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Cruise Packing 101: One Suitcase Fits All

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.

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&#8212because 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&#8212even 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&#8212flowing pantsuits or silk dresses&#8212for 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&#8212like Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line (the latter, of course, applies only to those guests who find the optional formal night concept appealing)&#8212the dressier folks are on formal occasions.
  • If you want to pack light (and do laundry en route), make sure to read our cruise reviews&#8212not 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&#8212Royal Caribbean, NCL, Carnival&#8212toiletries offered are limited (in some cases to pump bottles of mystery soap affixed to the wall&#8212so you may want to make room in your luggage for shampoo, etc.).
  • On all cabins on most luxury lines&#8212and suites on big ship lines&#8212you’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&#8212in that category we include Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean and French Polynesia.
  • Save some room in your suitcase for items you pick up&#8212shopping 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.

On Shore: Rules of taste vary; if you are heading off to a kayaking expedition or a snorkeling sail, the most casual of shorts is appropriate. If you’re heading into town, opt for those items specified above in “Daytime Guide.”

Evenings: For all but the most formal of evenings (and even on the more casual, upscale ships), resort casual&#8212or the slightly more elegant resort chic&#8212is the common dress code. That means elegant attire, though not in the silk gown milieu. Think flowing cotton dresses or silky mix and match pants outfits.

The Male Wardrobe

First Things First: Consider khakis and a navy sport coat&#8212a can’t-miss uniform when accompanied by everything from a polo shirt to a (nice) t-shirt to an Oxford. You can wear this type of outfit just about anywhere but dinner on formal night. Also, unless you’re hanging by the pool, some kind of shirt is, well, required.

The Daytime Guide: Shorts are pretty versatile (athletic versions for working out and the pool deck, not-quite-knee-length for indoor activities). Jeans work, too. T-shirts and sports shirts go everywhere.

On Shore: Again, going too casual (tank tops, scruffy jeans, any kind of athletic garb) is considered disrespectful in many ports of call. And let’s face it: You’ll generally be more warmly welcomed in restaurants and shops if you’re dressed nicely. The only caveat for men is the same as for women: On active shore excursions, ultra-causal is just fine.

Evenings: You can pack a tuxedo&#8212hey, if the mood strikes you’ve got a much more elegant photo op&#8212but tuxes are increasingly being outnumbered by business suits on formal nights. On some ships you can rent a tuxedo. But for most folks, we’d recommend that you do pack at least a suit and tie, because some onboard alternative restaurants are so elegant (such as those on Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships) that you really will feel out of place without it. Don’t forget the shoes! Otherwise, on non-formal nights the khaki uniform works well.

Unisex

Additional personal items to consider include a portable radio/CD player, a champagne corker if you have a penchant for bubbly in your stateroom (but don’t want to drink the whole bottle in one fell swoop), a camcorder, a camera, film, any medications you will need, and lots and lots of sunscreen if sailing in sunny climates.

Some cruise cabins have very limited electrical outlets&#8212so some folks bring extension cords. Those picky about hair dryers should bring their own.

One warning about packing “liquor”&#8212cruise lines have increasingly cracked down on the practice (they’d rather you buy drinks at their bars) so consider yourself warned. Your bottle(s) may be confiscated on arrival depending on your ship’s policies.

The Formal Night Conundrum

Cruise ships assign daily dress codes&#8212casual, informal, resort casual, formal&#8212that take effect in public rooms and restaurants from 6 p.m. onward (daytime is always casual). Read your “Before You Go” brochure very carefully (it comes with your travel documents) because it offers explicit fashion guidelines.

Normally, on a seven-night trip, you can count on two formal nights, a couple of casual evenings, and between one and four semiformal occasions.

If you’re still not sure, check out the fashion IQ of some of your favorite cruise lines below:

Azamara Cruises: resort casual by day, resort chic at night; there are no formal nights but passengers are free to don more formal attire if they wish.

Carnival Cruise Lines: very casual by day; almost anything goes by night.

Celebrity Cruises: resort casual by day, resort chic at night, more tuxes than suits on formal nights.

Costa Cruises: casual by day, not overly dressy at night.

Crystal Cruises: stylish resort wear by day, elegant by night, with lots of tuxedos on formal occasions.

Cunard Line: stylish resort-casual by day. Formal nights are extremely formal (and tend to occur more often than on other cruise lines’ seven-night cruises). Pack the ballgown, pack the tuxedo.

Disney Cruise Line: casual by day and resort casual by night.

Fred Olsen: Casual dress prevails during the day, and is also generally the dinnertime dress code on the first and last evening of a cruise; passengers dress up a little bit more other evenings with men wearing a jacket tie and women in smart outfits. On nights designated as formal, men wear dinner jackets and most ladies cocktail dresses.

Holland America Line: always casual by day, evening dressiness depends more on itinerary than anything else&#8212in Europe (and on world cruises) passengers really do dress up.

Island Cruises: casual and easy going by day, smart casual by night.

MSC Cruises: casual by day, resort casual by night except on formal evenings.

Norwegian Cruise Line: Because of its “eat when (and where) you want” Freestyle Dining, you’d expect the tally of super-formal outfits to be slim to none. Actually, we were quite surprised that our recent cruise’s lone (optional) formal night was well-attended&#8212with more men in tuxedos than in suits!

Ocean Village: there really is no dress code for this “dress down line”; except smart casual to eat in The Bistro.

Oceania Cruises: resort casual by day, resort chic at night.

P&O Cruises: Casual by day. There are three designations of dress codes for supper: formal, informal and smart casual.

Princess Cruises: casual by day, resort casual in the evening, about half and half tuxedos to suits on formal night.

Royal Caribbean International: casual by day with a mixed bag at night that leans more to suits than tuxedos.

Seabourn: casual chic by day, tres chic by night.

Silversea Cruises: resort chic by day and night.

Windstar Cruises: Casual by day, still casual (but a bit more resort-like) at night.

You can find more detailed information in our story on cruise line dress codes.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Cruise Critic, a sister site of SmarterTravel.com.

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