Cruise Hacks: 8 Tips to help you pack for a river cruise

November 2, 2015 | By More
Contemporary steamer trunk (available at Target)

Not recommended: Contemporary steamer trunk (available at Target)

One of the most common questions first-time river cruisers often ask is how to pack for a river cruise. Having just returned from one of several we’ve taken over the years, here are some tips:

1 – Pack light

It’s never a good idea to over-pack. This is especially true on a river cruise where space in your cabin tends to be more limited than that in a hotel room or on an ocean-going vessel.

Riverboat cabins average about 200 square feet of space. While the ships are configured to provide ample storage room (with drawers, closets, and room to stash your suitcases under the bed), pack thoughtfully and only take what you’ll really need.

Drawer space on our cabin on the Viking Forseti

Drawer space on our cabin on the Viking Forseti

A wardrobe of predominantly neutral colors (black, white, beige, tan and gray) will allow you to mix and match outfits. Leave any heavy or bulky garments home that will take up excess real estate in your suitcase.

Life only gets more complicated when you have too much “stuff,” especially if you are planning pre- or post- cruise excursions or other travel that requires additional unpacking and packing.

Read an article I wrote for the Boston Globe on How to Avoid Extra Baggage Fees

2- Layer your wardrobe

Not only can the weather change (often unpredictably) from port to port but also from morning to night. In addition to a heavier jacket (to wear or carry on the plane), pack several sweaters or sweatshirts as well as blouses/shirts with both short and long sleeves. On excursions, you’ll be able to shed your heavier clothing as the day goes on and leave it on the bus.

Read an article by Sheryl Kraft on More Time to Travel: Packing Lite 101.

A good-looking scarf is always chic and easily packable. Moreover, it will keep your neck warm when it’s windy or cool.

"Scarfed" Shoshanna Golden, one of the passengers on our last river cruise

“Scarfed” Shoshanna Golden, one of the passengers on our last river cruise

3- Go casual

Dress on riverboats tends to be far more casual than on ocean-going vessels. Many passengers don’t change for dinner, remaining in the same outfits they’ve worn during the day. In fact, the cruise schedule can be so intense that there often isn’t enough time to change before dinner.

Men can easily opt to leave their sport jackets home and women can feel comfortable and elegant in a pair of slacks and nice sweater or blouse. Some passengers choose to dress up (although it’s optional) for the Captain’s Dinner. A dress shirt or dark polo shirt for men and a nice shawl for women can top off a casual outfit and kick it up a notch. Even in summer, air-conditioning can make for chilly dining rooms so it’s nice to have something to throw over your shoulders.

Black polo shirt for men (available from Ralph Lauren)

Black polo shirt for men (available from Ralph Lauren)

Don’t pack or carry expensive jewelry. If you want to glitz up at night, bring costume stuff so you don’t have to worry about securing it in the safe in your cabin.

Crystal glitz (available from Amazon)

Crystal glitz (available from Amazon for under $20)

4- Carefully choose footwear

Shoes are among the heaviest and bulkiest items that you’ll be taking so don’t take more pairs than you need. You’ll be doing considerable walking (averaging at least 2-3 miles per day) so be sure to bring along comfortable athletic or walking shoes that have proven themselves at home. Rubber soles are helpful because decks and gangways can be slippery when wet.

Read this collaborative post on More Time to Travel: What do travel shoes for women over-50 look like?

Take a second pair along—perhaps ones that transition into evening, so you have a backup should something go wrong. A lightweight pair of flip-flops can double for slippers in your cabin and give your feet a rest.

5- Avoid the heavy, hold-everything tote

Even if you carry a large bag en route to your destination, you’ll want to stow it away once you get onboard. You’ll need to take a few things along with you on excursions (e.g. your camera, cell phone, your identification card from the ship, perhaps a small note pad and pen, a credit card and currency to tip guides and drivers)—but pare your wallet and bag down to the bare essentials so you aren’t burdened with carrying a heavy bag on walking tours.

My standard travel bag: The Longchamps Pliage Tote

My standard travel bag (both lightweight and durable): The Longchamps Pliage Tote

Read my post on More Time To Travel: How to declutter your travel wallet.

A crossover bag or small backpack often works well during the day. It’s nice to bring a wristlet or other small purse to carry your keycard and cellphone to dinner. I always carry an almost weightless foldable nylon shopping bag for market visits or shopping excursions. Men (and some women) find it convenient to wear a vest with pockets during the day.

