Packing for your first cruise can be tricky. After all, cruise rooms aren't exactly known for being spacious, dress codes can be confusing and luggage fees on airlines are steep. You'll also want to consider what you'll need aboard your cruise aside from clothing.
For the most part, cruising on mainstream lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian (NCL) has become an almost entirely casual affair. That makes packing simpler than the days of stuffing full suits and elegant dresses into your suitcase. You'll also want to consider the destination of your itinerary and how connected you'll need to be on your cruise to gauge your non-clothing packing needs.
With that in mind, we've put together a basic (but comprehensive) cruise packing list, including the clothes you'll need as well as the odds and ends you'll want with you as well. Read on for our beginner's guide to packing for a cruise.
To find out the dress code on your next cruise, check out our updated guide to Cruise Line Dress Codes.
Knowing what clothing to pack for a cruise can be especially challenging, and cruise line dress codes don't always match what passes as acceptable on board. The key to maximizing your wardrobe on the high seas is working with a few core pieces of clothing and mixing them up over the course of your itinerary. That's especially handy for evening wear, which tends to be bulkier and take up more luggage space.
From breakfast through the afternoon, you don't need to stress about your outfits. The name of the game is casual, which makes packing easy. If you're cruising in tropical regions, pack one pair of shorts for every two days of your cruise (in cold regions, switch shorts for pants or jeans). If you like to vary your look, pack different color shorts or breezy skirts.
Focus on lightweight tops -- tank tops and T-shirts are more than fine all day long, indoors or out. You'll likely want one top for each day of your cruise (roll them to save space in your luggage). One or two bathing suits should be the maximum, just don't expect to wear them into dining areas.
Unless you're doing intensive shore excursions or plan on taking fitness classes or using the gym, you can skip activewear. If you're visiting any religious landmarks, keep in mind that you may have to cover shoulders and legs.
Yes, your cruise ship probably has a dress code in the evenings, and it's generally a bit easier to adhere to for women. A maxi sundress (or similar one-piece), sharp romper or a nice shirt with pants (or skirt) all fit the bill. Follow the same rule for your slack or skirt options as you would for shorts: one for every two days. Pay attention to colors so you can mix and match from one day to the next and, if you're really looking to fly under the "she wore that already" radar, steer clear of bold patterns.
Related: What to Wear on a Luxury Cruise
In general, the same rules apply to men and women when it comes to packing for a cruise. Keep shorts, jeans and pants to a minimum and devote space to fresh shirts, tank tops, polos and what not. On nearly every mainstream cruise line, you can forgo a suit or tuxedo. If you'd like to spiff things up, consider a sport coat, but it's generally not required.
Follow the one-bottom-for-two-days rule when packing. That means one pair of shorts, chinos or jeans for daytime (depending on your cruise's itinerary). Again, pay attention to colors if you're hoping to mix and match. T-shirts are fine for all daytime indoor dining (tank tops are fine for the pool, but may get a look on some ships during breakfast or lunch indoors). Two bathing suits are more than enough for longer cruises. One will suffice for short four- and five-day itineraries.
Note which shore excursions you'll be doing and keep in mind your fitness routine before packing. You may need to up the amount of your activewear. It can help to determine how many workouts you'll do during your time onboard as well as the number of active shore excursions before devoting precious luggage space to more clothing than you'll need. Men will also be required to cover legs and shoulders at most religious monuments, so be prepared ahead of time and reconsider shorts and tank tops.
If you're cruising on a mainstream cruise line like Royal Caribbean, Carnival or Norwegian, you'll want a selection of casual collared shirts (polos, short-sleeve button downs, nice sweaters or long-sleeve button downs are all fair game). These are best paired with a casual chino or dressy, wear-free jeans. You'll likely see more of the former than the latter in the evenings, though many ships have casual dinner spots where jeans are welcome. T-shirts, shorts, tank tops, hoodies and long-sleeved T-shirts are a no-no for men in the evenings.
As we mentioned, tuxedos are out of place on almost every mainstream cruise ship these days and you likely won't even see a full suit. Some mainstream ships do have upmarket dining spots, though (like Le Bistro on NCL), and you may want a sportcoat to freshen up your look You can find packing videos online that will help you economize space and minimize wrinkles when packing a sport coat.
Related: What to Pack for an Alaska Cruise
Sandals, Shoes and Sneakers: If you're looking to save space, one pair of sneakers, one pair of shoes and one pair of sandals are all you'll really need. Close-toed shoes are a must for men in the evening, though women can get away with dressy open-toed options (and no, that doesn't include poolside slides). Stick to darker neutrals like black and brown shoes to maximize your matching. If you're touring wet-weather destinations like Alaska, you'd do well to opt for waterproof sneakers.
