Seniors on the Go: Cruising close to home

American Queen

American Queen (HANDOUT)

A reader recently asked about cruising close to home, and if you're interested, you'll find quite a few options. The big mass-market cruise lines, with their mega-ships, offer a few stay-near-home itineraries, at prices close to rates in the Caribbean and Mexico, starting at around $100 per person per day. But most of the action is with a handful of small-ship operators whose ships can navigate inland lakes and rivers, at much higher prices.

-- Pearl Seas Cruises (pearlseascruises.com) operates the largest ship to cruise the Great Lakes--the 210-passenger Pearl Mist--with some big ship features but small enough to pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Welland Canal. Rates start at more than $500 per person per day.

-- American Cruise Lines (americancruiselines.com) deploys six ships ranging from 150 to 100 passengers, with rates starting at around $550 per night.

-- American Queen Steamboat Co (americanqueensteamboatcompany.com) operates two larger ships accommodating 223 and 426 passengers, at rates starting at $300 per person per night.

-- Blount Small Ship Adventures (blountsmallshipadventures.com) operates two small 88-passenger ships on a variety of North American itineraries, with rates starting at around $550 per person per night.

Northeast and Canada. Big mass-market cruise lines offer all-summer cruises linking Boston or New York with Montreal or Quebec City, visiting various ports of call in New England and the Canadian Maritimes, plus some out-and-back cruises to Maritimes. These cruises operate with some of the latest mega-ships, which are too large to go into the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway. American Cruise Line, Blount and Pearl Seas run some small-ship cruises in this region.

Intracoastal Waterway. American Cruise Line and Blount operate in the mostly protected East Coast waterways between New England and Florida. Schedules resemble seasonal repositioning cruises: southbound in fall, northbound in spring.

Great Lakes. The Pearl Mist operates summer itineraries linking Chicago with Toronto in both directions. Cabins are at least 302 square feet, almost double the typical minimum megaship cabin size. Port stops include Niagara Falls, Windsor, Midland, Ontario, Parry Sound, Little Current, Sault St. Marie, Mackinac Island and Holland, Michigan. Blount also operates in the Great Lakes, with some itineraries extending through the Erie Canal to the Atlantic.

Mississippi Basin. Several lines cruise the Mississippi-Ohio-Cumberland-Tennessee-Illinois river system from New Orleans and Mobile in the South as far upriver as St. Paul, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Chattanooga and Nashville.

Two lines operate old-style (but relatively new) paddle-wheeler riverboats. Typical cruise segments are seven days; some are out-and-back from New Orleans, and some operate year-round:

-- American Queen, which, at 436 passengers, claims to be the largest steamboat ever built.

-- American Cruise Line's smaller 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi.

American and Blount also operate more conventional river cruisers throughout the system.

West Coast. A few megaships operate repositioning cruises seasonally linking San Diego, San Pedro, or San Francisco with Vancouver. But the main action is on the Columbia-Snake River system, where two companies operate summer season paddle-wheelers between Portland and Clarkston, Washington, with stops along the way, including a quick out-and-back to the Pacific Coast at Astoria:

-- American Queen operates the 223-passenger American Empress on seasonal eight-day itineraries each way.

-- American Cruise Line runs the 120-passenger Queen of the West on seasonal one-week cruises in alternating directions.

American Cruise Lines also operates seasonal small-ship cruises in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands.

As noted, per-person per-day prices for all the small ship cruises are higher -- a lot higher, in some cases -- than rates for mass-market cruises in the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, and even Europe. But the experiences are also a lot different, in terms of destinations and onboard activities. If you're interested, you can book directly through the cruise lines or through the popular giant online agencies, or through specialist agencies:

-- Great Lakes Cruising Company (greatlakescruising.com).

-- USA River Cruises (usarivercruises.com).

-- Mississippi River Cruises (mississippirivercruises.com).

As always, look for discounts and special promotions.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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