No need to travel to the Caribbean or Europe to enjoy a cruise vacation. The continental United States is home to a wonderful collection of cruise itineraries that explore our very own rivers, lakes, and coastlines. The smaller ships of the cruise lines listed below often take you to places where much larger cruise ships simply cannot go. This means you can immerse yourself the history, culture, and cuisine that make our country unique.
With the ship serving as your floating hotel, you can unpack once and spend your time exploring some of the most beautiful regions in the United States. Here are some itineraries to consider.
Viking Mississippi St Louis. Photo courtesy of Viking Cruise lines
The Mighty Mississippi slices through the middle of America, stretching more than 2,300 miles from northern Minnesota to New Orleans. You could spend five days or up to three weeks on the river, opting to either sail aboard a traditional paddle wheeler or a modern riverboat.
The folklore of the Mississippi attracts a fair number of passengers, which likely rings true if you’ve read "Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. However, the Mississippi River is also home to a multifaced and complicated history—from the legacy of slavery and the Black experience in America to Civil War battles and civil rights battles.
This history will be shared with passengers who ride the Mississippi while traveling from the northern bluffs of Minnesota to the southern bayous of Louisiana. Some itineraries even include Mississippi River tributaries, including the Ohio, Cumberland, or Tennessee Rivers. American Cruise Lines has more than 10 all-inclusive cruise itineraries dedicated to the Mississippi River, and American Queen Voyages (formerly the American Queen Steamboat Company) operates traditional paddle wheel river cruises that transport guests to another time without sacrificing modern luxuries.
Newer to the river is Viking River Cruises, a company well-known for its upscale European river voyages. In 2022, Viking launched several itineraries aboard its 386-guest Viking Mississippi.
The Legacy on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Photo courtesy of UnCruise Adventures
Sail the same waters navigated by trailblazing explorers Lewis and Clark. They traveled extensively on what is now known as the Colombia River, receiving assistance from dozens of Native American tribes along the way, and their 19th-century expedition opened the American West to the rest of the world.
Today, this Pacific Northwest cruise itinerary is growing in popularity, not only for its historical legacy, but for the superb winemaking and lush natural wonders found along the journey, which typically begins in Portland, Oregon, and sails into Washington State. Multnomah Falls, the Columbia River Gorge, and Hells Canyon (North America’s deepest gorge) are a few of the highlights, especially for those who venture off the boat to explore. A tip for wine enthusiasts: Travel in September or October to experience the harvest season at some of the Pacific Northwest’s most renowned vineyards.
A handful of cruise itineraries pair the Columbia River with the Snake River, such as the 7-night Rivers of Adventure & Wine cruise from UnCruise Adventures. There's also an 8-day Columbia & Snake River Journey from Lindblad Expeditions, a travel company that works in partnership with National Geographic. This unique cruise includes a historian and a geology expert on board, as well as a National Geographic-certified photography expert to help you capture the perfect pics.
Lake Ontario at sunset. Photo courtesy of Douglas Rissing/iStock.com
THE GREAT LAKES
The Great Lakes region has grown in popularity as a cruise destination because it combines vibrant cities, laid-back beach communities, and natural marvels into one trip. You’d be remiss to overlook these five lakes—Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior—for the beautiful and bountiful experiences they offer. The shores are home to Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, as well as cozier communities like Mackinac Island, a nostalgic locale where horse-drawn carriages and bicycles are the primary ways to navigate the island.
Some of the outdoor settings that will beckon you off the cruise ship include the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin, where kayaking is must, and Niagara Falls in New York, where you can ride the legendary Maid of the Mist steamboat to feel the powerful spray of the waterfall. Along the way, historic lighthouses, farm-to-table cuisine, spectacular birding, and marine life deliver a Midwestern mosaic of pleasant surprises.
Cruise itineraries range from taking in just one lake or combining all five, and most include stops in Canada. Pearl Seas Cruises offers an 11-night Great Lakes & Georgian Bay itinerary that includes four of the Great Lakes (Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Michigan), while American Queen Voyages features everything from a 10-night Toronto to Chicago itinerary to a 16-day Great Lakes itinerary, which sails round-trip from Chicago and focuses on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. In 2023, Viking River Cruises will be launching a 2-week cruise itinerary that encompasses the historic waterways of all five Great Lakes.
