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Can I Cruise Entirely Within the U.S.?

For a variety of reasons, some travelers are interested in cruising within the U.S. rather than hitting overseas ports. One reader asked simply:

“Except for Hawaii, I can’t seem to find any cruises that stay entirely within the U.S. Why is that?”

The short answer to the “why” part is easy: “Because some longstanding laws, designed to protect U.S. shipbuilding and cruising, had the unintended (but entirely expectable) consequence of virtually destroying them.” Specifically, any ship cruising only between U.S. ports must employ an almost totally U.S. crew. Hence the foreign registries (and foreign labor laws) applying to virtually all the big cuise ships. Until recently, U.S. laws also required use of U.S.-built ships, but some cruiselines have apparently been given a pass on that part. Still, these chauvinistic requirements have discouraged the mass-market lines from all-U.S. cruisers.

For whatever reason, if you want to cruise entirely within the U.S., you have only a few options. However, several cruiselines offer mainly-U.S. itineraries, stopping in a foreign country to satisfy the law.

Big-Ship Cruises

As far as I can tell, only one big-ship company, Norwegian Cruise Line, operates cruises entirely within the U.S. One ship—the Pride of America—cruises entirely within the Hawaiian Islands, with a crew that complies with U.S. citizenship requirements. Unfortunately, the several other U.S.-based companies that previously operated in this area have gone out of business.

Several big-ship cruise lines offer mainly-Hawaii cruises that get around the citizenship requirement by stopping in Ensenada or Vancouver/Victoria on trips between the Islands and the mainland, or detouring to Micronesia (about 1200 miles south of Hawaii) on cruises that don’t reach the mainland. You’ll find quite a few options with these itineraries. And most of the stops on the typical Alaska Inside Passage cruise itineraries are at U.S. ports—with, of course, the obligatory Canadian stops in Prince Rupert or Vancouver.

Over the last few years, New England-Canada cruises have become quite popular for the big-ship lines. Typical itineraries include some combination of New York, Boston, Portland, Halifax, Charlottetown, Quebec, and Montreal. And big-ship lines also now offer a few itineraries up and down the West Coast that call at some combination of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria. Any good cruise agency will have full particulars on these trips.

The Great Lakes

Given the size and diversity of the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes system, I find it surprising that so few cruiselines cater to this region. Ships must be necessarily smaller than today’s mass-market megaships in order to transit two systems of tight locks—the Soo Canals between Superior and Michigan and the Welland Canal bypassing Niagara Falls—but in the recent past ships as large as 400 passengers have cruised these inland shores. For now, however, I found only two small-ship cruises currently operating, both stopping in Canada as well as the U.S.:

  • Travel Dynamics International runs a several-month program of Great Lakes cruises between Toronto and Duluth in the 110-passenger Celia II.
  • Peral Seas Cruises will operate one Toronto-Chicago round-trip next summer in its 210-passenger Pearl Seas Mist flagship.

A few years ago, Hapag-Lloyd operated several summer-season Great Lakes cruises in its luxury 410-passenger Columbus. This year, however, Columbus operated in other areas, and no Great Lakes itinerary is planned for 2010.

Rivers, Canals, and Waterways

A few operators run cruises on U.S. rivers, canals, and inland waterways. Because these trips involve so many waterways, the ships are typical river ships: shallow draft, only two or three decks to allow transit under bridges, and such.

  • American Canadian Caribbean Line , for now, appears to be the biggest player in this market. It operates a variety of river and lake cruises in North America in two 100-passenger riverboat-type ships: Grand Caribe and Grand Mariner. Main cruising areas include Chesapeake Bay, the Erie Canal, the New England Islands, and the St Lawrence, Hudson, and Sauguenay Rivers, plus seasonal positioning cruises through the Intracoastal Waterway between Rhode Island and Florida. The 84-passenger Niagara Prince operates several river-cruise links between Chicago and New Orleans on the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Illinois Rivers, plus some of the same destinations as the other ships.
  • CruiseWest will operate a full 2010 summer season of cruises on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest in the 96-passenger Spirit of ’98 and the 84-passenger Spirit of Discovery.

Sadly, as far as I can tell, the old-time (or fake old-time) riverboat liners Delta Queen, American Queen, and Mississippi Queen do not operate this year. In fact, Majestic America Line—parent of Delta Queen and American West Steamboat companies—is dormant and trying to find a buyer. Given today’s financial climate, I wouldn’t expect anything for 2010, either.

I suppose you might count the longer Alaska Ferry trips as “cruises,” in that the full-length trips last as long as some conventional cruises and the big ferries offer overnight cabin accommodations. However, the experience is completely different from a conventional cruise: no fancy meals, no variety of shipboard activities, and port stops too short (and often at odd hours) for any real touring. Moreover, if you buy cabin accommodations and onboard meals, ferry trips aren’t even less expensive than low-end cabins on big cruiseships.

Arranging the Deal

You can book all of the big-ship cruises through the “usual suspects” cruise agencies. Typically, the best rates are for last-minute options.

The big online sites, however, don’t cover small-ship cruises as well as they might. Consider going directly to the cruiselines or through specialist agencies such as Small Ship Cruises and Great Lakes Cruise Company. Wherever you buy, however, you can expect to pay a lot more, per day, than the “from” price for a megaship cruise on one of the mass-market lines.

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