So you've booked that dream river cruise to Europe. You've chosen your state room, purchased flights, and have already bought a guidebook (or two). Now comes perhaps the hardest part about getting ready for a river cruise: figuring out what to pack!
Most people go on European river cruises in the spring and summer months, with a handful cruising in the winter to visit Europe's famous Christmas markets.
What you pack will of course depend on which season you're traveling in. But here are my tips for what to pack for a river cruise in Europe after going on 4 such cruises myself.
Common questions about packing for a river cruise
Do I have to dress up?
The top question I get about river cruises is related to how “fancy” you need to get onboard. There are generally no formal nights on river cruise ships. There may be one Captain's Dinner night where you're advised that shorts and tank tops are not appropriate, but otherwise the cruise will be fairly casual.
Most people will dress up a little bit for dinner in the main dining room – but by “dress up” I mean put on a clean pair of pants and maybe swap out the sneakers for something slightly nicer.
For ladies, dinner attire can be anything from a nice pair of capris/pants and a top to a sundress. Cocktail dresses would be considered very fancy for a river cruise.
For men, most will wear pants or a nice pair of jeans and a polo shirt (or similar). You won't find many men wearing shorts at dinner, but there aren't generally any rules against them.
For the rest of the time on your cruise, dressing for comfort is key!
What kind of shoes are best?
What kind of shoes you want to bring will largely depend on your cruise itinerary. Obviously if you're doing a more active river cruise, then you'll probably want a pair of good sneakers, or at least some good walking sandals.
In fact, you probably want those things anyway, as walking tours are a common excursion on any river cruise.
Lately, my go-to casual shoes for both myself and my husband have been SUAVS Zilker knit shoes. These lightweight, flexible shoes are super packable, breathable, and basically feel like you're just wearing socks. They're also machine washable, too, which is a big bonus.
Can I do laundry?
If you're on a longer river cruise (or if your cruise is part of a longer trip around Europe), you might need to do laundry at some point. While there aren't any self-service laundry facilities on river cruise ships, there will always be an onboard laundry service.
Laundry prices on a river cruise are comparable to prices in higher-end hotels, with every clothing item costing a certain amount to be washed, dried, and pressed. I would personally only pay this much to have laundry done if it's absolutely necessary, but the service IS there.
And you can expect your laundry to be returned to you in 24 hours.
What's provided in the room?
Amenities will vary slightly based on which cruise line you're sailing with, but in general you can expect to find bath robes, slippers, a hair dryer, and toiletries like shampoo and conditioner in your room.
Do I need outlet/voltage adapters?
SOME river cruise lines will offer two types of outlets in every state room (usually a US plug and a European one). Others will just have the European ones, meaning traveling with an outlet adapter is never a bad idea. I like this one.
As for voltage, most electronics (like your phone charger, Kindle charger, camera charger, etc.) are built these days to handle any voltage between 110 and 250. So the ONLY instance where you might need a separate voltage adapter is if you're using a curling iron, straightener or hair dryer of your own that's single-voltage from the US, and your ship only has European plugs. (But you can easily avoid this issue by purchasing dual-voltage gadgets – here's a dual-voltage hair dryer, and here's a dual-voltage curling iron.)
What to pack for a river cruise in Europe
I've traveled on river cruises in spring, summer, and winter. The packing list below represents what I recommend packing for a river cruise in Europe in either spring, summer, or early autumn.
(If you're headed to Europe on a river cruise in winter, check out the bottom of this post for suggestions on how to tweak this list for winter!)
To be completely honest with you, your suitcase for a river cruise doesn't really matter. The beauty of a river cruise is that you only need to unpack once, and then you can shove that suitcase under your bed for the duration of your cruise (and yes, most river cruise lines design their beds so that full-size suitcases slide easily under them!).
I went with my Osprey rolling bag for this trip. It’s a 60-liter bag with sturdy wheels and removable backpack straps (though I always leave the backpack straps at home). Osprey makes amazing soft-sided bags – this particular one has been traveling around the world with me for five years and is still in fantastic shape.
If a hard-sided suitcase is more your speed, I'm a fan of spinner luggage from Samsonite.
RELATED: The Best Luggage and Bags for Travel
I utilized my favorite packing cubes (GREAT for keeping tops and bottoms organized) and and my new SegSac (perfect for socks and undies) for packing. As a bonus, these cubes can help you organize things in drawers when you unpack onboard, too.
River cruise clothing (for women)
(Remember, this specific river cruise packing list is based on a spring/summer river cruise. Your list might vary depending on what kind of excursions you're planning to do!)
