Once you’ve decided to book your first cruise, it can be a long countdown until you’re heading for the docks. Or if you are dipping your toe in the water with a last minute bargain short cruise, it may only be a few days before you need to leave. However long you have, there’s always the tricky question of sorting out what you need to pack, whether for a weekend or a fortnight. And it can seem to be a bit complicated if you’ve not been on a cruise before. So here’s everything I’ve learned so far about what to pack for your first cruise.
Choosing your baggage
If you are flying to join your ship, then any choice of bag will be dependent on airline regulations. Heading out for more than a weekend? If your flights are part of your cruise package, then you will normally be offered a hold bag and a carry on. If you’ve bought your own flights, it is perfectly feasible to pack for at least a week’s cruise in a carry on bag, but it is up to you as to whether that meets your needs.
My preferences for a cruise bag is a soft sided wheeled bag. My two are from Kipling and Trespass, and they have both survived rather a lot of air travel. If you prefer a hard shell case, be aware that for the most part your bags will be best stowed under your bed in your cabin, so try not to bring anything too chunky. If you have a big case, your cabin steward may be able to find somewhere outside the cabin to store your bag for the duration of the cruise.
Getting Organised: How To Pack
There are lots of different views on rolling versus folding your clothes. I have to say that for me, folding wins for a cruise, not least because it may work better for the kinds of outfits you’ll be bringing. For that reason, I find packing cubes are brilliant. Not only do they keep things tidy and relatively uncreased, but they also work to keep you organised. For two weeks at sea, I’ll normally have
- a small cube of undies and socks
- a small cube of swimwear and sarong
- a large cube of tops and dresses
- a medium cube of bottoms
- a medium cube of evening wear
Don’t flinch at the evening wear; we’ll come back to that later.
Choosing your clothes
The first thing to know is that you’re really making exactly the same decisions that you would for any holiday. I’m assuming that you’ve checked the average temperatures for the ports you’re visiting. On some cruises that can mean a big variation; we started a cruise to the Baltics in pouring rain and big coats for Zeebrugge and Warnemunde, but by St Petersburg, I was in a linen top and crops. It’s good to check the latest weather forecasts before you go.
Secondly, start to list out any specific things you might need
- swimwear if you’re planning on hitting the pool
- exercise gear for the gym
- hiking or walking gear, depending on the ports of call
- comfortable shoes for exploring
- respectful and appropriate clothing for visiting religious sites
That forms the start of your packing list.
A Word About Ship-Appropriate Attire
An awful lot is spoken about what is appropriate to wear on board ship, and it can seem like some complicated maze of etiquette in which you’ll never find the exit. But I can tell you that it’s actually a lot more simple than you’d imagine. Cruise lines vary a great deal in their formality, but even so, there is always an option that doesn’t involve dressing formally for dinner if that makes you feel you want to go and hide in a corner.
In the years that I’ve been cruising (about 12 now), I’ve seen the number of formal occasions drop steadily on many ships. There’s still the opportunity to make a celebration of a nice meal and good company by dressing up if that makes you happy. But there is normally a venue – more often than not the top deck restaurant – where casual dining at a time of your choosing is still available.
And how formal is formal? It depends on the cruise line. We’ve been to dinner on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 in dinner suit and full length dress. On Celebrity’s Celebrity Eclipse, we’ve been in a normal suit and a cocktail dress. And on both of these ships for less formal nights we’ve been in a shirt and trousers or top and trousers. You should find a guide to what is suitable in your cruise papers. If in doubt, go and look at what people are wearing in the reviews on cruise websites. Don’t forget that a lot of people enjoy the sense of occasion that dressing for dinner creates. And my husband’s just reminded me of his relief at finding he wasn’t the only one in a dinner suit on a formal night.
How To Pack: Creating your Packing list
Remember that pretty much every ship has an on board laundry facility and often a laundrette too. So you can often get laundry or dry cleaning done, meaning that you can wear an outfit again. There’s also a washing line that stretches across the shower, meaning you can rinse out and dry your swimwear there.
If we’re joining the ship without flying, one of my favourite cruise hacks is to take my dry cleaning with me. Services are competitively priced in comparison to the mainland, and it’s an awful lot easier to have it collected and dropped off at your cabin.
For two weeks at sea in warm weather, I would take
- 2 sets of swimwear with 2 sarongs/cover ups and 2 sets of gym gear
- 3 pairs of trousers or skirts
- 1 pair of shorts and a playsuit
- 1 casual dress, or substitute more for the trousers and tops if dresses are your thing
- 7 casual tops in a limited range of colours to go with the trousers
- 5 smarter tops
- 2-3 formal dresses, depending on the cruise line – the number of formal nights will be in your cruise documents
- 2 cardis or cover ups
- Flip flops or beach shoes depending on where I am heading
- Flat pumps
- Dressy pumps or low heels to go with the dresses
- Gym shoes
- Shoes I can walk in for port days (often Sketchers or something similar)
- A small bag for on the ship (for cruise pass, camera etc)
- A backpack or tote for port days
- Jacket (and maybe an umbrella)
- Laundry bag
- Toiletries, including sunscreen.
It looks like a lot written down like that, but it packs surprisingly small. Most ships will have a shop for any essentials you might have forgotten, including toothpaste and other toiletries. It’s also likely that you’ll be able to pick up clothing on board if you see something that catches your eye.
What To Leave At Home
I’m sometimes a bit puzzled at the very long lists of all the things that people see as necessary for going on a cruise. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big advocate of knowing what makes you happy and working with it. But unless you have four of you in a very small cabin, I can’t see the need for one of those big plastic hangers with lots of pockets to hold your toiletries. Similarly, the ship’s hairdryer does what’s needed for even my long hair. I’ve not yet brought a lanyard and a hole punch to hang my ship card round my neck; a tiny card wallet does the job fine.
How To Pack: What to add
If you have sea days, you might want to bring your favourite entertainment. The ship will schedule plenty to do, but it might not be how you prefer to spend your time. So bring that well-stuffed Kindle you never get to enjoy, a favourite playlist and your earbuds, a pack of cards or that game there’s never time to finish.
I like to bring a small plug bar and adaptor. That means we can charge all the gadgets in one fell swoop in the evening. If you bring your tech, remember that ship wifi is expensive and not the fastest, so you’ll be more likely to use it in port. And if you want to know where the free wifi is, look for a cluster of crew close to the ship.
A Few Final Thoughts
Don’t forget to weigh your luggage if you are flying. And I’d also suggest packing a separate cube with a few essentials and swapping that with your partner. Then if one case is delayed, at least you have some basics with you.
Some people worry a lot about what to wear to cruise. I can guarantee that you are unlikely to be either the smartest or the least smartly dressed on board. So settle into the cruise and enjoy it.
More about cruising
For detailed ship reviews, I recommend having a look on Cruise Critic. They cover most ships, and they also have a forum full of detailed information on everything from favourite cabins to cruise food and ports of call.
Here we’ve talked about taking to the ocean for a short celebratory cruise, and also two weeks in the Baltics. You’ll also find my guide to choosing your cruise cabin, some surprising things you’ll find on board, and the vital things to know before your first cruise.
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