Layering is important, so use more to protect against the cold or less if it's hot. Credit: Shutterstock

How to pack for a river cruise

Author: Lucy Abbott

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Need help packing for a river cruise? Read our top tips before you zip that case.

One of the best things about taking any cruise is that you only have to pack and unpack once. What’s more, if you’re not flying, you don’t need to worry about those minuscule baggage allowances.

But that doesn’t mean you can just throw anything and everything into your case, squeeze it shut and hope for the best. There’s a real art to packing for a voyage – and a river sailing brings a whole new set of requirements. So don’t leave home until you’ve read our handy hints on what to bring and – just as importantly – what to leave at home.

You shan’t go to the ball
River cruising
is less formal than ocean travel and there won’t usually be a black tie night. By day, comfort is (nearly) everything, so shorts, skirts, sundresses, jeans and T-shirts are all fine. You might want to raise the stakes a little in the evenings when most passengers – though not all – change for dinner, but even then an informal dress for women and chinos for men will see you through.

Men who choose to wear a jacket or blazer won’t look out of place but there is need for a suit and tie, even on the smarter lines. However, if you don’t feel you’ve had a holiday unless you get dressed up at least once, most cruises have a gala evening or captain’s farewell dinner, so one dressier outfit might be worth its place in your suitcase.

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Don't forget to pack a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Credit: Shutterstock

These shoes are made for walking...
River cruises tend to involve a lot more walking than ocean voyages, and you’re likely to step ashore every day. Many excursions involve guided walking tours but even if you prefer to explore under your own steam, it’s important to have shoes you can walk in. They don’t need to be hiking boots – trainers or even good quality sandals should be fine – but make sure they’re well worn in. Don’t make the classic newbie mistake of buying a new pair for your holiday, then getting a blister on day one.

Evenings on deck may require wearing layers.

Some enchanted evenings
Even if you’re travelling at the height of summer, take a variety of clothes that can be layered over T-shirts and shirts, along with a lightweight rain jacket. Don’t forget that you might want to sit out on deck in the evenings with a cocktail, so bring least one long-sleeved jumper or cardigan.

Shrugs or shawls for ladies are also a great idea, especially as they take up so little room when rolled up in your suitcase. Headgear is important, too. Even if you don’t normally wear one, take a sun hat or baseball cap on summer cruises, and pack a beanie or similar for winter sailings. Most ships have umbrellas to borrow, but check on the line’s website before you go.

Less is more
It’s always tempting to throw ‘one more thing’ into your case, but just because you can take something, it doesn’t mean you’ll have room on board to hang it. Most river cabins are smaller than those on ocean ships, with much less storage space (unless you sail with Amadeus River Cruises, whose latest ships have walk-in wardrobes for all categories).

If your case is too big it might not fit under your bed, so it’s best to leave that steamer trunk at home. Instead, set out your clothes before you go and plan mix-and-match outfits that can be worn in the day and then dressed up a little at night with accessories such as costume jewellery or a scarf.

The Danube Bike Route is one of the most scenic cycling routes in Europe.

Don't forget your gym kit
River cruises are no longer sedentary affairs. These days there are small gyms on the majority of river vessels, and many – including Ama Waterways and Emerald Cruises - have dedicated fitness hosts who organise daily classes such as yoga and stretching, so bring your gym kit if you want to join in.

Similarly, most ships have a small fleet of onboard bikes that are free to borrow, and optional shore excursions – particularly on the Danube – feature cycling tours along flat riverside bike trails and through scenic countryside and vineyards. Paths alongside rivers are also great if you’re a runner and fancy a jog before breakfast or dinner.

Other excursions can include guided hikes, so bring walking shoes or boots if you want to join these. For keep-fit fan Avalon Waterways offers dedicated Active & Discovery sailings that feature running tours of cities, as well as kayaking, hiking and other activities

Make a splash in the pool
Many ships have small swimming pools and hot tubs. Emerald Cruises offers a lovely pool area at the back of its European vessels that converts into a cinema at night; AmaWaterways provides a swim-up bar on selected vessels, and some Uniworld ships even have elegant pools indoors.

offers adults-only and children’s pools on its new dedicated family ship A-ROSA Sena, which sails on the Rhine, while Amadeus River Cruises has a beautiful infinity pool on its French ship Amadeus Provence. You’ll also find hot tubs on lines including AmaWaterways, Nicko, Scenic and Tauck. Even if your ship doesn’t have a pool, do pack a costume if you’re visiting Budapest, as it’s well worth taking a trip to the city’s famous thermal baths.

You're worth it
All cruise lines provide a hairdryer and toiletries. Budget operators will give you a fairly basic body wash that doubles up as shampoo, while on high-end lines you can expect the full range of branded shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, shower caps, make-up remover pads and nail files.

Even so, you might prefer to bring those tried and trusted favourites from your bathroom cabinet at home, and don’t forget sunscreen and any medications you need. It’s also worth noting that some lines provide slippers and robes, or have them available on request, so check this with your line before you travel to save taking your own.

Wash and go
All river ships provide laundry and pressing services, so if you’re sailing fo ra fortnight there’s no need to bring an outfit for every day. Charges are usually very reasonable, and well worth it for the benefit of being able to pack light.The showers in many cabins also have extendable washing lines, so it’s worth taking a travel sachet of washing power to launder small items in your cabin.

Gadget and gizmos
Almost all river ships provide free wi-fi, although it can be patchy when sailing outside cities and sometimes non-existent for extended periods on cruises in Asia. Many modern vessels are now equipped with USB ports but there are exceptions, and remember to pack a few UK adaptors for European and US power points.

You’ll be snapping lots of photos, so take extra memory cards for your camera. Also consider investing in a portable power bank so your phone doesn’t run out of charge when you’re out and about on excursions. Finally – and this applies to all cruises – don’t forget to pack your passport!

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About Lucy Abbott

Lucy is an experienced cruise journalist, who has sailed on a variety of ships, from expedition to river – with her favourite being expedition cruising.

Lucy reports on what it’s like to be a young cruiser and is interested in new sustainable ways to cruise as well as how cruising is becoming accessible for all.

She works together with Kaye Holland to keep the World of Cruising website up to date with all the latest cruise news.