Cruise Packing 101: One Suitcase Fits All

Photo: Regent Seven Seas Cruises

There once was a not-so-savvy seafarer, a self-professed "fashion plate" who didn't feel right unless she took two steamer trunks crammed with enough outfits to clothe a small nation on every cruise. This, she finally learned, was not a good idea.

Besides incurring the wrath of her male traveling companion, who pointed out in gentlemanly fashion that he would have to wrestle with excess baggage from car or cab through airport terminals and beyond, she quickly tired of trying to cram her belongings into tiny closets and bureaus. To win the battle of the bulging bags, the now savvy seafarer follows her own "Gospel of Prudent Packing" which states: Thou shalt put into one's suitcase only that which will fit neatly in the allocated storage space without hogging every available nook and cranny for thyself.

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Of course this rule is quickly amended when traveling in a penthouse suite on Crystal, Princess' Grand-class ships, Cunard's Queen Mary 2, Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Voyager, or Silversea's Silver Whisper and Silver Shadow—because these upper-scale accommodations come with large walk-in closets and lots of shelf and bureau space.

These days, for the most part, cruising has become much more of a casual vacation—even on more formal lines. Plus, with airlines now charging to check bags (with extra fees for overweight luggage), it's just plain economical to pack light. A couple of hints for smart packing:

  • While some folks still like to dress to the nines (formal gowns and tuxedos) for ships' formal nights, most people dress in business attire (suit for men, cocktail garb—flowing pantsuits or silk dresses—for women).
  • The irony is that the more luxurious the line (with the exception of the upscale Crystal Cruises, whose passengers really do like to dress up), the more elegantly casual guests dress. The more contemporary the line—like Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line (the latter, of course, applies only to those guests who find the optional formal night concept appealing)—the dressier folks are on formal occasions.
  • If you want to pack light (and do laundry en route), make sure to read our cruise reviews—not all ships offer free (or for-fee) laundromats. Otherwise, laundry is a service provided by cruise lines, but it can get expensive (note though that on the upper-most of suites on the upper-most of luxury lines, laundry and pressing are often complimentary services).
  • In main cabins on some cruise lines—Royal Caribbean, NCL, Carnival—toiletries offered are limited (in some cases to pump bottles of mystery soap affixed to the wall—so you may want to make room in your luggage for shampoo, etc.).
  • On all cabins on most luxury lines—and suites on big ship lines—you'll be provided with a bathrobe (on loan).
  • Some destinations are more formal than others. Expect to pack more resort-casual wear if traveling to Europe (all regions) or Bermuda, for instance (duffer alert: Golf courses in Bermuda have strict dress codes). In contrast, other cruise itineraries are more casual than the norm—in that category we include Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean and French Polynesia.
  • Save some room in your suitcase for items you pick up—shopping while cruising is half the fun! This is particularly prevalent on Hawaiian-based itineraries where, by voyage's last night, just about everyone has dispatched their continental garb for Aloha-wear.
  • Allergic to formal wear? Most cruise lines offer buffet-style dining for dinner, even on formal nights (or sup in your cabin via room service).

The Female Wardrobe

First Things First: Short shorts are only ever appropriate on the pool deck or while working out in the fitness center. You can stretch it by wearing them to lunch in the lido buffet ... but that's it. Bathing suits are even more limited, and should be worn only at the pool (though attractive cover-ups are fine for lido lunching).

The Daytime Guide: Good bets for indoor activities include walking shorts, slacks, casual skirts and sundresses. Outdoors, of course, swimsuits and oh-so-casual shorts and t-shirt ensembles are de rigueur.

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