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans
- 1 pair of long leggings
- 1 pair of capris/shorter leggings
- 1 pair of shorts
- 5 short-sleeved tops
- 2 tank tops
- 1 long-sleeved layering shirt
- 1 cropped sweater
- 3 dresses (I really like this maxi dress for travel)
- 1 maxi skirt (this one is the red one you see in this post)
- 1 set of pajamas
- 4 pairs of socks (including compression socks for the plane)
- 10 underwear (including my favorite ExOfficio bikini briefs)
- 3 bras
- 1 pair of moisture-wicking shorts to wear under dresses
- 1 swim suit (since the ship had a small heated pool)
- 1 casual jacket
- 1 raincoat (I love this Columbia one)
- 1 scarf (check out my favorite hidden pocket scarf!)
- 1 hat (either a baseball cap or packable sunhat)
- A dual-voltage hair dryer (because even though river cruise ships will supply one, I like to have my own!)
My top tip for packing light is to stick to mostly neutral colors and one or two accent colors that you can mix and match. This way, you can create multiple outfits with fewer articles of clothing.
I generally pack this amount of clothing whether I'm traveling for 2 weeks or 2 months – but the river cruises I've been on in Europe have usually been 8-9 days.
- 1 pair of sneakers or walking sandals (I love my Teva Verra sandals)
- 1 pair of Crocs flats
- 1 pair of nicer sandals
Whatever you decide to pack, just be sure you have at least one pair of shoes that you'll be comfortable walking in. River cruises offer a lot of free walking tours, and you don't want to have to skip them because of poor shoe choice!
(If you're going in the winter – like on a Christmas market cruise – I would swap out the sandals for a warm pair of boots like these Omni-Heat boots by Columbia.)
My carry-on backpack
My new favorite backpack that's both functional AND stylish for the streets of Europe is the Pacsafe Citysafe CX. This backpack has anti-theft features like slash-proof straps, lockable zippers, and RFID protection, but also looks really great.
Inside this bag:
- My laptop
- Kindle Paperwhite
- Electronics chargers, extra batteries/SD cards, etc.
- Belkin power strip/surge protector*
- Outlet adapter*
- My glasses and extra contacts
- A travel umbrella (this rainbow one is super cute!)
*I recommend these for any trip anywhere! They make it easy to charge any type of device that you've brought along, from cameras to iPads to Kindles.
I'm still in love with my Donner bag by Overland Equipment, but unfortunately this exact bag isn't sold any longer. If you want something similarly roomy and useful for traveling, though, check out the Travelon Anti-Theft Bucket Bag. If you prefer using a small backpack as your handbag, I love this Pacsafe Citysafe convertible backpack.
In my purse (on travel days):
- My camera
- Extra camera battery and lens cleaner (my LensPen is great!)
- A small power bank so my phone never runs out of juice
- Small zippered pouch with Dramamine, chapstick, Advil, etc.
- Tiny hair brush with attached mirror
- Business cards (because you never know who you’ll meet!)
NOTE: I don't ever recommend carrying your passport on you at all times. Unless you're told you need your passport when you're off the ship, just leave it in the safe in your room.
More river cruise posts
- 7 Reasons You Should Go on That River Cruise This Year
- 6 Highlights from an Active River Cruise with Avalon Waterways
- Cruising Solo: What It’s Like to Go on a Viking River Cruise Alone
- Christmas Markets with Viking River Cruises: What’s It Really Like?
- Exploring Russia with Viking River Cruises: The Highlights
- Highlights from a Danube River Cruise in Eastern Europe with AmaWaterways
What about for men?
If you're a man planning to go on a river cruise (or, probably more likely, a wife wondering what to pack for your husband), here's what I would suggest:
- 2 pairs of nice jeans
- 1 pair of khakis or dress pants
- 1-2 pairs of shorts or hiking pants
- 4-5 t-shirts
- 2 polo shirts
- 1 dress shirt (optional)
- 1 fleece or sweatshirt
- Raincoat (especially if traveling in spring)
- Underwear for 10 days
- 5-6 pairs of socks
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 1 pair of nicer shoes
- 1 hat
What if I'm going on a winter river cruise?
If you're doing a Christmas market cruise, I would do the following to amend this list:
- Nix a couple of the dresses and/or add another pair of pants or leggings
- Leave the shorts at home
- Pack a couple more sweaters
- Bring boots instead of sandals
- Pack a medium-weight winter jacket (it doesn't get *that* cold in most parts of Europe in December – when I went on a Christmas market cruise, it was in the 40s/50s (F) most of the time); a down (or down alternative) jacket would be perfect.
- Pack a hat and gloves, just in case
Do I need anything else?
It’s not a tangible item, but I also always recommend packing a good travel insurance policy when you travel! That way everything from lost luggage to a bad accident is covered – because you just never know what might happen. I usually recommend Wold Nomads for affordable basic travel insurance.
READ NEXT: Christmas Markets with Viking River Cruises
Have you ever been on a river cruise? What kind of things did YOU pack?
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