16 Packing Tips For Your Cruise Vacation
by Chris Dikmen
updated February 2015
It is a universal truth. Women simply pack more stuff for a trip than men do. No matter how many cruises Rickee and I go on, the tension around the house starts building a couple of days before the trip. If it were up to me, we could go for a week with nothing more than carry-on luggage, but that is unreasonable. Rickee, on the other hand, would love to take 3 large checked bags in addition to our carry-on luggage on every cruise. We typically end up meeting somewhere in the middle, with the middle being more toward Rickee's preference than mine.
However, a general rule of thumb is that less is more. With over 90 cruises under our collective belts, we have never ended up wishing we had brought more. But, we almost always end up saying "why did we bring so many clothes"?
1. Why Worry About Packing?
Why not just load up as many bags as possible and take more than you think you will need? First, most airlines now charge for checked luggage, especially on domestic flights. So, if you are flying to Miami, New York or Ft. Lauderdale for your 7-night cruise, you might pay as much for checked luggage on your flight as you paid for your cruise ticket! Most international carriers will allow at least one bag for free with a nominal charge for a second bag. Even then, there is a weight limit and it varies by airline. Usually you can get away with 40-45 pounds per bag before invoking a hefty fee from the airline. Your best bet is to check your airline's website before you leave just to make sure. And, if you are flying on multiple airlines, use the lowest weight limit as your guide.
The second reason for packing efficiently is that most cruise ship staterooms have very limited storage. If you pack too much stuff, you may find yourself leaving many of your items in the suitcases and having to drag them out from under the bed every day to find what you need. Most cruise ships are designed with enough closet and drawer space for two people to have about a week's worth of clothes. Some cruise lines also have restrictions on the number of bags you can bring onboard, but I have never seen this rule enforced.
2. How Long Is Your Cruise?
One of the most obvious things to consider when packing is the length of your cruise vacation. If you are only going to be gone for three nights, it is pretty easy to pack. In fact, it is very feasible that you could make a 3 or 4-night cruise with only carry-on luggage. The typical cruise is seven nights long and will most likely require at least one or two checked bags.
3. Does Your Ship Have Guest Laundry Facilities?
Most of the newer ships have laundry rooms for guest use. You can buy detergent onboard and an iron and ironing board are available in the laundry room. However, if spending time in a laundry room is not what you had planned for your vacation, most ships offer laundry service (and it is not cheap!) so you can send your clothes to the ship's laundry and have them returned on the same day most of the time. A few ships we've been on even have dry cleaning facilities onboard.
4. How Many Formal Nights?
Another consideration is the number of formal nights, if any, there will be on your cruise. Some cruises are very casual and do not have formal nights. On those cruises, you are not required to pack a tuxedo, suit, tie or formal dresses. This can save a lot of space when packing. Even on cruises that have formal nights, if you don't want to dress up, you can always have room service on formal night. We do everything possible to avoid formal night just because we don't want to pack the extra clothes.
5. Do I Really Need A Tuxedo?
This really depends on your personal comfort level and the cruise line on which you will be sailing. Most cruise lines will accept a dark suit and tie in lieu of a tuxedo on formal nights. Some cruise lines are more formal than others and require that men wear a sport coat or jacket, sometimes with a tie, to dinner on certain nights. Silversea, Crystal and Seabourn have a very European flair and tend to be dressier than other cruise lines. However, Seabourn seems to be relaxing some its strict guidelines. SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar and most river cruises tend to be casual and you rarely, if ever, will find a tux on board. You should always check your cruise docs to find out what the dress codes are before you start packing.
You can save a lot of packing space by renting a tux onboard rather than packing your own. Many cruise lines offer tuxedo rental services for about what you would pay to rent a tuxedo on land. You need to order this service in advance of your cruise and your tuxedo (including shirt, tie and studs) will be delivered to your cabin in time for formal night.
6. Tips For Carry-On Packing
Even if you plan on checking luggage, there are several items that you never want to pack in your checked bags. For this reason, you will need at least one carry-on bag to take with you.
Below is a list of items that you should always keep with you when you travel:
- Prescription medications
- Photo ID (driver's license)
- Airline and Cruise Tickets
- Cash and Credit Cards
- Electronic gear (computers, cameras, video camera, iPod, etc.)
