7 ways a US river cruise brought me closer to my dad

Editor’s note: TPG’s Ashley Kosciolek was hosted by American Queen Voyages for an Ohio River sailing on American Queen. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by the line.

“I can’t fit all that in there,” my dad said, incredulous, as he looked from his pile of clothes to the brand-new Samsonite carry-on my mom had purchased years prior (but which had yet to see any use).

“I bet you can,” I said, handing him a set of packing cubes I picked up for him that morning in anticipation of just such a response.

Earlier that week, I had challenged him to go carry-on-only for the flight to our first-ever father-daughter cruise — and my dad’s first cruise in nearly 50 years.

My dad was sold on packing cubes after fitting all this into his carry-on. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

My parents don’t travel often, but after taking my mom on a European river cruise through the Rhine Gorge several years ago, I was determined to sail with my dad, too. In 2020, we had a voyage scheduled, but COVID-19 had other plans.

For years, my dad had been asking me about river cruises through the United States after seeing commercials for them on TV. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about them, as I had never been on one myself, but that changed this summer when we were finally able to embark together.

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I can’t speak for him, but I had a fantastic time, leisurely exploring both tiny towns and big cities on our Ohio River route from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Louisville, Kentucky, on American Queen Voyages’ American Queen. It’s an iconic paddlewheeler powered by a pair of 90-year-old steam engines that were rescued from another boat several years ago.

To my delight, the trip proved to be a great way to bond with my dad in less of a parent-child way and more of a “hey, I’m an adult now; let’s be friends” way. Here’s how our sailing brought us closer.

We started with an unexpected road trip


I ran downstairs in my standard flight attire — leggings, a nice T-shirt and my Birkenstocks — hair soaking wet, sweating from rushing around. I was behind schedule, as usual, to leave for the airport.

Being a bit late isn’t generally a problem when I’m traveling alone because I have Clear and TSA PreCheck, which allow me to breeze through most security lines quickly. But my dad doesn’t have those things, and he’s a nervous traveler — the stereotypical father who insists everyone needs to be at the airport no fewer than five hours before any flight.

As I rushed around, tossing last-minute items into my backpack, my dad announced from the living room that our flight had been canceled.

I groaned, grabbing my phone to look at my United app, which informed me that we had been rescheduled for the following morning. Worried that we couldn’t arrive in time if the new flight was also affected, I called the airline, canceled both my flight and my dad’s, and booked us a rental car instead. The boat was departing from Pittsburgh the next day, and the drive was only 4.5 hours.

My mom took us to our local airport where we picked up the rental car — a surprisingly cheap $150 one-way Budget rental — for an impromptu road trip and split the drive, stopping along the way for snacks and testing the car’s text dictation.

“Dad, send me a text,” I said while driving. “I want to see how it works.” I waited for my phone to buzz and clicked a button on the dash. “Keep it under 75,” said a robotic voice from the speakers, and we both laughed.

We shared a tiny room

Our tiny suite on American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Nothing tests the bounds of a relationship like sharing close quarters does. Our cabin, an open-veranda suite, was absolutely lovely but on the tiny side.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a single queen bed. A call to the front desk soon had it converted into two twins.

After unpacking and figuring out where we’d each store our clothes and toiletries, things became much more relaxed. We quickly fell into a rhythm: he’d shower before dinner, and I’d shower before bed. He’d wake up early and head to the lounge to grab coffee and read the newspaper while I slept in.

We learned to share space in a way we never had to before, deftly acclimating to each other’s quirks. He snores. I take forever to get ready, and I like to spread out when I’m working. You get the idea.

The funniest part of it, though, is that our cabin was right next to the boat’s smokestacks, which had to be raised and lowered whenever the vessel sailed under a bridge. We’re both light sleepers, so there were several times when we were both startled awake by the creaking and humming mechanical sounds of the stacks going up or down. Inevitably, one of us would sleepily exclaim, “What was that?” before we’d look at each other, realize what was happening, shake our heads and go back to sleep.

We had meals (and drinks) together


A regular part of any routine on a cruise is, of course, food. My dad would return to the cabin each morning after having snuck out early to read the newspaper or check e-mail in the lounge. He’d take in the views from the balcony just outside our door while I got ready, and then we’d head to breakfast. I discovered he’s a creature of habit, ordering black coffee (with exactly one ice cube to cool it down) and a banana every morning.

I also learned that my love of soft-serve ice cream most definitely comes from my dad, who rarely left lunch — which we usually ate in the boat’s small Front Porch Cafe buffet — without a bowlful in hand. I, myself, got into a two-a-day habit.

On several nights, we stopped at the Captain’s Bar for the drink of the day, almost always including bourbon, before heading to dinner in the J.M. White Dining Room, which gives off some serious New Orleans vibes. Although we rarely ordered the same dishes as each other, he was quick to try new things (including cauliflower steak, a vegan chili dog and frog legs), which he’s often loath to do at home.

