How to Pack for a European River Cruise
European River cruises have become very popular and for good reason. They provide scenic, effortless sightseeing, transportation from one beautiful port city to another, and you don’t need to switch hotels every few days.
How should you pack to enjoy excursions, dinners and evening events while traveling by riverboat?
I just helped a client plan for her Rhine River cruise in August and my husband and I are getting ready to depart for a Danube River cruise this month, so the answer is top of mind right now!
Packing light is key
You’ve chosen to vacation via a riverboat, not an ocean cruise ship! There are distinct differences between the two that impact packing:
• Riverboats are limited in size by the dimension of the river locks and the height of bridges. Individual cabins range from very compact to small unless you have a suite.
• Storage space is minimal so even if you wanted to pack a different outfit for each day and evening, there is little room for it. Closets are quite small and drawer space is limited.
• Luggage is stored under the bed so it’s not possible to live out of a suitcase (as I usually do in a hotel room).
This is the time to pack light. My client and her husband, as well as I and mine, are each packing one 21” rolling bag (that can be checked or carried onto the plane) and a smaller “personal item” to carry on the plane (a tote for the ladies, a canvas briefcase or duffel for the men, that will fit under the seat).
River cruises tend to be more casual than ocean cruises. Cruise lines send out helpful packing lists with the cruise itinerary but you need to be the one to research weather forecasts. Dress for comfort and function. For cooler climates, layer; for warm, pack breathable fabrics. (See my post on How to Choose Smart Travel Fabrics.)
• To avoid over packing, take a “less is more” approach to your wardrobe. Each piece should work in a variety of ways and be able to be worn more than once while still looking fresh. This is when a capsule wardrobe takes top billing! Pick a color palette that mixes and matches. I plan around 2 basic colors (neutrals are best) and 1 accent color.
• Choose fabrics that are easy-care and won’t wrinkle. I love the rayon/spandex knit separates in the Wearever Collection by J.Jill that can go from day to evening and be worn comfortably even in very warm weather. And the no-iron shirts from Chico’s always look crisp.
• For shore excursions sporty, casual separates (pants, shorts, skirts, tops) in lightweight knits or woven microfibers are ideal. And many of the new hi-tech fabrics have sweat-wicking qualities and don’t absorb odors so you can wear them more than once. Note: Some riverboats offer laundry service but be prepared to hand wash and drip dry items you want to wear frequently.
• For evenings aboard, “resort casual” attire is appropriate. Yes, you may see some fellow travelers go right from touring to dinner with only a simple “tidy up”, but I prefer to freshen up with a change of clothing: my no-iron shirt will top a black pant for dining onboard; the look changes with accessories (costume jewelry or a scarf).
• For special occasion dinners when dressier attire is suggested, consider packing 1 pair black pants plus 2 or 3 dressy tops; or 2 or 3 pieces of “statement” jewelry to wear with the same black knit shift dress. Pack a colorful shawl or scarf to create even more looks with simple basics. Fellow passengers will admire your creativity while envying your smart packing.
• Plan for changeable weather. Pack things to span temperature swings and enable you to be outside regardless of weather. You’re in a town for only a few hours and you need to make the most of it! Choosing lightweight pieces that pack into small spaces is key:
– A lightweight waterproof hooded jacket. This can also serve as a windbreaker if you choose to take a bicycle tour. Note: Many riverboats provide umbrellas but I always pack a small collapsible one that’s easier to manage.
– A down vest that stuffs itself into a tiny pouch (Uniqlo’s are great and well priced). It can be worn over your clothing or as a base layer under a windbreaker.
– Leggings are a fabulous space-saver. Add a pair to a summer tunic dress for cooler destinations on your trip.
– I always pack a short-sleeve tee in the fall or winter in case of a heat wave and a long sleeve Uniqlo Heattech top in case of a cold snap in the spring or summer.
– And don’t forget a hat to protect you from hot sun. Wallaroo has a nice selection of packable styles with a UPF 50+ rating. I roll mine up to tuck it into my carry-on tote.
Take no more than 3 pair of shoes – travel in one, pack two. You’ll want a comfortable walking shoe with good ankle support for day excursions, as the terrain is likely to be uneven. A rubber sole is recommended for onboard. For evening, simple dress shoes or sandals that will also work with everything. I often favor ballet flats with formed rubber soles that support my feet and make walking easy (check out the ones featured in our recent Tips for Travelers newsletter). Be sure to change your day shoes for another pair at night to give your touring feet a rest.
• Roll your knit pieces to fit them tightly into your suitcase; use compression bags to fit bulkier items into smaller spaces.
• I prefer to pack non-knits via the interfolding method (view my video for the how-to).
• Separate your shoes and tuck small items, such as socks, inside each to create more space in your suitcase.
