Packing Tips for First-Time Cruisers

Photo by Lyn Gateley

Some people are daunted by the mere thought of packing for a cruise. You’ve heard all about the formal nights! The captain’s table! But with so many types of cruises available nowadays, you don’t have to choose a ship where formal clothes are required. And in truth, even the luxury lines have loosened up the dress codes. 

Just remember: Your cabin will be diminutive, with little storage space. You definitely need to pack light. Consult your cruise line’s website for advice on what to bring, and consider the weather and activities at your destination, whether it’s lying on Caribbean beaches, playing a round on a Bermuda golf course or nature treks in the Galapagos or wilds of Patagonia.

Here are some general guidelines to follow that should make packing less stressful, wherever your cruise takes you.

Clothing

Remember, you’re on vacation! Try to bring what you need, but believe me: No one will care if you wear the same cocktail dress twice.

On any cruise, daytime wear is casual. Swimsuits, cover-ups, shorts, tank tops and flip-flops are generally fine for buffets and outdoor restaurants. To be prepared for any kind of weather, bring clothes you can layer — a sweater, a sweatshirt, a rain jacket. Obviously, if you’re headed to Alaska, you’ll want fleece, but even on a Caribbean cruise you might need a warm layer for an air-conditioned dining room (this is where a pashmina can come in handy). Besides layering, think about restricting your color palette so it’s easy to mix and match wardrobe pieces.

Be sure to pack appropriate clothes for shore excursions, depending on where you’re traveling. A scruffy appearance implies a lack of respect toward the people you’re visiting.

Most ship have dress codes for evening dining — and they may include one or two formal and semi-formal nights. If the cruise you’ve chosen does have a formal night, be aware that most men don’t bother with tuxes. If you’ve got one, you’ll probably be happy for the excuse to wear it, but a well-tailored business suit will do the trick. (Some lines offer tux rentals.) And cocktail dresses are fine for women, so forget about those steamer trunks full of ball gowns. After all, this isn’t the “Titanic.”

The phrase “resort casual” is often used for a ship’s evening dress code. Basically, it just means something elegant. For men, a blazer and khakis are fine. For women, choose something you might wear to a nice restaurant. Some lines even let passengers wear jeans any evening during their cruise (though the rules usually state a preference for the hole-free variety).

And if you really don’t feel like dressing up? No problem! Just don’t go to the restaurant that’s having the formal evening. Plus, there’s always room service!

Hats: A cap or hat is highly recommended, whether to shade you from the sun or keep your ears warm on a Zodiac.

Shoes: These can take up half a suitcase, so you need to be selective. Consider shoes that are multi-purpose — good for poolside, gym, shore excursions — and don't take more than one pair of dress shoes. And do I even need to remind you to bring your most comfortable walking shoes for sightseeing?

Accessories

You’ll want a tote bag or daypack for shore excursions, or just for bringing stuff with you around the ship. And binoculars aren’t just for birdwatchers; they’re nice to have for scanning the passing scenery, wherever you’re cruising.

Tech: You’ll doubtless bring your smartphone, laptop and maybe a tablet, if you have one — but be aware that onboard Wi-Fi charges can be pricey. And if you plan on a lot of reading but don’t have an e-reader (like a Kindle), this would be a good time to invest in one, rather than hauling around a stack of books (or hoping that the ship’s library will fill your needs).

Since most cabins don’t have enough electrical outlets, savvy cruisers bring their own power strip to allow them to charge multiple devices at once.

Toiletries: Your ship will provide basic in-room necessities, but pack your own if you’re particular about the brand. If you run out of sunscreen, Tylenol or other needs, you can always restock in the shop onboard, but you’ll pay more for the privilege — and can’t be sure of finding your favorite brand.

Many cruisers bring their own travel hairdryer rather than risk getting a substandard one onboard. And a hanging toiletries bag will free up counter space in the cramped bathroom.

Other Tips

If you think you might be shopping on shore excursions, bring a folding bag to pack your purchases for the trip home.

Even if you’re not spending a lot of time in your cabin, it’s nice to have music there. Pack a small portable speaker that syncs to the tunes on your smartphone or laptop.

If you run out of clean clothes, you can use ship’s laundry service or, if it’s available, the self-serve laundry facilities. But if you just want to rinse out a few items, bring some laundry detergent (powder rather than liquid, so you don’t have to worry about leaks in your bag).

You already know to carry on your valuables, medications and travel documents when you’re flying. But you’ll also want to have that carry-on with you as you board the ship, and make sure it holds a change of clothes and a bathing suit. It could be a while before your bag is delivered to your room, and it’d be a shame to miss that quick dip before dinner.

Lastly, study the travel instructions sent by your cruise line so you’re prepared with the proper documents. You might need to carry your original birth certificate, not a copy, or provide proof of immunization.

Do Your Homework

When you’re picking a cruise, consider not just the destination but also the onboard policies and activities offered. If it annoys you that a cruise line should dictate what you wear, then choose another ship where the dress code won’t restrict your style (or lack of it). Some folks still like to dress up in formal wear and sip champagne with others in the same garb. If you’re more comfortable in jeans, look for a ship that’s happy to have you in denim!

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