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River cruise packing list: What to pack when traveling by riverboat

River cruise packing list: What to pack when traveling by riverboat

You have booked a river cruise and the departure date is approaching. Now you are panicking about what to pack.

You’ll want to pack light, since you won’t have much room in your cabin to store bulky suitcases. However, you also want to be prepared with appropriate clothing and equipment for the changeable weather on the river, visits to religious sites, and the many walking and biking tours you plan to do in the harbor. How will you fit everything in your hand luggage?

It seems like a lot, but there’s no need to feel overwhelmed by packing for a river cruise. I have been on more than 125 cruises, including many river cruises.

Below are my top packing tips and a river cruise packing list for a river cruise in Europe, the United States, Asia, or Africa. Follow these tips to take the stress out of pre-trip preparations.

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What to pack on a river cruise

SS Sphinx on the Nile. UNIWORLD

The first thing to realize is that where you will be cruising will dictate what you pack. The Nile in July will be very different to the Rhine in November and you will need different clothing and equipment.

However, river cruises are often at warmer times of the year in places where ice and snow may not be visible. Heavy outerwear is usually not required. (At least not much – I was on a Tennessee River cruise in early November, and one day it snowed for several hours!)

Here’s what to pack to make the most of minimal luggage.

Related: Book Your First River Cruise? Here’s what you need to know.

Light layers

The key to packing for a river cruise is layering.

Some rivers in Asia and Africa, such as Egypt’s Nile River, can be extremely hot during the day—we’re talking 90+ degrees Fahrenheit—but cool at night.

Late summer weather in Europe can also change frequently. During a river cruise in the Netherlands in early September, some days were warm and others were rainy and cold. For all of these destinations, you’ll want to be able to take layers off and put them back on.

Layers are also handy if you need to cover your shoulders and legs to enter religious buildings such as temples, monasteries and cathedrals.

Lightweight scarves are useful for covering the shoulders at religious places and covering the head and face when it is hot or dusty. Colorful scarves can also be a great accent piece for dinner on board.

For the best layering, consider packing a few thin long- and short-sleeve t-shirts, as well as a jacket, such as a zip-up jacket or vest from Patagonia. I often wear a dark denim jacket for layering. It’s warm and looks stylish when worn over t-shirts and accented with scarves.

Related: Cruise Packing List: The Ultimate Guide to What to Pack for a Cruise

Casual clothes for day and night

River cruises include full-day shore excursions, so casual and comfortable clothing is essential.

Cargo pants or shorts are a great idea on a river cruise, especially for the popular cycling and walking tours. You can stash your phone, slim wallet, and even sunscreen or bug spray in the large pockets, leaving your hands free for cycling or walking sticks.

It may sound counterintuitive, but for very hot places in Southeast Asia, India, Egypt, the Amazon region and Europe in August, it is best to wear long sleeves on tour, even in the hottest summer months. This will protect you from sunburn.

Prepare for varying temperatures and pack light, breathable fabrics. I prefer thin cotton t-shirts, while my husband likes moisture wicking shirts from Arcteryx and similar brands. Both types take up little space in your suitcase and dry quickly when hand washed.

Some of the newer riverboats from lines like AmaWaterways and Scenic have plunge pools on deck, so pack a bathing suit if you want to take a dip.

Related: Best River Cruises Around the World

When it comes to dining, river cruises are generally casual. You can even dine in what you wore on your afternoon outing — within reason. I wouldn’t wear cargo shorts to dinner, but I would wear jeans.

However, especially on European river cruises, most people like to wear a nicer shirt or top for dinner layered with a nice scarf, waistcoat, or thin, easy-to-fold jacket. Passengers on Europe’s top river cruises (such as Uniworld and AmaWaterways) tend to dress up more in the evenings than guests on more affordable cruises.

No river cruise ship will expect you to bring jackets or flashy clothes. However, I have seen women in cocktail dresses and men in sport coats on European and Mississippi river cruises.

Related: What to Wear on a Cruise: Cruise Attire and Cruise Dress Codes


Bring a pair of sturdy sneakers or lightweight hiking shoes for trips that may involve long city walks in Europe and the US, or hiking along dirt roads or rocky trails in more rural areas of India, Laos, Cambodia, and the Amazon. Alpine-style hiking boots are not required.

For river cruises in Southeast Asia and India, bring a comfortable slip-on shoe, such as Crocs, that are easy to slip on and off as you will need to remove your shoes before going to the temples. You’re usually allowed to wear socks, so bring more lightweight ankle socks or no-show socks that you can easily wash in the cabin sink when they get dusty from walking the dirt roads.

Ideally, bring a third pair of shoes to wear in your cabin and around the ship, such as sandals, boat shoes, flats or any casual light shoe you prefer. I never travel without my hot pink Birkenstocks; they are cute and versatile, without or with socks.