• Ditch your pretty cosmetic and toiletry bags – they are much too bulky! Divide your items between 2 or 3 clear zipper lock bags and pack them into the crevices in your suitcase. The new Ziploc© slider quart-size bags have a gusset that enables you to stand them up on your sink.
Bottom line on packing for a river cruise: Pack light, pack smart . . . and bon voyage!
Note: For a personal testimony on light packing for a European river cruise, plus a detailed packing list for a fall trip, see Susan Foster’s article in our Tips for Travelers newsletter.
Update: I just shared details of my summer river cruise in our August 2017 newsletter.
Great advice. Will use the much-needed links to perhaps purchase your suggestions. Thanks!
June 15, 2017
Good luck with your shopping! Please let me know how these brands work for you.
June 19, 2017
Only 3 pair of shoes!?!?! Ugh! So hard 😉 But definitely save room for the “statement” jewelry!!!! Great article!
And I agree with Miller, nice to have the links to the suggested purchases!!
June 16, 2017
Well, I don’t count flip flops – or a lightweight sandal that packs flat – as a “shoe” … so maybe that helps! For my own trip I am taking 3 pair of shoes (traveling in one of these) plus a flat-packing evening sandal.
June 19, 2017
Thank you , I like this information a lot. What a great selection of styles, I like elements of all of these ladies style! Thanks for it. https://www.maraley.com/
March 9, 2018
Lisa, I’m delighted you found this information helpful. Enjoy your cruise!
March 14, 2018
We just returned from a 15-day river cruise (June 2018) and I definitely did not need to pack nicer clothes for dinner. Most folks wore what they had on all day (shorts/capris). just a few women wore a dress or skirt at dinner. Three pairs of shoes are plenty!
June 21, 2018
Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Dee! I’m one who wants to change my clothes after a day of sightseeing and I was happy to see that most people on our river cruise did as well 🙂 whether it was into a fresh pair of capris or pants with a top or a dress. And thank you for confirming that the 3-shoe rule worked for you!
July 21, 2018
We’re going on a 7 day Viking cruise thru Bordeaux region beginning of September. Thinking of bringing white capris as they go with everything but seems once you’ve worn them, they don’t look nice next time. Weather will be in low 80’s in beginning of cruise & then low 70’s. Thoughts on white capris? Orginally was just going to pack black pants, jean capris & ankle jeans. Suggestions for packing for Bordeaux will be most appreciated.
August 19, 2018
Your upcoming river cruise sounds wonderful! With respect to bringing white capris, why even consider them if they don’t look nice after only one wearing. You want to bring pieces that can be worn multiple times, multiple ways. If the weather is going from the low 80’s to low 70’s in just one week, you are really out of summer looks so go with your black pants and jeans. If you want to mix in a lighter look, then I suggest beige, not white. Have a great time!
September 4, 2018
We are going on wine cruise down the Rhine first of November. they suggest one formal evening attire. My question is do women n Europe at this time of year wear hose with their dresses? In the states, no one does, but somehow I think they might???
October 10, 2018
A wine cruise on the Rhine sounds wonderful! And that it’s suggested you bring one formal outfit for evening implies the event will be special indeed! November is likely to be quite cool so I would certainly plan to wear hosiery, whether your dress is short or long, regardless of whether women in Europe would or wouldn’t. It’s simply about the temperature and being comfortable. If you don’t like to wear hose, then choose to wear evening pants and a top/jacket (although for comfort I know I would be wearing knee-high hose with closed toe shoes).
Enjoy your cruise!
October 24, 2018
I am going on my first viking River Cruise in December to visit European Christmas Markets.
My question is in regards to the type/height of waterproof boot I should take.
Will a six inch high boot be tall enough, or do I need an eight/ten inch high boot in case of snow?
December 2, 2018
You have chosen one of the most popular river cruises to take … but also one of the coldest weather-wise so I first recommend focusing on warmth when choosing between your boots. Regarding rain & snow protection, a six-inch boot (or bootie as it’s called) will be fine if you have the appropriate long pant and coat to keep you covered. A higher boot takes more space to pack and would be uncomfortable to travel in; however, depending on the weather forecast you might want the extra warmth it would provide. Whatever the choice, a flat, flexible sole – no heel – is essential for the walking you will be doing. (That fact alone might make your decision!) And remember, pack layers that will keep you WARM, regardless of the weather!
December 9, 2018
My husband and I are taking the Viking cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest and we want to take a 24 inch suitcase to check on airplane. Will this suitcase fit under the cruise bed?
February 16, 2019
Yes, you should be able to fit your suitcase under the bed as did my husband and I on our river cruise. We traveled with one 24″ bag and one 22″ bag and stored both under our bed. When shut, the heights of the bags are about the same. Have a wonderful time!
April 12, 2019