “That segment is living longer and they have a greater desire for travel than their parents.”

Gary Leopold, president of Boston-based CP Travel, agreed. “The sweet spot for river cruises is the established and well-heeled 50- to 70-year-old audience with the financial wherewithal to afford the higher rates river cruises tend to charge,” he wrote in a travel column for MediaPost. 

River cruises appeal to older travelers because the ships tend to be smaller and more intimate than ocean liners and allow passengers to explore a variety of places without a lot of hassle. Excursions are often more handcrafted and there’s more free time to stroll through a city. 

While Viking River Cruises is known for its exotic European itineraries, American Cruise Lines might be worth a look if the U.S. is on your bucket list. The company, based in Guilford, Conn., is privately owned and offers river cruises on both coasts as well as a new shoreline Grand New England Cruise. That one starts in Boston, with ports of call that include, among others, Newport, R.I.; Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; and Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine. To view all the rivers and coastlines in the U.S. that can be seen via an American Cruise Line ship:  

The Ohio River cruise on the Queen of the Mississippi offers travel closer to home.

“We just saw it docked here and tried to get tickets, but you need at least 24 hours to book,” said a disappointed Nancy Cochran and her friend Cheryl Swartz of Pittsburgh, who spied the ship docked on the North Shore.

Her friends, Bill and Linda Roemer of Sewickley, had just been on the Queen of the Mississippi. “We were on the trip immediately preceding the one that brought the Queen back to Pittsburgh,” said Mr. Roemer, retired president of the former Integra Bank.  It was the couple’s fourth trip on the Queen. “That should tell you something about how we feel about the boat, the crew, the staff,” he said.  “The land excursions are interesting the food is good and the rooms are spacious,” added Mr. Roemer.

“We get a lot of repeat cruisers and many of them are retired,” the captain said. One of the message boards on the ship lists guests who had traveled with American Cruise Lines before, which makes them eligible for the Eagle Society. “You are eligible after the first cruise, but you don’t have to join,” he noted. The most outstanding traveler on the bulletin board was a “Dr. West” on her 35th cruise.

Built in 2015 at the Chesapeake Bay shipyard with a maximum guest capacity of 150, the Queen of the Mississippi creates an intimate experience for passengers. Nearly all staterooms come with a private balcony and sliding glass doors. Breakfast can be delivered to passengers’ rooms. Lunch and dinner are served in the dining area on the main deck.  

The ship has five decks, including the main deck, and is wheelchair accessible with elevators. It has a do-it-yourself laundry room, which means you can pack light. Nightly beer and wine receptions and entertainment take place in the Magnolia lounge on the bow of the second deck, and the Paddle Wheel Lounge at the stern of that same deck is perfect for reading, card games or just watching the world go by outside the wraparound windows. There’s also an open-air exercise area and free Wi-Fi.

The Sun Deck, with lounge chairs and a putting green on the top of the ship, is where passengers can get open-air vistas. One deck below that is the Sky Lounge and the Twain Library. The third deck has the chart room, which is popular with sailors. 

“We get a lot of guests who have their own boats and enjoy coming in here,” Capt. Taber said.

It could be considered the ultimate look-and-leave tour, which might be why river cruising is gaining popularity as a comfortable and stress-free way to see several cities without the hassle of changing hotels and packing and unpacking. Smaller ships can also dock in ports that larger vessels can’t access. The shore excursions are all optional. If you want to explore a city on your own or with a tour or just stay on board, it’s up to you.

What to know before you go river cruising

• Check out Cruise Critic at for reviews and advice on companies and routes you’re interested in.

• While river cruises tend not to have much rock and roll, if you fear getting motion sickness the cabins on the middle, lower decks of ships are the most stable. “On the river you really don’t have to worry about that,” said Capt. Max Taber of American Cruise Lines.

• Pack for cool evenings with a sweater or jacket, light rain wear and be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes for shore excursions, which is a big part of the trip. The right shoes also will help you get around the boat with ease. Packing light makes any trip more pleasurable. Check to see if your cruise has laundry service.

• Some river cruises do not include mixed drinks during the free evening cocktail receptions so if you like to sip a gin an tonic ask about bar service when booking.

• If you have special dietary requests let the cruise line know at least two weeks before departure. Also do not assume there will be room service. River cruises may only offer breakfast as a room service option with other meals in the dining room.

Patricia Sheridan:, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at @pasheridan. 


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