Perhaps you're like me and start filling your suitcase a week (or more) before your cruise, armed with a packing list and smart space-saving techniques, like rolling up socks and stuffing them in your shoes. Or maybe you're like my husband, who throws a bunch of clothes into a carry-on at midnight before a morning flight and always packs the right things.
Either way, you've probably learned that what you bring -- or more importantly, what you forget to pack -- can impact your enjoyment of your cruise vacation.
I own untold numbers of sweatshirts that I bought when I was caught out on an unseasonably cold day in port with no warm layers -- a waste of shopping time and money since I have rarely worn them post-cruise. And forgetting to bring socks on a short cruise meant I couldn't try out the bungee trampoline on a Royal Caribbean ship. I've bought overpriced Advil for a mean migraine, and watched friends swelter in jeans on embarkation day in Miami because they hadn't packed any shorts in their carry-ons.
But I've also waltzed through the airport with only a backpack and roll-aboard suitcase prior to a seven-night Europe cruise, and was still able to supply travel companions with reading materials, seasickness meds and plane snacks they hadn't thought to bring. On an Alaska cruise, I brought -- and wore -- everything from a bathing suit to a fleece jacket, gloves and warm hat. And after shivering through one too many dinners in uber-air-conditioned cruise ship dining rooms, I now pack cardigans and pashminas to match my sleeveless eveningwear (they also double as blankets on long flights).
So whether your goal is to avoid those checked or excess bag fees by packing light, reserve your in-port shopping for souvenirs rather than necessities, or simply make sure you take everything you need on your next vacation, here are our top 10 tips for packing for a cruise.
Tip 1: Pack your carry-on bags wisely. Pack a change of clothes and important meds or toiletries in the bags you will take on the plane and personally transport onboard. This is important for two reasons: First, if your luggage gets lost by the airline on the way to your cruise, at least you'll have some essentials with you. It can take a while for your luggage to be found and then shipped to the next port of call. Second, in case your suitcases are delayed in being delivered to your cabin, you'll have a bathing suit or dinner attire on hand and can enjoy all the onboard activities right away, rather than waiting for your bags to show up.
Tip 2: Know the dress codes. 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 pants suits 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 passengers dress. The more contemporary the line -- like Carnival and Royal Caribbean -- the dressier folks are on formal occasions. If you love to dress up, know that some lines do offer tux rentals so you don't have to pack your own. 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). Check out our comprehensive feature on cruise line dress codes.
Tip 3: Consider doing laundry onboard. 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 (though cruise lines often offer complimentary laundry and pressing services to suite guests and top-tier past passengers). You can always save on laundry costs by bringing travel detergent and rinsing out underwear and shirts in your cabin's bathroom, or packing a bottle of travel-sized Febreze to get one more day's use out of a gently worn outfit.
Tip 4: Don't assume your favorite toiletries will be in your cabin. You'll always find basic toiletries onboard, such as soap and shampoo. 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 your favorite brands. Same goes for hair dryers. Most staterooms come with weak dryers so if you're picky, pack your own.
Tip 5: Bone up on the bathrobe policy. In most cases, you don't need to pack a bathrobe. They're provided in all cabins on most luxury lines, as well as mainstream lines like Carnival and Holland America, and in balcony cabins and above on most other lines. On Princess, they're available by request. If you're not sure if your cabin will come with a robe, read the FAQ section of your cruise line's Web site or ask your travel agent (or on Cruise Critic's message boards). But be forewarned: Bathrobes aren't souvenirs. You have to pay if you like yours so much you want to take it home.
Tip 6: Dress for your destination. Simply put, some places are more formal than others. Expect to pack more resort-casual wear if traveling to Europe (all regions) or Bermuda (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. And don't forget to think about your in-port activities; flip flops are fine for a beach day, but you'll want more comfortable shoes for long days of sightseeing or active excursions like hiking or biking.
Tip 7: Save some room in your suitcase. Don't forget that you're likely to pick up at least a few souvenirs during your cruise and that you'll need room in your luggage to bring them home. 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. Consider packing an extra duffle that can fold up into your suitcase on the way to the cruise and later be filled and checked for the trip home.
Tip 8: Mix and match. If you can make your clothes do double duty, you won't be hit with excess bag fees or find yourself fighting with your spouse about who gets the last hanger in the cabin's small closet. Stick with one color theme so you can re-wear bottoms with different tops, or bring shirts that can be dressed up for dinner on one night and worn sightseeing the next. Opt for the layered look to handle differing temperatures in the various cruise ports. Change up the look of one formal outfit with different accessories (jewelry, ties, scarves), rather than bring two suits or cocktail dresses. Remember -- you will never see most of these people again (with thousands onboard, you might not see the same person again before the cruise ends!), and most won't remember if you wear the same outfit twice.
Tip 9: Remember the basics. Most cruise ship cabins don't come with alarm clocks, so if you want to know the time and set an alarm (rather than a phone wakeup call), bring your own. If you're using your cell phone for this job, make sure you don't incur roaming charges simply by leaving it on in foreign waters. Other items you might want to pack because they're not provided or super-expensive to buy onboard include: extra hangers, over-the-counter meds, batteries, camera memory cards, sunscreen, ear plugs, plastic bags for transporting liquids or wet things (or keeping water out of your gear on water-based tours) and power strips to charge all your electronics.
Tip 10: Keep all important documents with you. Always make sure you pack your necessary IDs and cruise documents -- and never pack them in your checked luggage. You'll want your passport or other photo ID and cruise ship boarding pass on hand, so even if your suitcase misses the boat, you can get onboard. Make sure you have the correct type of identification, as wannabe cruisers have been turned away from the pier for having just a copy of their birth certificate (and not the required original) or a passport with a name that doesn't match the one on the ship's manifest (often in the case of a honeymoon cruise). Also, remember to acquire any necessary visas and immunizations necessary for your cruising region and carry them with you, too.
Looking for more packing tips? Check out these other packing resources: