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How to Pack for a Cruise, and Other Packing Tips and Tricks

By Sharyn AldenJanuary 30, 2018

(Photo credit: Samuel Zeller via Unsplash.) 

Cruise season is here, and hundreds of thousands of people will be hitting the ships for three big reasons: value, fun, and wonder.

However, value, fun, and wonder come at a cost, namely: space.

While one of the best things about a cruise is that you don’t have to pack and unpack every time you dock in a new port, what’s hard is deciding what to put in your suitcase to begin with.

Cruise packing requires strategy … and a great cruise-packing list.

Here are some cruise-packing tips that will help you pack right for your next cruise – no matter where you go or what unexpected situations pop up.

(Photo credit: Billy Pasco via Unsplash.)

Pack your carryon like it’s the only bag you’re bringing with you

Start with a high-quality carryon. I pack an ultra-light Hartmann tweed expandable spinner, but anything sturdy that can fit above or below your airplane seat will work. 

Include a swimsuit, a couple changes of clothing, spare shoes (casual and dressy if you can squeeze them in), and underwear. These may be hard to find in the ship’s gift shop if your bag is lost, and if they do have your size, the replacements won’t come cheap.

Think this won’t happen to you? On a South American cruise my suitcase never made the ship, though it magically appeared at my home weeks later.

I lived in those carryon items, and replenished my tiny wardrobe with cheap T-shirts and sandals bought in various ports.

Your main suitcase doesn’t even have to vanish for most of your trip for this strategy to pay dividends. Depending on the ship's size and the efficiency of the cabin stewards, you might not see your main bag for several hours, or even a day.

If your carryon has all your important items – travel documents, jewelry, money, medicine and key clothing items – you’re ready to go. Just don’t let that bag out of your sight.

(Note: This strategy works best when you’re packing for a Caribbean cruise or other warm-weather cruise. Your Alaskan-cruise packing list might require a slightly larger carryon to handle all the additional layers of clothing you’ll need.)

(Photo credit: Malvestida Magazine via Unsplash.)

Pack for a vacation

Because there are so many types of cruises – singles cruises, family-reunion cruises, celebrity cruises, chocolate cruises, baby cruises, river cruises, even arctic cruises – it can be confusing to know what clothing and accessories to bring.

The simple solution is to pack for a cruise like you would for any resort vacation, and pack for comfort.

That means walking and running shoes and a sweater, sweatshirt, water-repellant jacket, and hat, in addition to the traditional shorts and sandals.

But don’t some cruise events require formal wear? And what’s formal and informal on a cruise?

In general, “informal” means “business casual,” and for all but the most formal evenings (even on the more upscale ships), resort casual is the common dress code. That means elegant attire, though not flowing evening gowns.

Women should make sure their cruise-packing checklist includes dresses or pantsuits, and lightweight sport jackets are fine for men. Formal wear is typically cocktail clothing for women and sport coats or suits for men.

Check with your cruise agent before you leave home if you’re unsure about what fancy clothing to pack. Your ship may also rent formalwear like tuxedos, so you don’t have to bring your own.

(Photo credit: Gez Xavier Mansfield via Unsplash.)

One more packing tip: If at the last minute you decide to join the formal night or “cruise elegant” dining, don’t give up on the idea if you didn’t bring the right attire.

The gift shop may stock a few fancy sweaters, blouses or skirts. Men might find a jacket that can be worn back home. However, these extra purchases may not include the right shoes for that classy outfit you’re rigging.

How well I know. I recall being docked in Bali’s harbor, having made it that far without the checked bag that started out with me at O’Hare. (As an aside, anyone who knows how I travel now knows I avoid checking any luggage. No matter where I go or for how long, I pack light – one carryon. Experience is a hard teacher.)

Back to shoes. These may be hard to come by, especially if you wear an odd size.

In Bali, I only had an extra pair of sneakers with me. But no one at the fancy dinner seemed to notice the red canvas lace-ups peeking out of the long Balinese party skirt I’d bought onshore.