Afterward, we’d sometimes make our way to the Engine Room Bar, which offered excellent live music with a backdrop of windows that showcase the boat’s paddlewheel. There’s also a set of stairs that lead down to the engine room, where passengers are free to visit and ask questions.

Although my dad is an introvert like me, there were plenty of nights when I retired to our room far earlier than he did, opting to get some extra sleep while he stayed out a while longer to enjoy the music. Frankly, I was impressed by his night-owl tendencies at nearly 70 years old.

The entertainment got us talking

Entertainment on American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Although American Queen is large for a paddlewheeler — at capacity, it carries about 400 passengers, but there were only 250 or so on our sailing — it’s much smaller than most oceangoing cruise ships. That means entertainment options are limited.

We made the most of them, though, enjoying near-daily trivia (my dad excels in the sports and history categories), attending a comedy show and checking out talks by the resident “riverlorian,” a historian who specializes in the history of the rivers the ship sails.

The most interesting events, though, were the song-and-dance revues, which featured rock ‘n’ roll, disco and TV theme song genres. I call them “interesting” because my dad said they reminded him of the type of variety programming he remembers from the Lawrence Welk Show.

“Grammy and my dad used to love that show,” he said, referring to my grandparents, and offering me a glimpse into his childhood. I spent the rest of the night wondering how anyone could watch what often amounted to a glorified (albeit considerably talented) high-school show choir and find it entertaining. However, the offerings seemed perfect for the generally older passenger demographic.

We learned a lot

The author and her dad at the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum in Madison, Indiana. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Over the course of our weeklong voyage, we learned a lot — about the places we visited and about each other.

We were impressed by the daily hop-on, hop-off bus routes American Queen Voyages offers in each port because they’re flexible, free and easy to navigate. Plus, they eliminated the hassle of figuring out what the key sights were in the area and how to get there — something that would likely have made my father a worrisome wreck.

Every night before bed, we’d receive a map of the next day’s port highlights in our cabin. We would take a look and decide on two or three places we each wanted to go. Buses would pick cruisers up every 15 or 30 minutes, just past the gangway. They would stop at each of the points of interest on the map, allowing passengers to visit any of them and then catch the next bus to come through.

Some of the ports were so small that it was easy to walk to most of the places, but we appreciated the flexibility the buses offered. Although we both preferred to walk when we could, my dad’s arthritis made the buses a welcome option on days when the distances between attractions were just too far.

My dad and I after thieving bourbon at the Augusta Distillery in Kentucky. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Our personal favorites included the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum — where a local family spent two generations making the inner frames for horse saddles — and the historic mansions in Madison, Indiana, as well as the Augusta Distillery in Augusta, Kentucky. There, we deviated from the ship-recommended activities and stopped in for an excellent tasting where we were allowed to draw or “thief” our own bourbon from barrels where it was aging.

I horseback ride, so the former was a natural fit for my interests, but I was surprised when my dad told me it fascinated him, too. (For context, the one and only time my family went on a group ride, my dad couldn’t get the hang of trotting and kept yelling “It hurts so bad!”) On the flip side, my dad is a huge whiskey and bourbon fan, but I rarely drink anything that hard. While I didn’t necessarily enjoy the alcohol itself, I was enthralled by the aging process and the interactivity of thieving.

The author and her dad at the Louisville Slugger Factory in Kentucky. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Touring together also showed me that my happy-go-lucky dad gets a bit anxious when it comes to travel.

For example, following our visit to the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, my dad was worried we were lost and wouldn’t make it back to the boat on time. It took our physically walking outside and my showing him where we were for him to realize we’d be fine.

On the last night of the sailing, prior to disembarkation in Louisville, I told my dad I wanted to try to visit both the Louisville Slugger Museum and Churchill Downs before heading to the airport for our afternoon flight home.

“Are you sure we’ll have enough time to do both?” he asked.

The author and her dad in front of Barbaro’s grave at the entrance to Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

I assured him we would, but he remained doubtful. Not wanting to cause him stress, I laid out a painfully specific schedule, showing him what time we’d disembark, what time we’d book tickets for both attractions, how long we’d stay at each, how much time we’d allow for transportation between locations and when we’d plan to arrive at the airport.

The experience not only taught me how wooden bats are made but also that planning ahead is key to a successful trip with my dad. The day went off without a hitch, we made it to each location early, and we had plenty of time to enjoy everything at a leisurely pace while making our flight with room to spare. He gushed a couple of times that he was impressed with how seamlessly everything went.

