Getaway Day: 10 Smart-Packing Tips For Your Next Cruise

A cruise ship has a lot of rooms -- not a lot of room. (Daniela Harrison photo.)
A cruise ship has a lot of rooms — not a lot of room. (Daniela Harrison photo.)

By Sharyn Alden 

Cruise season is nearly here, and hundreds of thousands of people will be hitting the boats for three big reasons: value, fun, and wonder. Once you get on board, the world is your oyster. And oysters are your oyster as well. But we digress.

One of the best things about a cruise is that your suitcase sits parked in your closet. No need to pack and unpack every time you dock in a new port.

What’s hard about that? Deciding what to put in your suitcase to begin with.

You may be used to stuffing your airplane carryon with electronic devices, sporting gear and odds and ends. For a cruise you might want to be a little more strategic. Here are some tips that will help you pack right for your next cruise – no matter what happens.

Pack your carryon like it’s the only bag you’re bringing with you. Include important items like 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 stuff like 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 you have all your important items – travel documents, jewelry, money, medicine and key clothing items — in your carryon you’re ready to go. Just don’t let that bag out of your sight.

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

The simple solution is to pack like you would for any resort vacation, and pack for comfort. That means  walking and running shoes, 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 pack 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.

Besides the right clothing and accessories, these things can help streamline your life onboard.

  • Extra clothes hangers. I do this wherever I travel. 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.
  • Earplugs. These are de rigueur no matter where I’m going, but especially on a cruise. 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 on the deck plan (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.
  • A jacket, windbreaker or sweater. You didn’t sign up for a cruise to sit inside because it’s too chilly on the deck. It can be cool and windy on the rail, especially at night, and the same goes for the balcony outside your stateroom.
  • 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 inbetween 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.
  • A real, non-electronic book. You know where I’m going with this. 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, with limited space, this is a great tool 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 paper clips, unwound to a single wire, 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 travel insurance.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.