Packing for a longer-than-usual voyage has one thing in common with any other cruise: Airlines will limit you to one or two checked bags (sometimes you will have to pay for all, other times you'll get one free) and will charge you mercilessly if they're overweight.
Otherwise, long voyages present challenges so numerous that even packing pros may need advice. The biggest issue? How to avoid airline fees while still packing everything you need for weeks away from home.
In cruising's golden era, packing was simple: Just fill up a vast steamer trunk with everything you could possibly need and hit the road. An old-school trunk today would quickly rack up the oversize- and overweight-bag fees. You're better off with a smart selection of lightweight, sturdy suitcases and carry-ons, packed as efficiently as possible to maximize space as you pack for 10, 14, 28 or even 100 days onboard.
With a little practice and forethought, you can easily master the art of packing for a long cruise. To get you started, here are some lessons to share -- including some we've learned the hard way.
--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
Photo: elena moiseeva/Shutterstock
Start With the Suitcase
Efficient packing starts with the right suitcase. Begin by identifying a bag that is large enough to fit a couple of weeks' worth of clothing and shoes -- but not so large that airlines levy an extra charge for it. At 26 inches, my Rimowa suitcase is an ideal size, plus it's made out of fiberglass, which is more flexible and stronger than steel. Other features to look for: smooth rolling (try four wheels rather than two or "spinner" wheels), bright colors for easy ID on the baggage belt, and pockets and pouches for stashing essentials or separating your belongings.
My first packing step is to lay out the suitcase, empty, and do a visualizing exercise. If you're traveling straight to the ship, you don't need to worry too much about what goes where. But when you have a pre-cruise hotel stay, you may want to pack outfits for the first day or two on the top so you don’t have to burrow to the bottom to get what you need. While some travelers swear by packing supplies like compression bags or cubes, those have never really appealed to me. If you pack carefully, you’ll find room for what you want to bring no matter what you use…or don’t use.
Worried about wrinkles? Leave sweaters and blouses (pants, too) in dry cleaning bags. I’ll typically roll them all up together. Linen’s probably the only fabric for which this doesn’t work. Place the rolled up wrinklies on top of a pile of small stuff (like socks and undergarments) so they’re held in place. One other tip: The plastic takes up a fair amount of space but the good news is, I don't worry about it when packing for home so there's extra room in the suitcase for new purchases.
Go Country Club Casual
These days, “country club casual” is the uniform dress code, day or night, for most cruise lines. But what does that mean? Pack clothes that are casual in a stylish way; for example, cute bathing suit cover-ups and shorts outfits, rather than ripped T-shirts and cut-off jean shorts. Evenings tend to be more business casual -- nice skirt/slacks and sweater sets or a dress for women, and dress shirts with or without jackets for men. Formal nights are a bit more challenging for light packers. Ladies, bring heels that can transition from casual to formal evenings; men, consider renting your tux onboard. On long cruises, it's perfectly fine to wear the same outfit twice.
Photo: Azamara Club Cruises
Plan to Layer
One challenge for long cruises is that climate zones can vary wildly. On a recent trip from Singapore to Hong Kong, the temperatures started out super steamy and ended up in the nippy zone. Layering, and limiting your stash to cottons (from T-shirts to sweaters), is a good way to manage weather challenges. Cottons are less bulky than woolens and just as warm if you layer your outfit properly (though I throw in one cold weather sweater just in case). Instead of a raincoat, tuck a small umbrella into your suitcase. And whenever you have a choice, pack for comfort, not style, especially in the shoe department -- we'll give you extra points if you can combine the two.
Photo: Julia Sudnitskaya/Shutterstock
Mix and Match
By sticking to one color palette (such as a black base, with a series of both black and white t-shirts and trousers and light cotton sweaters with a pop of color), you create a mix-and-match wardrobe. This plan will save you suitcase space, free you up from remembering which top was meant to go with which bottom, and make it easier to pare down your shoe selection. Also in the versatility department, bring outfits you can dress up for dinner onboard with accessories then wear more casually with walking shoes in port the next day. It will save you from having to pack two new outfits for each day.
Photo: GoodMood Photo/Shutterstock
Remember What Not to Pack
It's tempting to pack those one-of-a-kind outfits you rarely wear at home, but on a long cruise, you'll need to resist. On an Asia cruise, I really wanted to take a distinctive red silk jacket I’d bought at the Shanghai Museum’s gift shop and that seemed perfect for the itinerary. But did I really want to consume a lot of suitcase space for a fancy jacket I’d wear only once? Maximizing your luggage capacity is the top rule of packing for a long cruise. Be ruthless when it comes to paring down your belongings to take only what's necessary. You don't have space for indulgences, especially if you want to do some shopping in port.
Leave Extra Space
Now about that shopping…. Leave extra space in your luggage, so you can pick up something new from one (or several) of your ports of call. Clothing is a great souvenir, and some of the most memorable pieces in my wardrobe come from trips. Given the amount of luggage you're already schlepping, you do not want to find yourself forced to buy an extra suitcase to cart your stuff home. (Though if you do, the suitcase itself can become a valued souvenir.)
Photo: Anatoly Tiplyashin/Shutterstock
Pack for Port Days
When planning your packing, it’s easy to focus on what you’ll need onboard the cruise ship. But having the right wardrobe for exploring in ports of call is essential. On an Oman-to-Athens trip, we needed long-sleeved shirts and ankle-length trousers to visit mosques in Muscat, but also rugged pants and shoes to ride donkeys in Petra. Always pack a scarf (women) or hat (men); you may need to cover your head when visiting religious attractions. (This is not the time to splurge on a splashy Hermes pattern, keep it simple.)
Embrace the Launderette
Most cruise lines that offer long cruises have laundry facilities onboard. Many charge for the service, though luxury lines often have free self-serve launderettes. The cruise line will provide soap (sometimes for a fee). It can be annoying to queue for machines and then wait for your cycles to finish, but think of the experience as a great way to meet other passengers. Definitely not free but more appealing on a long, port-intensive cruise is the ship’s laundry service; most offer both dry cleaning and basic laundry. Passengers who book top cabins, or who are loyal to a cruise line, often get it for free. Note: River cruise lines feature similar laundry services but typically do not offer dry cleaning.
Avoid Lugging Books
Many cruise lines have vastly downgraded onboard libraries (though Cunard and Oceania are among those that offer a great selection of titles), so you'll be tempted to pack a lot of books, from travel guides to light fiction for sea days. Consider an e-book reader as a necessary travel companion on a longer trip. It doesn't matter if you choose a Sony Reader, Nook, Kindle or iPad -- they'll all save you vital luggage space. I swear by my iPad and, before a long trip, load it up with a variety of tomes.
Don't Forget About the Carry-On
And finally, on long-haul trips, you may spend a lot of time traipsing through airports and waiting at border control, and the last thing you’ll want to do is fight with your stuff. Make it easy for yourself by ensuring that your carry-on is as easy to move as your large bag. Truth is, you'll spend more time lugging that around. Whether you prefer a shoulder bag, backpack or rollaboard, find a bag that offers as much room as possible within your airline's carry-on limits. One last tip: Check the impulse to splurge on duty-free while at the airport. You’ll have to carry that around, too.