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 and 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. Scroll down to the cruise packing list below to learn how to pack for a cruise as well as what to consider during all aspects of your cruise vacation.
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What to Pack for a Cruise
Carry-on Items for a Cruise
What to Pack for a Cruise: At Sea
Once upon a time, 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.
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. Luckily, business casual attire (pantsuits, maxi dresses, khaki pants, and button-up shirts tend to fair just fine these days). And for those cruise lines that do have more formal nights, there are typically still buffet options for meals if you want to avoid fancier dress.
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 even packs his tux for the “Captain’s Dinner” event. But that’s not how everyone travels. Ultimately, it’s your call what’s most comfortable for you to wear on vacation, and therefore to pack.
In any case, layers will be your best friend. Moving between the air conditioned interior of the ship and the potentially much balmier surroundings can feel like packing for two totally different climates. Light shawls, thin cardigans, and linen pants all walk the line between warm and cool, and can be dressed up or down to fit your wardrobe strategy.
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.
Where to Buy Formal Wear for a Cruise
While many may want to take advantage of the rare opportunity to dress up, few people have a closet full of formal attire at their disposal. Clothing rental services are an affordable way to get glam on the high seas without overspending or cluttering up your closet with an outfit you’ll only wear once. Rent the Runway offers one time rentals for special occasions and monthly subscriptions (cancel anytime) in 5, 10, and 20 item bundles for those who want to round out their cruise wardrobe.
For those looking to make a more permanent purchase, Suitshop has a large selection of sturdy suits that will last a lifetime and Nordstrom offers dresses at varying levels of formality, from beachy maxi-dresses to true formal options.
What to Pack for a Cruise: In 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. Make sure you pack appropriately for any off-shore excursions.
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 is a bit more variable. Your best bet is to check the weather forecasts just before you pack for your cruise, and always be prepared for rain. For Europe and Bermuda, you should aim for more resort-casual clothing (fair warning: Golf courses in Bermuda have strict dress codes). Some other cruise itineraries that are more casual than the norm include Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean, and French Polynesia.
What to Pack for a Cruise: Everything Else
Beyond the perfect wardrobe, there are a few key items that will ensure your cruise vacation is nothing but smooth sailing. Add these items to your cruise packing checklist before you embark:
Day Trip Gear
When putting together a packing list for a cruise, think about what you’ll need for your planned activities. A daypack is a necessity for a spending a full day off the boat. Stock it with a reusable water bottle (collapsible for the ultimate space-saver), sun hats, sunblock, insect repellent, and anything else you’ll need to get through the day. Make sure to download the port city’s map so you can access it offline in the event you lose access to WiFi. Drop a pin in your ship’s docking location and set an alarm well ahead of your departure time to signal its time to head back to the ship.
Travelers sometimes forget that they don’t need to pack a full closet full of personal-care products and accessories in their travel toiletry kit. You can buy toothpaste, batteries, and tissues in most places around the world—and also on the cruise ship, albeit at stiff prices. Ships vary in what toiletries they offer onboard.
However there are a few things you don’t want to leave off your cruise checklist, like prescription medications, glasses or contact lenses, and any specialized skincare or hair products that you can’t live without. It’s also a good idea to have a few OTC medications handy from the start in case of seasickness or minor aches and pains from a long flight.
Unlike air travel, cruise ships don’t place an upper size limit on your liquid personal items, so unless you’re flying to your port of departure, your containers can exceed 3.4oz.
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. Don’t forget your camera, and a travel extension cord can also come in handy.
As mentioned above, any critical devices you can’t live without should come along in your suitcase, be it a laptop, tablet, or just your smartphone. In addition to any necessary chargers, make sure you have an international adapter that works with any port city on the itinerary.
When packing for your pre- and post-cruise flights, figure out what goes in your carry-on and what gets checked. 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.
