Hi Frugalistas! Yet again I’m inspired to write a post based on reader questions. Over the last few years I’ve had a number of questions from readers about what to pack for a river cruise in Europe. It’s a question I don’t feel particularly qualified to answer as I’ve never been on a European river cruise. But I’ve done quite a bit of research and worked out how to dress for a European river cruise. And what I’ve discovered is that it is possible to do a one bag packing list for European river cruise. Whether you like to travel with just a carry on or not, my packing list will fit in one carry on bag, and will have you looking chic, but practical, no matter what you like to wear.
This post contains a number of affiliate links for products that I think you will find useful for your packing list. If you make a purchase I do earn a small commission, but you won’t pay anything extra.
Basic packing list for a river cruise in Europe
My original basic packing list (circa 2012) is still the cornerstone of all my packing lists. And I think it still works well for a river cruise packing list:
4 short sleeved tops
4 long sleeved tops for layering
3 bottoms – I like a mixture of skirts and pants
3-4 sets of underwear (including socks and pantyhose as required)
Scarves and jewellery
2 pairs of shoes suitable for your climate. My basic shoes are a pair of ankle boots and a pair of ballet flats, but I change them up according to the season.
A coat/jacket suitable to the season.
Thermals. Unless I know the weather is going to be really warm I take a thermal top to use for layering under lighter clothes. This means I don’t need to pack heavy sweaters or thick coats for most of the year.
A light folding umbrella. I’ve previously had a Rick Steves one and had great success with it. For Australian and New Zealand readers I’m currently using a Kathmandu folding umbrella. It’s ultra light and seems quite strong in the wind.
My original post did not address the issue of how to go about choosing your clothes for a one bag packing list. But as I’ve listened to readers, I’ve realised that people do need some help with this. I like to pick my shoes first. Then I choose clothes that go with my shoes. Finally I go through my garments and check that everything I’m packing goes with everything else. Forget about choosing outfits – you will pack too much.
One of the advantages of a cruise is that you can unpack your case when you board. I find packing cubes very convenient for keeping my clothes in order. There’s no reason why you can’t simply take your packing cubes out of your case, and pop them in a drawer. I’ve recently seen these roll up folders for underwear and accessories that can be easily hung in a wardrobe.
Dressing up a one bag packing list for a river cruise in Europe
I understand that river cruises can vary quite a bit in their formality. While most cruises will not require formal wear for cruise dinners, I do think it’s nice to have something a little dressier to change into for dinner. And if your cruise includes evening excursions or special dining experiences having something smart to change into is definitely the way to go.
So how do you achieve this without packing a separate wardrobe?
I like to dress up my travelling wardrobe by careful selection of my basic items, as well as some simple, cheap and easy to pack tricks. The first thing to remember is that you are unlikely to need to pack “evening wear” as such unless you are on a very special trip. Pick items of clothing that are classic tones so you can accessorise with some colour to make them look different. Black, white or navy make good day to night pieces, as long as they fit with the colours you are choosing for your basic packing list. But there’s also no reason why you can’t go for something like a purple or red if you like a bit more colour.
Make one of your bottoms a pair of palazzo pants or very classic tailored trousers, and then do the same with a skirt. Automatically you have 2 bottoms that can be worn either in the day time or at night.
Then for your tops I like a classic black or navy sweater. Unless you are in Portugal or the South of France in high summer a sweater should be part of your long sleeved tops choices (and even then I think you probably need one for the evening). You can, of course, also wear your sweater in the day time with a more casual bottom, or thrown casually around your shoulders over a T shirt.
For your second evening top I think a blouse in a classic coordinating colour is a good choice. Synthetic silk-like fabrics are easy to wash and can be worn open over a T shirt or under a more casual sweater in the day time.
For shoes, either your sandals (chosen carefully in the first place), your boots or a pair of flats are the way to go depending on your preferences and season. Unless you are going to be waltzing in an Austrian palace, your feet will be under the table, so no one is going to see them. If you want to dress up a pair of flats or sandals I like shoe clips.
To dress your evening outfit up even more, add some pretty jewellery. A long stole in a silky fabric will pack light and small, and add a real impact, as well as keeping your shoulders and neck snug on a chilly evening. I particularly liked this ombre stole I found recently. The same site also had this pretty, colourful scarf in silk if you want to inject more colour into your evening outfit.
Changing your river cruise packing list for the seasons
Obviously you will need to tailor your packing list depending on where you are cruising in Europe and the time of year.
For summer, skip the boots and flats and go for an espadrille and a pair of sandals.
Depending on your cruising location you may also skip the sweater – so pack a light cardie and some extra blouses that can be worn as a light cover over a Tshirt if it is a little cooler.
Regardless of the time of year you do need some sort of waterproof coat. Shore excursions proceed regardless of the time of year and if this is the trip of a lifetime (and a costly one at that) you don’t want to miss a minute.
For summer a light waterproof coat is all you need
If you are cruising in winter – and particularly if you are visiting Christmas markets, you definitely need a down coat
Regardless of the time of year, forget about thick coats and choose something that can pack down small in your bag.
Packing for a European river cruise does not mean you have to pack half your clothes, or buy anything special for that matter. If you follow my packing list, and customise it to make it your own, I promise you will have plenty to wear, and will be comfortable and stylish no matter where your cruise is taking you.
If you have a packing dilemma, why don’t you get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org? I’d be delighted to help you out with your question and you may just inspire a future post on frugal first class travel.