Background Afatinib, an irreversible ErbB family blocker, has shown synergistic antitumor activity and manageable tolerability in combination with chemotherapy. This phase I study assessed oral afatinib plus intravenous gemcitabine or docetaxel in patients with relapsed/refractory solid tumors. Methods Patients received afatinib (30, 40, or 50 mg) plus gemcitabine (1000 or 1250 mg/m2) or docetaxel (60 or 75 mg/m2). Dose escalation proceeded via a 3 + 3 design until the maximum tolerated dose (MTD) was reached. Adverse events (AEs), pharmacokinetics and antitumor activity were also assessed. Results Dose-limiting toxicities during Cycle 1 were reported in 6/39 patients receiving afatinib/gemcitabine (most commonly diarrhea, thrombocytopenia and vomiting) and 16/54 patients receiving afatinib/docetaxel (most commonly febrile neutropenia and stomatitis). The MTDs were established as afatinib 40 mg/gemcitabine 1000 mg/m2 and afatinib 30 mg/docetaxel 60 mg/m2. The most common drug-related AEs were diarrhea, asthenia and rash with afatinib/gemcitabine, and diarrhea, asthenia and stomatitis with afatinib/docetaxel. No relevant pharmacokinetic interactions were observed for either combination. Both combinations demonstrated clinical activity and durable disease control at the MTDs. Compared with the MTD, higher response rates were achieved with afatinib 30 mg/docetaxel 75 mg/m2 (28% vs 6%); however, this regimen was associated with problematic febrile neutropenia, an expected AE with docetaxel, that is often managed with growth factor support. Conclusions Afatinib/gemcitabine and afatinib/docetaxel demonstrated manageable safety profiles, with evidence of clinical efficacy at the MTDs. For afatinib/docetaxel, a dose level of afatinib 30 mg/docetaxel 75 mg/m2 produced higher response rates. Trial registration: NCT01251653 ( ClinicalTrials.gov ).