Cruises are all about relaxing, soaking up the sun on the ship’s deck and catching up on a good book or finally catching up on that podcast. Make sure you don’t use up the leisure activities you packed for the cruise while bored in the terminal or during the flight. Download multiple books on your e-reader or library app, some for the flight and some for the trip. If you prefer paperback, pick up an in-flight read at one of the terminal kiosks or see if your airport has a library loan program.
Make sure you have your passport, ID, credit cards, and any cash (USD and local currency) you plan to spend. Bring along photocopies of important documents and your cruise itinerary. Make sure to leave any vital documents you don’t need for an excursion locked up safely in your cabin.
Can I Do Laundry on a Cruise?
Do you need to pack for the full cruise, or can you have your clothes washed or dry cleaned during your sailing? 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, and a few offer self-service washers and dryers.
But no matter how you do it, you’ll definitely pay more for doing laundry while cruising 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 what your cruise ship offers before you decide how much you need to pack. If you’re unsure what your cruise line offers or don’t want to pay the fee, pack some travel laundry detergent packets and a travel clothes line to wash light items like undergarments and t-shirts in your cabin sink.
What Not to Pack for a Cruise
Like any form of travel, there are a few prohibited items. These include obvious candidates like firearms, fireworks, knives, and any illegal substances. But there are a few surprising items on the list as well. On Carnival Cruises, passengers are not allowed to bring along curtains or large radios and travel clothing steamers are banned from coming aboard any Royal Caribbean ship. Other common prohibited items include scissors, alcoholic beverages, meat, and fish. Make sure to check your specific cruise line’s list of restricted items.
It’s worth noting that cruise ships are governed under federal law, so all marijuana products, including medical marijuana, are generally prohibited onboard regardless of port of departure. Alcohol policies vary by ship (so do your research with your cruise line directly).
Cruise Packing Tips
Packing for any trip can be tricky, but packing for a vacation that is essentially three trips in one is a monumental task for even the most efficient traveler. Maximize your organization and luggage space with these cruise packing tips.
Bring Spare Clothes in Your Carry-On
Having a change of clothes and a few day-to-day necessities in your carry-on can also be a lifesaver in the case of lost or delayed luggage. If you find yourself with no idea where your bags are or waiting to have them shipped to your next port of call, you’ll be glad to have a few extra items on hand to hold you over. It’s also great for that stretch of time between boarding the ship and your luggage showing up in your cabin.
Get a Personal Item That Does Double Duty
Save packing space by bringing along a personal item for the flight that can double as a daypack for excursions. This Lite Daypack from Bellroy is minimalistic and functional while this option from Got Bag is even more compact and comes in four neutral colors. A foldable wet bag is a great additional to any daypack—it can be used to organize small items on your pre-departure flight and to store your wet swimsuit on the way back to the ship after a day in port.
Take Advantage of Packing Cubes
Keep yourself extra organized by packing for your “sub-trips” in packing cubes. Designate one for your formal wear, one for your onboard resort wear, and one for anything you plan to wear in port. This keeps your wardrobe organized without having to unpack everything or dig through a upturned suitcase looking for that one shirt you just know you packed.
My most essential recommendation for what to bring on a cruise: Don’t get obsessive about it. Do your best and plan to cope with whatever problems you encounter along the way.
Where to Book a Cruise
When booking a cruise you have two options—booking directly with the cruise line on their site or hunting down the best deals through an online travel agency. Check out our round-up of the best site to book a cruise to find the best deals and easiest processes.
Download Our Cruise Packing List Before You Set Sail
Click on the below image to edit and download the SmarterTravel cruise packing list:
Book a Stay With SmarterTravel Hotels
Need a place to stay the night before you set sail? Search SmarterTravel Hotels for great accommodations in your port of call.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016 by SmarterTravel’s Ed Perkins. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Some of the links featured in this story are affiliate links, and SmarterTravel may collect a commission (at no cost to you) if you shop through them. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
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