We met new people (including George Clooney’s mom)

George Clooney’s family dog, Nate, at an antique store in Augusta, Kentucky. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

When I was a kid, my dad always struck me as shy, but seeing him in an environment where he didn’t know anyone showed me just how much of a social butterfly he can be. In previous conversations, he told me that social interactions don’t come easy to him, and I feel that to my core.

As a journalist, I often find myself at cruise-line press events or mingling with passengers on ships. Over the years, I’ve had to force myself to feel comfortable chatting with strangers. It will never be something that comes naturally to me, but I’ve gotten pretty good at adapting.

On the first day, after listening to ear-splitting calliope music at the back of the boat, I spotted a fellow cruiser named Rich wearing an American Queen inaugural shirt from 10 years ago, so I asked him how many times he’s sailed. The conversation led to introductions with several frequent American Queen Voyages passengers — including Rich’s wife, Pat; Lynann and Dean; and Lynann’s friend Leanne — all of whom had interesting thoughts on the vessel and its current clientele (ocean cruisers, they said, who are used to larger ships with more bells and whistles).

A couple of days later, I decided to run into town 30 minutes before all-aboard to pick up something I saw earlier and didn’t have a chance to buy. My dad, concerned that I wouldn’t make it back on time, staked out a place on deck to watch the gangway so he could be sure I made it on board before sailaway.

When I returned, instead of watching nervously over the railing, he was busy chatting with Dennis, a U.S. Navy veteran who regaled us with a tale of being tossed into the water while his ship was docked in Venice, Italy, years ago. A few days later, we also met his wife, Donna.

The author’s dad talking with a crew member in the engine room of American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

My dad made friends with one of the young men in the engine room, too — a member of the Merchant Marines who explained some of the steam engine operations to us. My dad listened, riveted.

The nicest thing about meeting people on a boat the size of American Queen is that we saw them over and over throughout the voyage, which made the environment feel more friendly. It also gave my dad someone to interact with when I was holed up in a lounge writing, which he said made it easier to feel at home.

But the most interesting person we met during the trip was Nina Clooney, George Clooney‘s mother. Augusta, Kentucky — one of the stops on American Queen’s itinerary — is where you’ll find the Rosemary Clooney House, the home of the deceased actress (George’s aunt), which has been turned into a museum. George Clooney still maintains property in Augusta, and his parents, Nick and Nina Clooney still live there, too.

Nina owns an antiques store in town, and when we visited, she was incredibly welcoming. We were also tickled to meet the family’s foster dog, Nate. (According to Nina, after the family’s previous dog died, George called the local shelter and said he wanted the dog that was least likely to be adopted.)

Thanks to this strange turn of events, my dad and I now have plans to re-watch several of the Clooneys’ films together, and we have another excuse to text each other when we see something about George in the news.

He helped me to look at cruising through fresh eyes

Transiting a lock along the Ohio River. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

It’s my job to evaluate ships — everything from food, service and decor to cabins, entertainment and shoreside experiences — and I had a few niggles on American Queen.

Like much of the rest of the U.S. hospitality industry, the ship was woefully understaffed, meaning at times service was slower than it should have been. The ship’s exterior was dingy and covered with spiders and cobwebs, and food wasn’t always cooked well. However, the crew was quick to make it right when there was an issue, and they were unfailingly friendly and welcoming.

While I silently made notes of these things, my dad (and, frankly, most of the other passengers I encountered) didn’t seem bothered, which helped me to realize that maybe, after so many cruises, my baseline is a bit out of whack.

American Queen’s paddlewheel. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

My father wasn’t brand-new to cruising, but his only previous onboard experiences were ocean sailings, when, in his 20s, he sailed Holland America‘s Rotterdam V and Norwegian Cruise Line‘s S.S. Norway, both of which have long since retired.

On this trip, I saw him take pure joy and interest in things — visits to the bridge and engine room, passing through tight locks, the ability to order limitless amounts of food at dinner — that I long ago started to find mundane. It made me see cruising for what it is to most people: not a job or an assignment to be picked apart, but a vacation — an escape so welcome that it makes most people less likely to sweat the small stuff.

Bottom line

On this trip, I realized that, even though I’m grown, there’s still a lot I can learn from my dad — like how not to be so rushed before leaving for the airport and that you don’t necessarily have to be interested in the subject of every single museum or attraction you visit, as long as you’re with someone whose company you enjoy.

He has also indicated he learned a bit from me, too.

“It made it a lot easier for me to travel with someone who knows what they’re doing,” he said when I asked if he had any takeaways. “And if you miss a flight, it’s not the end of the world.”

That was nice to hear, coming from someone who generally likes to have total control over travel plans. I’m glad he ultimately trusted me to organize our final vacation day. (Yes, dad, a solid itinerary can be built at the last minute — even without a AAA TripTik!)

Now that I know we travel well together, I hope this is the first of more trips we’ll be able to share.

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Featured photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy.