Choosing the right clothes (and fitting them into your luggage) is a pre-trip chore most travelers dread. The good news: When deciding what to pack for a river cruise vacation, if you follow a few easy rules you should be ready to face any situation – from a walk beneath the rain-splashed Dutch windmills of Kinderdijk to an elegant evening at the opera in Vienna.
By packing versatile staples that can work for both day and night, couples can transform their look to dinner appropriate with the simple addition of an eye-catching necklace or a men’s suit jacket and a change of shoes. Such key pieces (washable if possible as many ships have laundry service) work with easy-to-pack accessories (such as pashminas, silk scarves, bold jewelry) that can turn basics into head-turners.
And always bring one cocktail-appropriate dress and a shirt and tie; the captain’s cocktail, while not formal, is usually the dressiest night onboard. Here’s what to pack for three key regions:
Packing for a European river cruise vacation: Spring & fall
If you’ll be cruising from March through May, think lightweight layers and rain gear. There’s a reason so many tulips, daffodils and hyacinths bloom in Holland, Belgium and France this time of year and it’s thanks to Mother Nature weeping with joy that winter is finally over (thinking of it that way makes the rain less annoying). Weather in the fall, especially northern countries from late September to early November, can be changeable, too, so be prepared to get wet.
For daytime: Comfortable shoes, sneakers or boots with sturdy soles are ideal for navigating the cobblestone streets of Europe’s old towns on foot. A waterproof jacket with a hood and an umbrella are essential, too. If jeans or khakis worn with lightweight sweaters, T-shirts or polos are your style, you’ll fit right in. Leggings paired with tunics and long cardigans are another easy option.
For evening: Palazzo pants and trim trousers that can be mixed and matched with different blouses and lightweight sweaters should be a staple – as should ballet flats and mid-heel pumps or sling-backs. Lightweight, easily packable dresses topped by a sweater or a simple sheath worn with a pashmina are elegant enough for most evenings. Men can pack a suit, but a sports jacket and tie will suffice if daytime pants aren’t too casual to pair with it.
Packing for a European river cruise vacation: Summer
To dress comfortably from June through August – especially if your cruise is in southern Europe, which is known to suffer heat waves – think breathable materials in light colors and comfortable rubber-soled sandals designed for walking. Avoid silk and pack a brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and a purse-size umbrella (it will come in handy when waiting in line in the sun at popular tourist sites). If you’re river ship has a small pool or hot tub (check your deck plan), pack a swimsuit and cover-up as well.
For daytime: You’ll want to beat the heat, so shorts or capris and cotton T-shirts are a good option, but if you’re partial to tank tops or sleeveless sundresses, pack a coordinating lightweight sweater or shawl (to cover shoulders if a churches or other religious site requires it).
For evening: Daytime sundresses can be glammed up with jewelry and strappy sandals; crisp polo shirts or button downs with khakis or dress trousers are fine for men on most evenings. Do bring a cocktail dress and a jacket and tie, which you may feel more comfortable in if you have a night excursion or a special onboard celebration.
Packing for a European river cruise vacation: Winter
The most important thing you’ll want to pack for a river cruise vacation at this time of year is a pair of warm boots with rugged non-slip soles. You are more likely than not to encounter snow while enjoying a Christmas Market cruise through Germany, Austria, France, Hungary and the Czech Republic. A warm coat, preferably weatherproof, plus a hat, gloves and scarf are also necessities.
For daytime: Think casual, comfortable and warm – wool, cashmere, polar fleece, corduroy and heavy denim. You’ll need to bundle up while exploring the markets, so wear layers you can easily remove so you don’t overheat when you head inside to visit a church or museum.
For evening: Being the festive season, the dress code can be a bit fancier on these cruises, so pack a few party-appropriate pieces so you don’t feel under-dressed for any celebrations that arise.
Packing for river cruise vacation: More international destinations
It’s often oppressively hot along the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, so as you ponder what to pack for a river cruise in Asia be prepare to sweat. Breathable fabrics are a must, as are hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug repellent and a swimsuit (if your ship has a plunge pool or if you’re planning a pre- or post-cruise hotel stay). Pack light colors in loose layers and pack sturdy sneakers or walking sandals.
For daytime: Opt for loose linen pants or convertible expedition pants/shorts that you can unzip to cool off during midday (when bugs are less active) and cover up at dawn and dusk to avoid pesky bites. Pair them with tank tops worn under a long-sleeve shirt in a lightweight or wicking fabric.
For evening: Sundresses or flowing, lightweight pants and skirts paired with cotton tops and strappy flat sandals are appropriate and comfortable. Men should pack polo shirts and crisp cotton or linen shirts to wear with lightweight trousers and slip-on loafers.
It’s hot, humid and buggy year-round, so be prepared to do battle with the sun and insects. Breathable fabrics – cotton and linen pieces or moisture-wicking active wear – are a must. You’ll also want to pack a light scarf to cover your neck and face while on deck or in sightseeing skiffs at sunset when insects appear like kamikazes.
For daytime: A hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and insect repellant are musts. Long pants and long sleeve shirts in lightweight fabrics are, too. Sneakers or sport sandals (which you might want to wear with socks) with good grip are helpful for getting into and out of sightseeing skiffs. Winning best-dressed isn’t the goal here; not being eaten alive by giant mosquitoes (or piranhas) is.
For evening: No other river cruise vacations are as casual the Amazon, so you can pretty much wear whatever you feel most comfortable in. Pants and shirts suffice for both sexes – no need to pack dresses or suit jackets – but you can trade your sneakers for casual sandals or slip-ons.
What would you make sure to pack on your river cruise vacation? Tell us in the comments.