(Photo credit: Toa Heftiba via Unsplash.)

Hack it. 

Besides the right clothing and accessories, these cruise packing hacks can help streamline your life onboard.

  • Extra clothes hangers. If you’re really stuck for space in your luggage, take a few of the mini-hangers you never threw out when your kids outgrew their 5T Garanimals. No, you can’t hang heavy items like a three-piece suit or cocktail dress, but you can hang smaller, lighter items.

  • Do not leave home without several pairs of good earplugs. Here’s why. On a Volga River cruise, my cabin was nicely positioned next to the gift shop. I could roll out of bed, walk five feet, and shop until I dropped. But the gift shop was open until midnight, and the hallway was crowded with nocturnal party animals. On another cruise I didn’t notice my room was next to the boiler room (bad me; always look at a deck plan when booking a cruise). That beauty hummed and belched all night long. Another time I was under the dance floor. The grinding of acoustic guitars and rollicking partygoers drove me wild.

  • An extra jacket, windbreaker or sweater. You didn’t sign up for a cruise to sit inside because it’s too chilly on deck. It can be cool and windy on the rail or on the balcony outside your stateroom, especially at night.

  • Dryer sheets. Sometimes, clothes you pull out of storage for a cruise smell like they’ve been in the attic for years. If you don’t want to walk around smelling like mothballs or stale polyester, slide dryer sheets in between layers of clothes.

  • Power strip/extension cords. When was the last time you saw a ship’s cabin loaded with electrical outlets? Typically, a couple of outlets is about it. If you plan on charging phones, laptops, tablets, and cameras, or if you’re bringing a hair dryer or curling iron, you’re going to be happy you brought a power strip.

(Photo credit: Angello Lopez via Unsplash.)


  • A real, non-electronic book. If you’re like me and have maybe 100 books loaded onto a tablet, you’ll be left with zero books if your electronic device goes into vacation mode.

  • Over-the-door toiletry/storage bag. You may not be a shoe-bag person back home, but on a cruise, one of these is great for storing small items like health and beauty aids.

  • Office supplies. Pack a plastic bag with Post-Its, paper clips, rubber bands, envelopes, and a writing pad. No matter where you’re sailing, you’ll use some of them. For example, I’ve used unwound paper clips to repair small things like eyewear.

  • Foldable daypack, tote or duffel bag. A bag that can be easily packed in your main luggage can double as a beach bag or shopping bag to fill with souvenirs (or dirty laundry) and checked on the way home.

  • Nightlight. You never know what the layout of your sleeping area and bathroom will be, and who wants to break an ankle because a wall somehow “moved” during the night? Not me – but then again, that’s why I always buy cruise insurance.


At this point you should know exactly what to put on your cruise packing checklist, but if you don’t, follow this strategy: Go ahead and make a list, and include everything you could possibly want to take on a cruise – canoe paddles, inflatable pool toys, whatever. Then, before you leave, lay everything on your list on your bed, look at what you’ve done, and start subtracting.

You’ll be amazed at how little you really need to take to make a great cruise. 

(Photo credit: rawpixel.com via Unsplash.)

Once that’s done, you need to pack one more thing. This doesn’t fit into a checked bag or carryon, but and it’s essential to get the most out of your journey.

I’m talking about traveling with an open state of mind and an active curiosity about where you’re going.

Cruising is one of the most value-packed ways to explore a variety of places in a compressed period of time, so travel with a natural curiosity onboard and onshore. When you make the effort, you can discover places you might never have known about.

Sure, it’s great fun to see the sights of Barcelona or sail along the Mexican Riviera, but often the best memories come from places you had never really thought about. That’s how it was when my ship from Split, in Croatia, took us to the magical, unforgettable island of Hvar in the Adriatic Sea.

That’s the point. No matter what you pack, you’ll have the time of your life on your cruise if you include an inquisitive, open state of mind. Safe travels!


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Sharyn Alden

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at sharynalden@gmail.com.



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