7. Packing Electronic Gear
Since our cruises are working trips, we are required to carry a lot of electronic gear. We always have our MacBook laptop computer, HD video camera, two or three digital cameras, lenses, tripods and cell phones. As you can imagine, this makes for a pretty hefty roll-aboard bag for me. In fact, it pretty much takes up an entire carry-on just for my electronics. However, to save on weight and for convenience sake, I always pack my chargers, transformers, converters, adapters and tripod in my checked luggage. The only exception is the AC adapter for my laptop. The laptop battery is only good for about 2 hours, so I cannot get by without that. I always make sure that all of my camera batteries are fully charged before we leave town so that in case the checked bags are lost or delayed, I won't completely be unable to get work done. I have actually made it an entire week on one charge of my digital camera battery!
TIP! Always pack a small power strip with 4 to 6 outlets. Most cruise ships only give you a couple of US 110 outlets per stateroom. So, if you have a laptop, video camera, cell phone, digital camera, hair dryer, hot rollers, etc., you will need extra power outlets. You can buy a cheap power strip for $5 at Wal-Mart and you will be glad you did!
Since cruise ships are built overseas, they are usually equipped with European-style 220 volt electrical systems. Even though virtually every ship will provide one or two 110 US-style plug outlets in your stateroom, there will always be a couple of the European-style 2-round pin outlets as well. So, to take full advantage of the European-style outlets, you should also pack a couple of European to US adapter plugs (see photo below). These adapters are cheap and you can get them at Radio Shack or at any airport gift shop. Best of all, they don't take up a lot of space!
European-style 2-pin (male) to US-style 2 prong (female) adapter
8. Battery Chargers, AC Adapters and Converters
You may be surprised to learn that you do not need to buy a converter, even though most cruise ships operate on 220 volt systems. As I said before, you will almost always have at least one (usually two) 110 volt US-style outlets. If you choose to use the plug adapters shown above, you can use your US-style 2-prong plugs, but you will still be tapping into 220 volts. This is VERY IMPORTANT to know. You must make sure that the device you are plugging into an outlet using one of the adapters can operate on 220 volts.
Virtually all of today's electronic gadgets are designed to operate at 110 or 220 volt. This includes battery chargers, video cameras, laptop computers, cell phone chargers, etc. You can easily check the voltage requirements on the label of each device (see photo below):
As you can see in the photo above, my Sony digital camera battery charger is designed to operate with an input between 100v-240v. You should find a similar label on your electronic charging devices.
WARNING: Virtually all curling irons, hair dryers, or any appliance that heats up which is sold in the USA is designed to only operate using 110 volts. Therefore, do not use one of the above adapters for these appliances.
While on the subject of battery chargers, I HATE long cords. They take up a lot of space when packing, they get tangled and they look messy in an already too cramped cruise ship cabin. I prefer the very portable battery chargers that have the plug built right in to the back of the charger, like my Sony charger below:
9. Caribbean and Mediterranean Packing Tips
If your cruise will be taking you to the Caribbean or Mediterranean, chances are you will be experiencing very sunny and warm weather. Make sure to pack light cotton shirts and blouses to wear during the day. Shorts are also acceptable before 6pm on most ships. Ladies should pack a swimsuit coverup to wear in the dining rooms for breakfast or lunch as swimsuits are not allowed in most restaurants. It is also a good idea to take a light sweater or jacket as nights on the water are cooler and most ships keep the public area temperatures on the cold side.
- Good sunscreen 30spf or greater
- Shorts, swimwear
- Cotton t-shirts, shirts and blouses
- Tennis shoes or rubber-soled deck shoes
- Light sweater or jacket
- Cap or hat for sun protection
10. Alaska Cruise Packing Tips
Most Alaska cruises are during the summer months (May through September). Alaska is surprisingly warm in the summer, but that does not mean you will avoid cool temperatures, especially in the evenings. The key to packing for Alaska is to be prepared for anything, and that means dressing in layers. You probably will not need a heavy parka to stay warm, but you should pack long-sleeved shirts and a medium- weight jacket. You are also more likely to experience rain in Alaska, so a disposable rain poncho and portable umbrellas are good things to pack. Also, to save on packing space, I always wear or carry my jacket on the plane, rather than packing it. It looks funny when we leave Dallas and it is 102 degrees, but when you land in Anchorage and it is 55 degrees, you will be glad that you have your jacket with you!
- Sunscreen (it can pretty bright in Alaska)
- Sunglasses to protect eyes from snow glare
- Long-sleeved shirts
- Medium-weight jacket
- Portable compact umbrellas
- Binoculars (you want to see the whales and bear, right?)
