How to Pack for a Cruise
Cruise ship itineraries are as diverse as the ships that carry their passengers. Cruisers can relax in the Caribbean for a handful of days or explore exotic places for weeks or months. Some ships sail to rugged terrains with frigid climates that require layered activewear and hiking boots, while other vessels journey to tropical islands where shorts, T-shirts and sandals will suffice.
With so many factors, it’s impossible to recommend a one-size-fits-all packing list. Some basic necessities will be identical for all cruise passengers, but many items will be dependent on the cruise ship environment, the destinations and the time of year.
Want to ensure you're prepared to set sail? Here are 16 tips that focus on the basics, plus suggestions for specific destinations.
Within a few weeks of a sailing, future passengers should visit the ship’s website to check out the ship’s dress code, review the location of the ports of call as well as sea days, and glance at the upcoming weather forecast for the region.
The average stateroom is a tiny cubicle so advanced planning is essential. To minimize the need for an overabundance of clothing, most cruise ships offer professional laundry services and/or laundry facilities. It’s also possible to hand-wash lingerie and clothing in the stateroom.
Minimize travel day hassles.
It’s simple: it’s easier to travel with one suitcase per person than two. But while this may be common sense, most travelers pack more than they need. To avoid overpacking, select color-coordinated clothing that can be layered and matched with a limited number of shoes. Whenever possible, wear the most cumbersome pair and pack the rest.
Lengthier cruises with diverse climates will require a variety of clothing and colder climates will necessitate bulkier sweaters and jackets. Eliminate items that will only be worn once.
To maximize the space inside a suitcase, consider rolling up clothes instead of folding. Socks and underwear can be placed inside of hollow items such as shoes and boots. Packing cubes may add space and increase the likelihood that a person will only need one suitcase.
Pack necessities in your carry-on luggage.
Passengers board the ship with carry-on luggage in hand. Bags with wheels will decrease the burden of carrying an overstuffed satchel while waiting for your cabin.
On mega-ships, it may take hours before travelers are reunited with their checked baggage. Occasionally, luggage mishaps occur. It’s advisable to place an extra outfit inside your bag, along with your regular carry-on basics.
Standard carry-on items such as prescription medication, supplements and probiotics, over-the-counter medicines, jewelry, toiletries, a mini first aid kit, antibacterial wipes, healthy snacks and electronic devices should also be packed.
While there’s no shortage of food on board the ship, it’s convenient to have prepackaged bags of nuts and healthy protein bars for unexpected layovers at the airport or during long excursions without meals.
To avoid unnecessary aggravation due to computer glitches or an expired phone battery, pack a folder that includes your printed travel documents — e-tickets, travel insurance, land accommodation information, a city map and cruise ship documents. If traveling overseas, include a printed copy of your passport and visa.
Be mindful of security on the road.
Many individuals will handle your checked baggage. To make it more challenging to open your luggage, use TSA-approved locks. The locks can’t prevent theft, but a good lock will reduce the chance of a break in.
Travelers cruising to metro areas with congested streets may want to consider a wallet that can be worn around the neck or waist. Items such as these may deter the average pickpocket.
Since credit card theft is rampant in tourist spots, RFID wallets and bags are a good idea. A simple flashlight or a flashlight app on a smartphone may come in handy in an unexpected dark place.
Bring everything you need to stay connected.
Although electronic devices are part of day-to-day life, few use their vacation time to take a break from the internet. To remain connected, add charging cords, portable chargers, power adapters and earbuds to your packing list. Earbuds and headphones can be used on the airplane, at the beach or pool, and at the fitness center.
Since staterooms have a limited number of electrical outlets, some passengers rely on an extension cord for multiple devices. Please note that some cruise lines prohibit these cords. A cruise representative should be able to clarify the ship’s policy.
In many instances, smartphones have replaced cameras. Travelers planning to spend any time at the beach, or in a place with a high percentage of precipitation, should bring along a waterproof camera and waterproof cases for cell phones and cameras. If you love taking pictures, bring an extra memory card and batteries so you won’t be disappointed.
Wi-Fi cruise packages are oftentimes expensive. Families and friends who purchase Wi-Fi cruise packages can communicate with one another by using FaceTime or a free or low-cost app. Some cruise lines offer an app that includes person-to-person calls.
Travelers who choose to unplug during a cruise can consider walkie-talkies. However, the effectiveness of these products is dependent on the ship’s dynamics.
Make sure you have protective gear.
Cruisers spend a tremendous amount of time outside enjoying the ship’s common areas and ports of call. In cooler climates, headbands, wool hats, gloves and lined boots will be the norm. In moderate to warm areas, a wide-brimmed hat along with deet-free insect repellent should be packed.
A waterproof raincoat is a necessity unless the ports have minimal rainfall; other types of raincoats will leave you drenched in a downpour. Note that some cruise ships provide umbrellas for each stateroom.
Don’t forget UV protected sunglasses, UVA/UVB sunscreens, lip balm and your favorite moisturizer.
Bring all the (comfortable) footwear you need.
The top priority for footwear is comfort. All passengers will need a minimum of two pairs of shoes — a sturdy pair of walking or athletic shoes and something a bit dressier for the evening. Most passengers will pack a couple more.
Hiking boots are ideal for rugged terrain, longer treks, cooler climates and horseback rides. Sandals, flip-flops and water shoes are a must for tropical beach excursions. Anyone planning to work out in the fitness center will need athletic shoes. An additional pair of evening shoes or sandals may be needed as well.
Bring appropriate daytime wear.
Dining rooms oftentimes have daytime dress codes that prohibit certain outfits including workout clothes or bathing suits. Cruise ships set their own policies.
Passengers who would like to take an exercise/yoga class or use the equipment in the fitness center should pack their favorite workout outfits and athletic shoes. Spa-goers may want to pack a comfy outfit to slip into.
Swimmers should pack their gear, but know that swimsuits may not be permissible in public places outside the swimming pools.
Lifelong learners who will attend onboard lectures and seminars should remember to pack a notebook and a few pens for these events.
Bring appropriate evening wear.
The cruise line determines the evening’s dress code, while the people on board decide how to follow the policy. On most nights, passengers are requested to wear casual clothing. The meaning of “casual” will fluctuate from cruise line to cruise line.
Can you differentiate between resort casual, cruise casual, smart casual, elegant casual or resort style attire? If not, ask your cruise representative.
Weeklong cruises may mandate one or two dressier evenings, while longer cruises include a few more. Formal attire in some instances translates into tuxedos and floor-length dresses or cocktail dresses. On other ships, the policy is considerably more relaxed. Sport coats or sweaters with a matching pair of slacks may be sufficient for guys. Gals are free to wear dressy pants, a skirt or a dress.
Shawls are a welcomed addition to an outfit on cooler evenings. If you feel uncomfortable being an outlier, call the cruise line to see if your interpretation jives with the ship’s culture.
An additional garment bag may be needed for these special clothes and shoes. Travelers who would prefer a casual cruise experience or less baggage can opt for secondary dining options that permit casual clothing.
Heading to a tropical destination? Pack this.
Those cruising to the Caribbean, Hawaii or Pacific Islands should be prepared for the hot and humid weather that usually prevails during daylight hours. (After the sun sets, the temperature may drop.)
Packing for this type of cruise is straightforward and simple. Summer outfits, bathing suits and cover-ups top the list. A raincoat and a lightweight sweater or two will be the only cumbersome items.
For daytime activities both on and off the ship, gals should pack shorts, lightweight capri slacks, tank tops, t-shirts, skorts, skirts and sundresses. Guys will be content with shorts, short-sleeved T-shirts, button-down polo shirts and tank tops. Bathing suits and cover-ups will be perfect for the pool and beach.
Some ship policies may prohibit beachwear and tank tops in the main dining rooms.
Heading to a northern region? Pack this.
If your destination is Alaska, Canada or the Norwegian Fjords, know that summer weather patterns can be unpredictable. To be prepared for all possible conditions, it’s wise to pack color-coordinated outfits that have multiple layers and several types of outerwear, including a waterproof jacket.
Depending on the month and the year, shorts, T-shirts and sandals may be worn on certain days. It may even be possible to sunbathe and swim on the ship’s poolside deck.
In other instances, hiking pants and fleece tops may be the appropriate attire. Additional layers may be needed for glacier or mountain-top shore excursions or for sea days that travel through glacier fields. Don’t forget to add winter hats, gloves and jackets for those colder days and evenings. Be prepared to bundle up, if necessary.
Heading to Asia? Pack this.
The weather will vary from country to country and the time of year. Many ports will be hot year-round, but the humidity and precipitation level will fluctuate. It’s rare to find a cruise ship that travels to Asia during the monsoon season. Regardless, it’s best to check the local weather before packing.
Some countries have conservative dress standards and also have a preponderance of religious institutions with strict guidelines. It is not uncommon for temples, mosques and churches to prohibit shorts, tank tops or tight-fitting garments. Look over your shore excursion list to see if any sites post clothing restrictions.
We recommend packing loose-fitting UV-resistant clothing that covers one’s shoulders and legs. Mountainous regions will be cooler and may require a jacket or sweater and travel pants.
Heading to the Middle East? Pack this.
Middle East cruises are oftentimes part of a European or Asian adventure. Warmer temperatures are the norm, except for at higher elevations. Like other places in the world, the culture and traditions will vary from country to country and some cities may have stricter policies about exposing too much flesh. It’s always advisable to take a few minutes to read about what is permissible attire. Travelers need to be respectful of the host country’s traditions.
When in doubt, dress conservatively by avoiding shorts and skirts above the knee, and bare shoulders. Lightweight travel pants with button-down tops are always a safe bet. Covering up is also beneficial since it protects skin from the harmful rays of the sun.
Touring inside can be chilly when the air conditioner is in high gear. A shawl, sweater or jacket may be a great accessory.
Heading to Europe? Pack this.
Mediterranean summer cruises will be hot, while the late spring and early fall sailings will be cooler. The Baltic and British Isles will have less humidity and slightly lower temperatures. The spring and fall shoulder seasons tend to have moderate temperatures. However, warmer temperatures occasionally spill over into these seasons.
European cruise passengers tend to dress more conservatively and wear tailored clothing. If planned shore excursions include stops at religious sites, add outfits that cover knees and shoulders to your list. In other instances, short-sleeved blouses and tops, knee-length shorts, skirts and lightweight pants will be great for women during the summer months. Men can select fitted shorts and polo shirts.
In the cooler months, long sleeves and pants can be substituted. It’s always advisable to have a lightweight sweater or jacket for unexpected drops in temperature.
Heading to South America? Pack this.
A cruise that rounds the Horn will have temperatures ranging from chilly to balmy to sweltering. Online monthly averages will provide a benchmark but, as all savvy travelers know, weather conditions can fluctuate.
Summer wear is ideal in the warmer ports of call while flannel, fleeces and a few layers of outwear will be the best bet in the colder locations.
Keep in mind that some excursions may require special gear. It won’t be possible to swim with the sea lions if you left your swimsuit at home or to take a five-mile trek through a volcanic ash rainforest without appropriate shoes. Getting blisters during one of your first outings won’t be much fun. Use your selected excursions as one of your packing guides.
Don't forget the last-minute basics.
To avoid embarrassing adjustments at the airline counter, weigh all of the checked bags with a travel scale before leaving home. Don’t forget to bring the scale along for the return flight.
If your luggage weight is close to the maximum and it’s possible to take another carry-on bag, pack a collapsible tote for the return flight.
For shore excursions, include a lightweight backpack that can accommodate a refillable bottle or two. Refillable bottles are great for cold and hot drinks throughout the trip.
Aboard ship, most gals travel light. They downsize to the bare necessities by wearing a fanny pack or carrying a mini purse. A small evening bag can be substituted for formal nights.
Before closing the suitcase, toss in a handful of Ziploc bags, a couple of wine-bottle protectors, and a laundry bag or two. Plastic bags can be used for ice, food, wet bathing suits and shoes, as well as many other things. (You’ll want to be prepared if you find the perfect wine to bring home!)
Putting soiled clothing into laundry bags will make unpacking considerably easier.