Sweaters and Jackets: Embrace the layered look. You will want a waterproof jacket and sweatshirt on pretty much any cruise (rain is always possible and indoor air-conditioning can be blasting). For colder regions, consider packing slightly fewer T-shirts and opt for long-sleeved options instead. You can typically get away with wearing neutral sweatshirts and sweaters more than once if you're worried about looking the same every day.
Hats: Pack one baseball, bucket or wide-brimmed hat for your cruise. These protect your head and face from the sun, which is an issue no matter where you cruise in the world. If you're heading to destinations like Alaska, the Arctic or Antarctic, a proper beanie or winter hat is a must as well.
Sunglasses: This may seem like a no brainer, but a pair of polarized sunglasses will do wonders for your sightseeing or poolside reading. You'll likely use them in colder destinations, too, as summer daylight hours are long during summers in Norway, Iceland, Antartica and Alaska.
Backpack, Tote or Other Small Bag: Small to medium backpacks or tote bags can be useful for carrying cameras, books, sunscreen, water bottles and other items around the cruise ship or in port. If you're looking to economize space, use your backpack or tote as a carry-on if you're flying to your port of departure. For those who prefer carrying something smaller on dry land, a fanny pack is the easiest way to go (and are no longer cringe-worthy).
Phone and Laptop or Tablet: Resisting the urge to bring every piece of technology we own with us is a challenge when we travel. However, since your days on a cruise will likely be filled with activities, stick to the tech basics. Your smartphone and a laptop or larger tablet will be enough for most travelers. That's especially true if you have a newer model smartphone with an excellent built-in camera (making DSLR cameras obsolete for all but the most die-hard photographer). However, if your cruise destination is filled with wildlife viewing opportunities, a zoom lens and proper camera might be better. Be sure to pack all chargers, and headphones, too.
Beach Gear (but Not Towels): You won't need to bring your own towels if you're visiting any cruise line's private island or the ship's pools. If traveling with kids, consider inflatable water toys for the beach that can be deflated and packed easily (as opposed to sand buckets, shovels, and other bulky plastic items).
Toiletries: The cruise ship provides soap and shampoo (and often body lotion, conditioner and body wash). But if you're picky, pack your own.
Medications and Sunscreen: Bring any prescriptions with you and bring more than the quantity you'll actually need in case you encounter any travel delays. If you're taking prescriptions that are controlled substances, bring those in the original bottle with your information on it. Consider packing over-the-counter medications as well, as these can be exorbitantly priced on cruise ships. Sunscreen is, of course, a must (reef-safe varieties are the way to go if you'd like those reefs to be there in the future).
Reusable Water Bottle: Water on cruise ships is purified and safe to drink. Bring a reusable water bottle to avoid bottled water charges and to save the planet from excess plastic waste.
Waterproof Bags: Some destinations are prone to rain, or you may be cruising in a wet season. It can pay to have at least one waterproof bag to store electronics and important items -- like your wallet -- on shore excursions. Most backpacks and totes are water resistant, but not waterproof, meaning items inside may still get wet. A large Ziploc bag will do the trick, though you'll find more expensive rolltop waterproof storage bags at outdoor retailers.
Identification: You must check and check again that you have your passport or ID plus birth certificate before leaving your house.
Extra Storage: Many experienced cruisers swear by over-the-door shoe bags for storing toiletries or keeping small items from getting lost in cramped cabin quarters. If you plan on doing a lot of shopping in port, consider taking a foldable duffel that can be packed into your luggage at first and then filled up with souvenirs (or dirty laundry) and checked on the way home.
Kids' Toys: Mainstream ships all have kids' clubs and most also have pool areas that are suitable for little cruisers. With that in mind, skip bringing bulky toys in favor of smaller or flat toys you can pack with minimal space.
Related: What to Pack for Kids on a Cruise
Books and Magazines: For those who love the feel of words on paper in their hands, one or two books (or a few magazines) should do the trick. Some ships do have libraries, but don't bank on finding a title that speaks to you. If you're really keen on saving space and traveling light, download books to an e-reader or tablet before you leave home (onboard Wi-Fi isn't always the best for large downloads and can be incredibly expensive).
Earplugs: If you're a light sleeper or have a room in a noisy area of cruise ship (low decks near the anchor, engine or thrusters; directly under the pool deck or buffet), you should consider packing a pair of earplugs.
Towel Clips: There are almost always breezes at sea (and on most beaches), so it can help to throw towel clips in your luggage. While you're splashing in the pool or the ocean, they'll prevent your towel (and whatever items you may have on it) from being lifted off your lounger by a stiff breeze.