Bar Harbor, Maine with tourist cruise ship visiting. Photo courtesy of KentWeakley/iStock.com
NEW ENGLAND COAST
Most will argue that autumn is the best time to take a New England cruise, given the eye-catching colors that explode from trees framing the shoreline. These cruise itineraries, however, run May to October and range in scope. Some specifically focus on Maine, such as a 7-night cruise offered by USA River Cruises, while others combine New England with Canada’s Maritime Provinces, such as a 10-night cruise offered by Pearl Seas Cruises.
New England cruises are popular with history buffs, nature lovers, and foodies, as the itineraries string together multiple destinations that feature an array of shore excursions. Explore the crab shacks, lighthouses, lobster boats, and artist colonies when porting in quaint towns such as Newport, Portland, Bar Harbor, and Provincetown.
Walk the Freedom Trail in historic Boston for a firsthand glimpse into colonial times. Meander the hidden coves, rocky islets, and nature trails of Acadia National Park, by kayak or on foot. Keep an eye out for humpback and finback whales while sailing the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Although large-ship cruise lines, such as Holland America and Royal Caribbean, also offer New England cruises, smaller ships (those typically carrying less than 200 passengers) can hug the rugged coastline to easily explore and access small bays and inland waterways.
Puget Sound toward Seattle, the Space Needle, and Cascade mountatins in Washington State. Photo courtesy of James Michael House
PUGET SOUND & THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS
Cruise into the lush archipelagos of the Pacific Northwest, where you’ll be greeted with misty rainforests, spectacular fiords, and abundant wildlife. These cruises typically travel round-trip from Seattle, Washington, or travel from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia. The journey weaves along Washington's coast, through a labyrinth of islands where the waters are home to killer whales (orcas), seals, and bald eagles. Enjoy the sights from the comfort of your ship or via shore excursions, such as kayaking, hiking, or taking a Zodiac cruise.
Along the way, stops in picturesque coastal towns highlight the Indigenous cultures that call this region home. UnCruise Adventures, American Cruise Lines, and USA River Cruises each offer a 7-night cruise that highlights the best of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, sailing round-trip from Seattle. Lindblad Expeditions features a 7-night cruise that journeys from Seattle to Vancouver, combining the San Juan Islands with British Columbia. New in 2023 for cruise: a researcher for the Center of Whale Research will meet with guests for a private lesson about the Pacific Northwest's orca populations and local conservation efforts.
Sample southern hospitality along the Atlantic Coast aboard a cruise that weaves together charismatic cities and easygoing islands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. You’ll settle into the region’s low country culture (including its delicious, seafood-rich cuisine) while exploring pastel-hued mansions, preserved plantations, and pristine beaches framed by lighthouses.
Southeast coast cruise itineraries, such as those from USA River Cruises, can journey from Charleston, South Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida (or vice versa), weaving in destinations such as Hilton Head Island, Savannah, Jekyll Island, and Amelia Island. American Queen Voyages offers an itinerary that travels round-trip from Jacksonville and includes a stop in the Bahamas.
Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point San Francisco. Photo courtesy by Meriç Dağlı/Unsplash.com
Numerous cruise ships set sail from ports such as Los Angeles and San Diego to venture off to Mexico or Hawaii. Only a handful actually focus their journey on the Golden State. These ships are much smaller and offer incredible—and less complicated—access to places, especially when compared to the option of combining air and car travel.
One such option is a the 8-day Northern California Cruise from American Cruise Lines, which sails roundtrip from San Francisco to Napa, Vallejo, Stockton and Sacramento. Newly launched in 2023, this is the first riverboat cruise to sail San Francisco Bay and the California Delta Rivers since the 1940’s.
In southern California, Lindblad Expeditions offers a 5-day Wild California Escape cruise, which travels round-trip from Los Angeles and highlights the remote Channel Islands National Park as well as Catalina Island. Select departures will host National Geographic Expert Greg Marshall, a biologist and Emmy Award-Winning filmmaker who invented the Crittercam, which offers astounding views of animals in the wild. No doubt, he’ll share great stories to enhance the journey.