Furla wristlet set (available from Zappos)

Furla wristlet set (available from Zappos)

6 – Prepare for extremes 

If you’re traveling during winter or shoulder seasons, tuck a warm hat and gloves in your suitcase just in case it gets very chilly some mornings or late evenings, when you’re outside or on the deck. Most vessels have umbrellas you can borrow in case of rain but you may want to bring along a light raincoat or waterproof poncho. In summer and shoulder seasons, bring along a sunhat, pair of sunglasses, and suntan lotion in case the weather gets warm enough that you want to use the outdoor Jacuzzi on the deck.

7 – Keep your valuables close at hand

Even if you need to check your luggage, be sure to keep your valuables (e.g., medication, electronics, etc.) in a carryon that doesn’t leave your person. It’s tempting to entrust a deckhand or concierge with your carryon but I learned my lesson when I lost my laptop.

Read my cautionary tale on PBS Next Avenue: What to do if you lose a laptop while traveling.

8- Plug in

This is another case where less is more. Internet connections can be pretty iffy on any type of cruise and you don’t want to be tethered to your electronics so just take the essentials.

Electricity in Europe and Asia (as well as other destinations) usually is 220 rather than the 110 volts used in the U.S. Although most cell phones and laptops work on either one, the plugs on these devices require country-specific adapters with different shapes or numbers of prongs so they can plug into the electrical outlets you’ll find on the ship (or on land). You do not need a converter that changes one voltage to another but you will need to purchase the appropriate adapters (which are relatively inexpensive).

Even though many newer riverboats (e.g., Viking Longships) have outlets for both voltages, it’s unlikely there will be enough of them in the right places to recharge your cameras, laptop, smart phones, e-reader and/or to plug in your electric hair care accessories outside the bathroom. For added convenience, bring a lightweight power strip (of the appropriate voltage) with multiple (three to six) outlets that you can keep by your desk or at your bedside.

Outlet above my nightstand on Viking Forseti perfectly placed for my smartphone--that required an adapter

Outlet above my nightstand on Viking Forseti perfectly placed for my smartphone–which required an adapter

(N.B. Most riverboats provide hair dryers but if you use a curling or straightening iron, bring one that’s dual voltage.)

Bottom line

The romantic days of traveling with oversized steamer trunks are over. Most cruisers, even on ocean-going vessels, no longer use cruising as an opportunity to dress to the nines. Under no circumstances should anyone think about bringing a suitcase of more than 28” onboard a riverboat. You might even make it with only a carryon!

Previously on More Time to Travel: 18 Cruise Hacks


Do you have any tips to share on how to pack for a river cruise?

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Category: CRUISES

Comments (15)

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  1. Sheryl says:

    Fabulous information. Thank you! This covers it all.

  2. When it comes to packing for travel —- less is so much more (i.e. better). Are you tired of my black slacks? Get over it. 🙂

  3. Packing is the only part of traveling I don’t like, even though I’ve managed to become pretty good at it. Your post is very helpful since I’ll be on a river cruise for the first time next month. Shoshanna is a lovely model for the scarf, but the question is — who is that man in the Polo shirt? 🙂

  4. Wonderful information – and just in time. I’m going on a Viking river cruise in early Dec. and while I’ve been on nearly 20 ocean cruises, this is a first and I’ve been wondering what to take.
    Thank you so much!

  5. Great article! Now if only we could pack light :-). We just got back from a trip to the Riviera Maya (where you’d think you only need sandals, a bathing suit and shorts) and we still lugged big suitcases. No more though. That’s the last time, we swear! If you’re going to be taking local buses and ferries, you just have to travel light. (If you’re on a long multi-week cruise, taking taxis or pre-arranged transport to/from the ship, then you can throw the kitchen sink into your suitcase.)

    • Having big suitcases makes it very difficult to travel by train, too. You usually can’t keep them near your seat and the theft risk from the front of the car is great.

      As we travel more, we take less but still haven’t figured out a way to pare things down to one suitcase for both of us!

  6. Jared says:

    Great tips!

    One of the best things about river cruising is you don’t need to overpack or worry about schleping your stuff from city to city. Unpack once and be done for the remainder of your trip!

  7. Your Tourist Guides says:

    Fantastic tips!!
    Thank you for sharing!

  8. Packing is such a worry for many of us; this article certainly helps. And combined with the mantra that travel is not a fashion show, it should all fall into place. Invest in a good pair of black pants, black flats and loads of form fitting tee shirts and you are good to go.

  9. Kyle Winters says:

    I do like that you encourage people to pack for extreme whether depending on what time of year they are taking their cruise. After all, even if you’re taking a cruise to get away from the winter weather, it can still be chilly in the morning. You always want to pack at least one set of clothes that could keep you warm in unexpected weather.

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