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. But unlike with a shorter cruise, it's hard to get away with just a carry-on when you're packing for weeks away from home.
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.
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. We like 26- or 27-inch sized bags that can expand when necessary (like this TravelPro). You will have to check them, but they can fit quite a bit without running into overage fees. 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
A good first packing step is to lay out the suitcase, empty, and do a visualization 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. Some travelers also swear by packing supplies like compression bags or packing cubes.
Worried about wrinkles? Leave sweaters and blouses (pants, too) in dry cleaning bags; you can 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. While the plastic takes up a fair amount of space, you don't have to worry about it when packing for home, giving you extra room in the suitcase for new purchases. (A travel-sized anti-wrinkle spray is also nice to throw in.)
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, although the good news is that fewer people actually dress to the nines these days. If you can, bring some jewelry that can make your country club casual outfit a little nicer, or a sparkly top that can mix and match. Men, consider renting your tux onboard (or skip it all together and pack a jacket that can dress almost anything up). On long cruises, it's perfectly fine to wear the same outfit twice.
One challenge for long cruises is that climate zones can vary wildly. 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 you should 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.
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.
It's tempting to pack those one-of-a-kind outfits you rarely wear at home, but on a long cruise, you simply don't have room. Resist taking distinctive items you'll 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.
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 you can purchase some memorable pieces in port. 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.) Another option is to pack a foldable tote or duffel to bring your finds home.
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. For example, when visiting the Middle East, you might need 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 light scarf (women) or hat (men); you may need to cover your head when visiting religious attractions or protect yourself from the sun. (This is not the time to splurge on a splashy Hermes pattern, keep it simple.)
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); you can also pack your own travel-sized detergent. 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.
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.
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 a small rolling duffle, 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.
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