Riverboat cruises grow with Chattanooga stops

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / American Cruise Line Captain Matt Kelley speaks alongside (from right) Frank Kilpsch, Tim Kelly, and Barry White. A celebration held at Ross’s Landing on Tuesday, July 25, 2023 marked the inaugural summer of American Cruise Lines in Chattanooga.

The biggest American-based cruise ship operator is doubling down on Chattanooga as a launching point for its Tennessee River cruises.

American Cruise Lines, which initially brought its newest ship the American Serenade to Chattanooga this spring, has doubled its initial plans for the number of planned cruises docking at Ross's Landing this year by adding another one of its 17 ships, a traditional paddle-wheeler known as the American Splendor, to the Tennessee Valley route.

"The season started so positively and so many people wanted to be on this itinerary, that we added another ship and we hope to do even more next year," said Frank Klipsch, director of city partnerships and special projects on the Mississippi River for American Cruise Lines.

With its 180-passenger ships, American Cruise Lines is planning 14 trips from Chattanooga this year and 24 such cruises through Chattanooga in 2024. The American Cruise Lines ships are smaller than the 417-passenger American Queen that docked a few times a year in Chattanooga in the past. But the smaller American Cruise Lines' riverboats have proven popular, particularly with cruise travel increasing after the pandemic.

The seven-night, eight-day riverboat trip starts in Chattanooga and passes through the Tennessee River Gorge on the way to Decatur and Florence, Alabama, and Savannah, Tennessee. After stopping at the Ohio River in Paducah, Kentucky, the cruise travels through Lake Barkley and the Cumberland River to end the journey in Nashville.


"This is a beautiful cruise on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, but more importantly it's the people and the excursions within the communities where we stop along the way that really make these cruises special," Klipsch, a former mayor of Davenport, Iowa, said Tuesday during a ceremony with city and tourism leaders to recognize the riverboat attraction. "With the splendor of Chattanooga, we're really proud to bring the American Splendor here. Chattanooga is one of the great places we get to visit."

Traveling through the Tennessee Valley along with the four-story riverboats are four coach buses that American Cruise Lines uses to shuttle its passengers to attractions along the river route. The American Splendor passengers boarding in Chattanooga on Tuesday visited a number of Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain attractions after spending the night at the DoubleTree hotel in downtown Chattanooga.

The eight-day venture, which includes all food, lodging, entertainment and transportation, is priced starting at $4,125 per person and ranges up to $7,365 per person for the luxurious owners' suite, according to the American Cruise Lines' website. For the next three weeks, a few spots are available for the Tennessee River cruise starting at $3,525 per person.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly welcomed the riverboat visitors Tuesday and pledged to keep the city's downtown waterfront as a front porch to the thousands of maritime travelers expected to come to Chattanooga each summer aboard the American Cruise Lines' boats.

"The fact that these cruises originate in Chattanooga is a really big deal, and we're committed to making sure that this park (at Ross's Landing) is going to be the embarkment point for many passengers now and in the future," Kelly said Tuesday during a riverfront reception for American Cruise Lines. "It means more hotel room nights, more airline enplanements here, and more visits to local restaurants and attractions."

Matt Kelley, the captain of the American Splendor who has worked his way up from his start with American Cruise Lines as a deckhand, said the riverboat cruises draw visitors from across the country with about 5% of visitors coming from overseas. The average age of those on the Tennessee River cruises is about 70 years old, but Kelley said the 50-person crew on the American Splendor, go out of their way to accommodate all kinds of visitors, including brothers in their 20s on the last cruise.

In 2023, American Cruise Lines will operate 17 ships, each accommodating from 90 to 180 passengers, which cruise more than 50 domestic itineraries in 35 states.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.