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 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: Pack your checked luggage wisely.
Be smart about your checked bags, too. If you tend to overpack, lay out all the clothes you think you'll need, then only pack half the clothing and three-quarters of the shoes. If you're traveling with family, consider packing half of your things in one suitcase and half in a separate one (and have your spouse and kids do the same). That way, if one bag gets lost, then everyone will have some clothing -- rather than one person having nothing. To save space, roll your clothes rather than fold them. Finally, never pack valuables in your checked bags, as they could be stolen. Carry all cameras, electronic games, jewelry and prescription medicine in your carry-on.
Tip 3: Know the dress codes.
If you love to dress up, some lines do offer tux rentals so you don't have to pack your own. But while some folks still dress to the nines (formal gowns and tuxedos) for ships' formal nights, most people dress more informally (suits for men and cocktail garb -- flowing pantsuits or little black dresses -- for women). "Resort casual" is now the ubiquitous evening dress; think date night, with men in slacks and buttoned shirts (no jackets) and women in everything from sundresses to skirts or slacks with cute tops. Even jeans are now a staple in many cruise ship dining rooms. Check out our comprehensive feature on cruise line dress codes.
Tip 4: 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 self-service laundromats. The ones that do have such facilities usually don't offer them for free, and it can get expensive. (Cruise lines often offer complimentary laundry and pressing services to suite guests and top-tier past passengers, so it pays to be loyal.) 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 5: 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, Norwegian, Carnival -- toiletries offered are limited (in some cases to pump bottles of mystery soap affixed to the shower wall). You might 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. Another tip: Never unpack your toiletry kit. Leave it filled with travel-sized bottles and an extra toothbrush or razor. When it's time for your next cruise, all you need to do is top off or replace the bottles -- rather than wasting time collecting items and possibly forgetting something.
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.) Other cruise itineraries, such as Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean and French Polynesia, are more casual than the norm. 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. If you're visiting religious sites in the Middle East or some parts of Europe, you'll want modest clothing that covers your shoulders and knees, even if it's quite hot.
Tip 7: Save some room in your suitcase.
You'll likely pick up at least a few souvenirs during your cruise, so you'll need room in your luggage to bring them home. Whether you're picking up leather goods in Italy, Aloha-wear in Hawaii or duty-free goods in the Caribbean, consider packing a foldable duffle. It won't take up much space in your suitcase, and you can fill it up and check it for the flight 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. Your shipmates won't know (or care) if you wear the same outfit twice.
Tip 9: Remember the basics.
Most cruise ship cabins don't come with alarm clocks, so bring your own. If you're using your cell phone for this job, put it in airplane mode so you don't incur roaming charges in foreign waters. Other items you might want to pack because they're not provided or super-expensive to buy onboard include: 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 bring your necessary IDs and cruise documents -- and never pack them in your checked luggage. You'll want your 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 for your cruise destination, whether it's a passport or birth certificate and photo ID. 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). If you need visas or immunizations for your cruising region, carry those documents with you, as well.
Looking for more packing tips? Check out these other packing resources:
--Updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor