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The Ultimate Cruise Packing List: What to Pack for a Cruise

When deciding what to pack for a cruise, you’re really packing for three distinct sub-trips: your cruise ship, which is the equivalent of a large destination resort with a controlled environment; the ports of call, where you will get out and roam around the local area; and your flights to/from your departure port. Sometimes you can solve all three problems with a single wardrobe and accessory set, but sometimes you will need completely different sets. Use this cruise packing list to learn how to pack for a cruise.

What to Pack for a Cruise

cruise packing list
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What to Pack for a Cruise: At Sea

Time was, almost all cruise ships were pretty dressy, including some events calling for full formal wear. Now only a few upmarket ships still require a bit of fussing, but most of the mass-market ships like those in the Royal Caribbean and Princess stables are about as casual as you like. In any event, as long as you’re not out on deck, you’ll be in a comfortably air-conditioned space virtually all the time.

Clearly, then, the first job of your cruise packing list is to determine just where on the formal-casual scale you want or have to be in, or if you want to prepare for both ends of the scale.

Then, decide how you want to play your wardrobe. I pack the minimum I’ll need to comply with the lowest degree of dressiness required. On the other hand, other couples I know are fully engaged with dress: The wife doesn’t want to be seen in the same outfit at dinner on any two different days, and the husband schlepps his tux for the “Captain’s Dinner” event. It’s your call: Let it dictate how you pack for your cruise.

Do you need to pack for the full cruise, or can you have your clothes washed or dry cleaned during the cruise? Although most big ships provide some kind of service, the specific answer to that question varies wildly among different ships: Some charge for laundry the way hotels do, some set a fixed price for a laundry bag full, some sell laundry packages prior to sailing, a few offer self-service washers and dryers.

No matter how you do it, you’ll pay more than you pay at home. In general, large ships offer more options than small ones, and 200-passenger river cruises may provide only limited services. Again, check on what your cruise ship offers before you decide how much you need to pack.

Beyond the basic daily wear, pack whatever special recreational wear and accessories you’ll need. Even if you never leave the ship, you will probably want swimwear, and possibly some other specialized clothing and equipment as well.

What to Pack for a Cruise: At Port

The situation here is obvious: You need to pack for the climate in your cruise destination—and, for most people, being active in each port. You’ll be walking around during shore excursions, and many call for specialized equipment. That means you need to pack comfortable walking shoes and clothing on your cruise, even if you won’t need them on the ship itself.

As to how heavy/light to travel, the Caribbean is hot and steamy pretty much all the time, and the Mediterranean in summer can come close. But weather in other popular areas such as Alaska, New England, and inland European rivers are a bit more problematic. Your best bet is to check the weather forecasts just before you pack for your cruise. And be prepared for rain.

What to Pack for a Cruise: Everywhere Else

We sometimes tend to forget that we don’t need to pack a full closet full of personal-care products and accessories in our travel toiletry kit. They actually do sell toothpaste, batteries, and Kleenex most places in the world—and also on the cruise ship, albeit at stiff prices.

The latest packing challenge is with gadgets. I, for one, would have withdrawal symptoms if I couldn’t get online every day, so I would select a cruise ship with the latest Internet connectivity and pack my laptop. On the other hand, if you want to get away from it all, a cruise ship is the ideal place—and you don’t have to pack any devices, converters, and such.

When packing for the pre- and  post-cruise flights, figure out what goes in your carry-on and what gets checked. You will probably want to check a bag.

If you’re big on collecting souvenirs and buying local handicrafts, leave room in your suitcase for what you bring home. You don’t want to get hit with paying for another checked bag or hauling both your regular carry-on and a shopping bag of loot on your flight home.

A Final Word About Your Cruise Packing List

My most essential recommendation for what to pack for a cruise: Don’t get obsessive about it. Do your best and plan to cope with whatever problems you encounter along the way.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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