- Poncho or waterproof rain jacket
11. The Best Cruise Luggage May Be The Ugliest
In the event that you are in the market for new luggage, I have a couple of suggestions. First, if you are new to cruising, you should be aware of what to expect when you disembark from your ship. In most cases, you will receive colored luggage tags to place on your bags on the last day of the cruise. Your checked (large) luggage will be collected by the ship the evening before you disembark. The luggage is taken to the luggage hold on the ship and is unloaded and sorted according to your disembarkation group. Of course, you can keep your smaller hand luggage with you and walk off the ship with that. When you walk off the ship, you pass through Immigration and Customs and end up in a large room looking out over a sea of luggage. Even though the luggage has been sorted by colored tags, if you have 3,000 passengers on a ship and each person has 2 bags, well, you get the idea. What makes this challenging is that 90% of the bags are black!
The brightest and ugliest bags are the easiest to find!
Now that I painted a picture of what you can expect, you will understand why I am about to give away one of my biggest cruise secrets. If you want to make this necessary evil a little less stressful, buy the biggest, ugliest, gawdiest, bright yellow, orange or pink piece of luggage you can find! When Rickee and I get off the ship, we can pick our bag out of that sea of luggage in seconds. Our school bus yellow Samsonite bag sticks out like a sore thumb.
If you have black or dark bags and don't want to invest in new, "ugly" bags, try bright colored luggage straps. They will make your bags more noticeable and add a measure of security to boot!
12. Preparing For Lost Luggage
In 1998, Rickee and I went on a 12-night cruise aboard the brand-new Grand Princess. This was our first international flight together and I vividly recall struggling with the four large checked bags (this was before we knew how to pack). We each had 2 bags full of clothes for the trip. You can imagine my joy when we arrived in Barcelona, Spain, with only 2 of the 4 bags showing up! Somewhere between the plane and airline change in Atlanta, 2 bags did not make it. As luck would have it, both of the "lost" bags were mine. So, here I am in Barcelona with no clothes to wear for 12 days! Fortunately, our other bags arrived the next day and were delivered to the ship. But, when we boarded the ship, I had no clothes.
Lost or delayed luggage is rare, but it can happen. And, you can prepare for it. If you are going to check at least two bags you should "cross-pack". You and your traveling companion should each pack some of your items in each bag. That way, if a bag is lost, you still have something to wear packed in the remaining bag(s).
13. Cross Packing
And, here's another little tip. If you have a lost bag at an airport, or on a ship, the first thing the airline or cruise line is going to ask for is a description of the lost bag. Airlines will present you with a sheet of paper with little line drawings depicting different styles of luggage. I have taken my paranoia to a new level. We have actual photographs of our luggage that we keep with us in our carry-on hand luggage. If a bag is lost, we can give the airline or cruise line one of the photos. This will make it much easier for them to find our bag. Also, since our bags are brightly colored, they are harder to lose.
14. Take a photo of your checked luggage
If your luggage is lost by the airlines, they will ask you to describe your lost luggage to them. In most cases, they will give you a piece of paper with various shapes of luggage and ask you to pick a style that best fits your luggage description. I always take a digital photo of our checked bags and take a couple 4-color photos in my carry on just in case. That way, I can give the lost luggage folks an actual picture of the luggage they are looking for! I know is sounds extreme, but anything to help them find my bag is a good thing.
15. Consider Shipping Your Luggage
We have recently tested a couple of services that will pick your luggage up at your home and ship it to your destination. This makes packing much easier because you are not subject to all of the rules and regulations of TSA. Your bags are picked up a week before you leave and they will be waiting for you in your stateroom on the ship when you arrive. Talk about convenience! Now, this service is not cheap, but if you can afford it, it is a real luxury.
Luggage Forward is a company that can ship your luggage directly to your cruise ship
Read the article here on Shipping Your Luggage
16. Dealing With Those Damn Liquids
Ever since the Department of Homeland Security has decided that my stick deodorant is a security risk, I have started packing virtually all of my personal toiletries in my checked bag. This is risky since liquids can very easily leak and ruin everything in the bag. So, I recommend using the large 1 gallon Zip-Loc bags for all liquids that are being packed. In fact, we always pack extra Ziplock bags in our luggage just in case we need them for the trip home. They have saved us from leakage accidents on more than one occasion.
Packing Tips Summary
- Check your airline's checked baggage rules before you pack.
- If you are sailing out of a city serviced by Southwest Airlines, consider flying Southwest. They do not charge for checked bags!
- Know your ship's dress code.
- Consider renting a tuxedo onboard the ship instead of packing your own.
- Find out if your ship has guest laundry facilities. You can take less clothing and do laundry during your trip.
- Pack mix-and-match items of one color family. This will reduce the number of pairs of shoes you will need.
- Wear your jacket and most bulky pair of shoes on the airplane to save space and weight in your luggage.
- Buy bright colored luggage, or decorate your luggage with a bright colored strap.
- Cross-pack in preparation for a lost bag.
- Take photos of your luggage and keep them in your hand luggage.