Accessories and travel equipment

SS Maria Theresa in Vienna, Austria. UNIWORLD

Clothing isn’t the only thing you’ll need to pack for a river cruise. The #1 accessory you should pack is a lightweight backpack, fanny pack, or bag that’s easy to carry on hiking, biking, or more active treks.

Riverboats that offer bicycle use should provide helmets, but the options may not always fit the way you want. If you plan on doing a lot of cycling (we cycled every day, sometimes twice a day on a recent AmaWaterways Holland and Belgium river cruise), consider bringing your own. A helmet can take up valuable real estate in your luggage, but it’s essential if you’re nervous about what you put on your head.

I like to wear a thin baseball cap under the helmets I borrow from cruises. The visor of the cap protects the sun or rain from your eyes. Also, if you are uncomfortable wearing a helmet that you have previously worn, the cap may be a barrier that prevents you from directly touching the hat. You can also tie a bandana on your head before putting on the borrowed helmet.

Ask your cruise line if they provide passengers with a reusable aluminum water bottle that can be filled on board and used during shore excursions. If yours doesn’t, bring your own lightweight refillable water bottle as an eco-friendly practice to reduce single-use plastic waste.

Related: 20 cruise must-haves — including a roll of duct tape

If you’re taking a river cruise in Southeast Asia, India, South America, or Africa, bring a small bag of your favorite medications because you may not find the brands or names you’re used to in port. Also, bring pain reliever and anti-diarrhea medicine just in case.

Also, carry a small container of insect repellent, for trips and your room, on cruises in tropical places where mosquitoes and other bugs are prevalent.

Since evening entertainment on a river cruise is minimal – usually little or no after-dinner music – consider packing your own evening entertainment.

Bring books, an e-reader or tablet, but be sure to download books and movies to your device before your trip. Wi-Fi can be weak on riverboats anywhere in the world, so you may not have a signal to read the newspaper in real time or stream the latest episode of your favorite show.

Tips for packing for a river cruise

Smaller suitcases or soft bags are ideal for riverboats as cabins may not have much storage space. AMAWATERWAYS

Cabins on river cruise ships are often small compared to cabins on large cruise ships, so you don’t want to overpack.

Riverboat cabins are also not as uniform as those on ocean liners. European fleets may be more similar, but lines in North America and Asia may have unusual, unique ships. Don’t assume you’ll have as much room on one line as the other.

River boats may not provide much (or any) space under the bed for bulky suitcases, and the wardrobes (if any) are compact, so small suitcases or soft bags are ideal.

There are exceptions, such as high-end river cruises in Europe from lines such as Uniworld and AmaWaterways; larger riverboats such as the 417-passenger American Queen on the Mississippi River; and luxury lines like Aqua Expeditions that cruise Asia and the Amazon. These ships offer more storage space in generally larger cabins.

Related: Cruise Ship Packing Mistakes You Want to Avoid at All Costs

Many riverboats also do not include self-service laundry facilities (although some luxury European riverboats do). Some don’t even have a laundry service. If you want to pack light, bring quick-dry underwear and layers that you can wash in the sink and hang to dry.

River Cruise Package List

Breakfast on AmaPrima’s upper deck. AMAWATERWAYS

With all of this in mind, here is a recommended packing list for your river cruise vacation:

  • More lightweight t-shirts and tops, including long-sleeve versions for sun protection.
  • Bottoms, such as leggings, lightweight cargo pants, jeans, khakis, trousers and skirts.
  • Evening wear such as casual dresses, trousers and nice shirts.
  • Several pairs of light underwear and socks.
  • A light cotton scarf or sarong.
  • A light but warm jacket, cardigan and/or thin fleece for chilly mornings or evenings.
  • Sturdy shoes, such as sneakers or simple hiking shoes.
  • A comfortable slip-on shoe for visiting religious sites or for evenings on board.
  • A light backpack or knapsack for trips.
  • Waterproof zipper bag or small bag for your phone and camera for protection in rainy weather and on small boats used for excursions.
  • Local and US currency in small bills to purchase drinks, snacks and souvenirs and to tip local guides.
  • Reading materials (books and e-readers) and/or tablet.
  • Sunscreen and bug spray.
  • Sunglasses.
  • A hat.
  • Lightweight compact umbrella for protection from rain and sun. (Many river cruise lines offer umbrellas, but they’re often large non-folding ones that aren’t convenient to carry around all day.)
  • Prescriptions and basic medicines.
  • Chargers for your electronics, plus a portable charger to ensure your phone is always charged on long trips.
  • Multiple adapters so you can use both North American 100 to 120 volt outlets and European 220 to 240 volt outlets on your river cruise ship. (The latest luxury riverboats may have standard USB charging outlets in bedside lamps.)


The key to packing for a river cruise comes down to two important themes.

First, don’t overpack and don’t bring huge suitcases that won’t fit in your cabin.

Second, dress for success with lots of light layers. Understand the climate and activities you will experience at your river cruise destination and you have the recipe for the perfect packing job.

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