Back in the 1980s, I traveled around the world with a hefty backpack weighing down my shoulders. As I traveled, my backpack became lighter and lighter and lighter. I started dispensing of stuff because I got tired of carrying it, and I learned that I could do with a lot less than I had originally thought I would need. So if there is one lesson that I have learned in my four decades of traveling, it is pack less.
It’s a lesson I am still learning as I find myself at the end of a river cruise only to discover I didn’t touch half the items in my bag.
As a rule of thumb, packing what you think you’ll need, letting it sit for a few days and then removing half the contents is not a bad idea. I’ve tried it before, and in fact, even then, after removing half the contents, I have found that I overpacked. Now let me say right up front that I am a hygienic person. I would never wear the same clothes day after day after day. But let’s face it: a pair of jeans doesn’t need to be washed every single day that you wear them. That said, I have seen people wearing the same clothes for days in a row. That’s not my style, and probably not yours either.
So let’s talk about how to pack efficiently and travel comfortably (and stylishly) for your typical one-week river cruise.
Travel Luggage: Think Carry-On
Unless you’re working up a sweat, slacks and shirts should have a two-day lifespan before laundering. And yes, many river cruisers have laundry facilities on board. See What’s The Best Way To Handle Laundry On A River Cruise? Even better, the clothing I recommend can be washed in your stateroom sink and hung to dry in a few hours.
Ideally, you could get all of your clothing in one carry-on like the one pictured above. It’s a Briggs and Riley Baseline International Carry-On. At $499 plus tax, the bag is excruciatingly expensive, but I’ve had mine for several years (paid $399 on sale) and have found it to be worth every penny.
If you’re considering going this route, be sure to get the “international” and not the “domestic” carry-on. The domestic carry-on is longer (by an inch) and may not be allowed on European carriers. Also, skip the the spinner version. The additional wheels steal interior capacity when compared to the two-wheeled version. The two-wheeled version has a maximum capacity of 3569.5 cubic inches while the spinner version has a maximum capacity of 3390 cubic inches. Size matters.
One particularly nice feature is that for extra packing, both versions of the Briggs and Riley luggage feature technology that expands the bag up to 34 percent, then it can be compressed back down to its original size. I fill my luggage with the compression open, then press it down as hard as I can.
In case you’re wondering, Briggs and Riley did not pay me to write this post. I think they have a great product with a great warranty, lifetime. The warranty is something I’ve used more than once. I have been hard on my luggage, rolling it over cobblestone streets and up and down steps. I have broken the wheels on a few pieces of Briggs and Riley luggage, and the company has always replaced the wheels by mailing them me, whether I was in the States or in Europe.
You’re allowed one carry-on and one personal item on U.S. airlines. Size restrictions vary by airline but basically the personal item should be smaller (in appearance) than the carry-on. United Airlines, for example, stipulates that “the maximum dimensions for your personal item that fits under the seat in front of you, such as a shoulder bag, purse, laptop bag or other small item, are 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches.” That makes the Osprey Porter 30 a bit too large at 10 inches x 13 inches x 19.5 inches, but I think you’d be able to claim it as a personal item without question. The Osprey Porter 30 has a capacity of 1831 cubic inches. I’d be willing to risk a little larger personal item, the Farpoint 40, with 2,441 cubic inches of space. It measures 9 inches x 14 inches by 21 inches.
If you can get all of your belongings in those two bags, you will thank me. No chance of the airlines losing your bags. No wrestling with oversized bags. No challenge when you get to your cabin to unpack and store your clothes. Think minimalism. This is your chance to simplify.
TSA regulations also allow you to bring a quart-sized bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes in your carry-on bag and through the checkpoint. These are limited to travel-sized containers that are 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less per item. If you need something larger than that, buy it in Europe.
On most river cruises, no formal wear is needed. Think casual, thin, layers, and only a few pairs of shoes.
I find Kuhl clothing and Ex-Officio to be extremely travel-friendly. You can certainly find comparable brands that may be cheaper. I have provided links to specific products but you likely can find all of these brands cheaper by searching Google.
What do I recommend packing? If you pack only the things on this list (women will need to choose comparable clothing), you’ll be fine for any kind of situation and weather that Mother Nature can throw at you. Also, you can wash most of these items in your bathroom sink or shower.
- Four pairs of slacks. Three pair of convertible slacks (one pair that you will travel in – they convert to shorts and have plenty of pockets), and one pair of lightweight slacks. Any of these are fine to wear to dinner.
- Six pair of light-weight and easily washable underwear (one pair that you will travel in). Wash them in your sink. They dry within hours.
- Four lightweight t-shirts like these
- Two light weight short-sleeved shirtslike these and three dress shirts like these or these (one that you will wear on the plane).
- Six pair of socks.
- Only one jacket, a rain jacket. This one is expensive but can be used a lifetime. I love mine. You will not get wet in this jacket.
- Two pairs of shoes. No formal shoes. You won’t need them. One pair of chacos. They are compact and versatile. Another pair of comfortable walking shoes. Forget style. Think comfort. If you must, take one additional pair of dress shoes.
- One belt. This one is a good one.
- Bathing suit for the hot tub or pool on some ships.
- Water bottle. Hydroflask is a good brand.
- Prescription drugs and toiletries.
- Use your phone for a camera.
Have I forgotten anything? If so, please comment below this post. A couple of years ago, I did a survey asking River Cruise Advisor’s readers for their best packing tips. Some of the answers were amusing …
- go nude and eliminate all the fuss of luggage!
- as little as possible!
- No one will remember what you wore yesterday
- Remember the 3 ‘C’s of travel: Don’t compare, don’t compute, and don’t complain.
- it takes up no space in your luggage – but is your most important item – your smile!
- The fewer luggage pieces, the better!
- pack less- bring more cash
- Pack your old clothes that you “want to throw away” but just haven’t done it yet.
And some were helpful …
- a highlighter pen for the daily activities newsletter
- don’t forget your passport!
- pack everything for your first day onboard in your carry-on luggage.
- Take some magnetic hooks. Cabin walls usually are metal is and hooks provide the ability to attach daily news and map sheets and can add a lot of space by getting things out of the small closets and off of the limited desk space.
- Roll clothes into suitcase with shoes on inside outer edge
- Use packing cubes!!!! Used these for 3 week trip to Europe and we only used a carry on.
- Do laundry halfway through the cruise
- pack all tops according to shade of the same color, in clear plastic zipper bags. This means when you decide you want something blue or cream etc, to go with whatever, it’s easily seen, you simply lift out the bag from the shelf with your chosen color.
- Black slacks. Dress them up or down as the evening dictates. One pair will keep you looking sharp every night of your voyage.
- Take extra scarves, great for style, warmth, or to use holding table or seat.
- keep everything to two colors
Many readers advised packing and then removing half of what you packed prior to leaving for the airport. “Pack your suitcase, then go back and remove half of the items in your bag, and transfer the remaining items into a smaller suitcase,” wrote one reader. “Don’t put in more than three days worth of clothes. No one cares what you wear.”
And then came the contrarian, who wrote: “Pack as much as possible up to the limit. You never know when or what you will need. Throw out some of your husband’s clothes if you have too!”
Let me know your thoughts about what to pack and what not to pack in the comments section below.