If cruisers were given nicknames like the hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, mine would be “Just in Case.” I was the cruiser who packed everything “just in case” I would need it. When I went on my first cruise, I showed up to PortMiami with four large suitcases ready to take on my seven-day Caribbean cruise.
Fast-forward to present day and my name would be “Precise Packer.”
I’ve put together an in-depth look at what I’ve learned over the years from my own cruise travels and adventures so you can be well prepared (and less stressed) when packing for your cruise.
Packing Tips That Helped Me
- Pack low-maintenance clothes to wear during the day and in port that you can easily roll without wrinkling. Don’t worry about wrinkling your formal wear because nearly all ships provide laundry service or have a laundry room where you can iron or steam the wrinkles right out.
- Pack clothes you can mix and match.
- Pack fewer clothes than you think you need; my first few cruises I always overpacked.
- Read our article about cruise line dress code policies so you can pack the right clothes especially for formal night.
- Stuff your shoes with socks to maximize space in your suitcase.
- Take a collapsible suitcase or one you can store under your stateroom bed and then re-use it as a hamper on your cruise.
- Pack a hanging toiletry bag to free up counter space (this one is a favorite)
- Pack all toiletries in small plastic bags so everything is easy to see and organize.
- Pack only enough shampoo and conditioner for the length of the cruise (not the full-size bottles).
Pack everything you’ll need for the entire first day in your carry-on. You will board the ship with your carry-on bag only. You’ll hand over the rest of your luggage before boarding and it will be delivered to your room later in the day.
- Travel documents (airplane and ship)
- Identification: Passport/ID/visa
- Credit cards
- Small bills for tipping the baggage handlers or others who help you when you’re off the ship, and for buying souvenirs in local markets.
- Phone charger
- Change of clothes
- Swimsuit, cover-up and sandals if you definitely want to swim on the first day
- Jewelry, camera and other valuables
- Toiletry items for freshening up
- Reading material
- Cruise line luggage tags
- Optional – Gum (for some reason, most cruise ships don’t sell gum)
Cruise Line Dress Codes 101
Daytime wear: Most cruise lines have adopted a more casual and less stuffy dress code. For sea days and port days on large, mass-market ships like Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Disney, pack casual clothes such as active wear, shorts, pants, T-shirts, sundresses and swimsuits with cover-ups.
On the luxury lines, such as Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea, the dress code tends to be country-club casual. Guys should pack khakis, shorts and polo shirts while women should pack casual dresses, skirts or capri shorts with casual tops.
Evening wear: Your evening attire will heavily depend on the cruise line and where you’re dining on the ship. On average, a seven-night cruise will have one or two formal nights. Men, pack a dark suit or a navy blazer, dress slacks and two ties. Women, pack a few dresses you might wear on a date or night out with friends and carry a shawl or sweater with you. It tends to get chilly on the ships. Consider swapping out your stiletto heels for wedges; they’re easier to walk in on a ship. And keep in mind that the buffet is your friend if you don’t want to dress up.
Packing for kids: Parents, you know your children better than anyone else. While you don’t want to forget the basics like toys and diapers, check out the “9 Things To Take on a Cruise With Kids” article, which includes bonus coverage of leave-at-home items.
Destination Attire 101
Every cruise destination has must-pack items, such as swimsuits, sunglasses and sturdy shoes, but there also are a few things you should pack for each specific destination.
Cruising to Alaska
Must Pack: Waterproof clothing, binoculars and pajamas you don’t mind wearing in public
Packing for an Alaskan cruise can be tricky. You’re essentially packing for three seasons: fall, spring and summer.
Waterproof clothing should be part of your Alaskan packing essentials. And when you leave the ship, make sure you are dressed in layers because the temperatures vary throughout the day (moisture-wicking under layers are the best if you’re doing active excursions). Keep in mind that your suitcase does not need to be overstuffed with parkas and snow gear; it should be more along the lines of a form-fitting fleece, a puffy polyester vest, a light rain jacket with a hood and waterproof hiking boots or rubber boots.
You’ll also want to pack binoculars and pajamas you don’t mind going out in. You never know where or when there will be a pod of orcas swimming next to the ship.
Cruising to Canada and New England
Must Pack: Lightweight layers, rain gear and sneakers
As a native New Englander, I can attest that the weather in New England and coastal Canada can go from really warm to downright chilly and rainy all in one day. So your best bet is to pack lightweight clothes that you can layer, including a light fleece vest or jacket.
During the fall it tends to be a bit rainy, so you’ll also need some light rain gear. And it’s perfectly fine to wear sandals on the ship, but consider wearing sturdy sneakers or walking shoes when you’re in port.
Cruising to the Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera or Hawaii
Must Pack: Two bathing suits, sturdy sandals (or sneakers) and a waterproof camera
One of the best parts about a cruise to the Caribbean, the Bahamas or Hawaii is your outfits in port will most likely be casual and comfortable: shorts, tanks, sundresses, bathing suits and cover-ups.
But if there’s one thing I learned from my first Caribbean cruise, it was to pack two bathing suits. I practically lived in my bathing suit both in port and on the ship, but it never fully dried from one day to the next. That meant I had to put on a cold, damp bathing suit every morning. Pack two, and you can thank me later.
Sturdy sandals are a must for walking around in port. Hawaii tends to involve more-active excursions, so sneakers or hiking boots might be your best bet there. And another must is the waterproof camera. When you’re cruising to a warm-weather destination known for beautiful beaches, chances are high that you’ll want to take pictures of it, on it and in it. If you don’t have a waterproof camera, either buy a waterproof case (they do work) or go old school and buy a waterproof disposable camera.
Cruising to Europe
Must Pack: Shawl, sturdy sneakers and small bills
Historic cities in Europe have thousands of cultural, historic and religious sites, and you’ll find yourself visiting them. Exposed knees and shoulders are a no-no at many sites, and you will be turned away (it happened to me at the Duomo in Florence) if you don’t have the proper attire. Ladies, consider carrying a shawl in your bag to wrap around your bare shoulders.
With historic sites usually come cobblestone or uneven streets and typically lots of stair climbing. Leave the flip-flops and cute strappy sandals on the ship and sport your sturdy sneakers instead. You’ll also want to exchange dollars for euros at your bank before your cruise — not because you can’t do it in Europe but because you only have a short amount of time in each port and you don’t want to waste it looking for an ATM or bank.