Cruise packing can easily go wrong, and the biggest mistake is overpacking. I know this from personal experience, because I have spent lots of time sitting atop an overstuffed suitcase battling to zip it closed.
Now that the airlines have imposed a 50-pound limit on suitcases, I pack much more judiciously. And while it is true that your cruise wardrobe depends less on your taste than your cruise line, I do have some observations and packing advice that will apply to most every sailing.
Customs are changing
Many passengers look forward to dressing up in the evening; others truly dread it. But these days you don't have to fashion yourself after the latest issue of Vogue to enjoy cruising. Dress codes have loosened up along with dining options — all in response to the changing tastes of the many passengers who prefer a more relaxed shipboard atmosphere. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Freestyle Cruising” policy calls for “resort casual” attire; Windstar Cruises has also gone over to resort casual.
However, formal dress standards are enforced on such luxury cruise lines as Crystal Cruises, Cunard, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises. On Cunard's Queen Mary 2 trans-Atlantic crossings, formal attire is expected on three of the six evenings at sea. Some luxury lines do waive formal dress requirements for some itineraries. On a recent Alaska sailing with Regent Seven Seas, for example, I found there were no formal nights, only “country club casual” evenings. Conversely, some passengers on casual cruises like to indulge in swanky attire on occasion. Attend Formal Night on a Carnival ship, and you'll see passengers decked out in ball gowns and diamonds alongside those wearing T-shirts and spandex.
With attire running the gamut from L.L. Bean to Neiman Marcus, it can be hard to know what to pack. But don't fret. Your cruise line will send you information spelling out its dress policy for your cruise. The one thing you really must keep in mind is that cruise cabins are very small, so you have to pack smart.
Here are some packing tips that will keep you looking fresh — and keep you out of the ship’s laundry room, too.
For warm-weather cruises, bring quality swimwear, as you're likely to spend a lot of time in or around the pool. For women, sarongs, coverups and sundresses are necessary, since most cruise lines require that you wear more than a swimsuit in the dining rooms.
If the ship holds an event requiring “smart casual” wear, you’ll be fine in dress shorts, a skirt, or trousers along with a short-sleeved shirt or polo shirt. The rest of the time you can dress pretty much as you like. Useful accessories include flat shoes with a good grip for wet decks, sunglasses and a sun hat.
If you are going on an Alaska cruise or other outdoor adventure, bring hiking shoes and rugged clothes for the shore excursions. The key to an Alaska cruise is to dress in layers since the temperature can go from cold to hot very quickly.
Most cruises will have one or two formal evenings a week. Men are expected to wear a dark suit or tuxedo; women should wear an evening dress (long or short) or a dressy pantsuit. Men can often rent tuxedos on board. For evenings that are less dressy, women can get away with silky tops and trousers. Be sure to pack a dressy sweater or jacket, especially for the newer cruise ships, whose air conditioning can be quite powerful. I always bring my pashmina wrap; it's versatile and provides an extra layer in the evening, and it does double duty as an airplane blanket.
Remember to pack some loose-fitting clothes. Most passengers find they put on a few pounds during a cruise.
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I am a big advocate of wearing outfits more than once. If it looks good and is appropriate, who cares how many times you wear it?
Linda Coffman, editor of Cruise Diva, a cruise Web site, and author of “Fodor’s Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises” agrees. She suggests changing your look from the waist up while wearing the same “bottoms” — slacks, skirts or shorts — throughout the trip. (“A simple scarf and jewelry can change the look of a basic outfit,” she points out.) Coffman is also a big fan of reversible women's clothes, which give many different looks for minimum packing.
If you’re concerned about running out of clean clothes, don’t worry. Most vessels have self-service laundries along with valet laundry service for a fee. And remember, if you forget to pack something or don't want to do laundry, most ships offer a good selection of clothing, swimwear and accessories in their onboard shops. What you can't get on board, you can easily find in any port of call.
How to pack
When I was a flight attendant, I lived out of a suitcase 165 days a year, and I learned a few packing tricks. If you follow these basic, common-sense tips, you can pack only what you need, safeguard expensive items and keep track of important paperwork.
- Pack your airline tickets, cruise documents, jewelry, medication, eyeglasses, makeup, camera and computer in your carry-on luggage, not in your checked baggage. Also, bring photocopies of your passport and prescriptions in case these items get lost.
- Also put a swimsuit and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag. It sometimes takes hours for your luggage to be delivered to your stateroom, and you don’t want to miss any ship time stuck in your traveling clothes.
- Pack heavy items like shoes and toiletry kits before packing the more delicate ones.
- Use shoe covers to pack shoes, and stuff socks, belts and other little items inside shoes to save space.
- Turn jackets inside out and fold them in half, then put them in dry cleaning bags. The plastic bags minimize wrinkles (which is why dry cleaners use them).
- Pack the bottom of your suitcase with trousers, letting the legs hang over the edge of the bag. Then pack the rest of your clothes, with lighter materials on top. In the end, drape the trouser legs back over the pile; they'll keep their crease and won’t get a fold line.
- Mark your luggage with bright-colored yarn or tags to make them easy to spot and less likely to be picked up by someone else by mistake.
- Bring an empty soft bag for souvenirs, but don’t forget to claim it when you get off the ship. I recently did this; fortunately, I remembered it before I left the pier.
- Watch the weight of your luggage. Most airlines have a 50-pound limit; if you go over, be prepared to pay a hefty surcharge. If you are traveling to Europe, know that many European airlines will assess fees according to baggage weight; also, British Airways recently began charging an extra fee to travelers who check more than one bag. Baggage rules change all the time, so always check with your airline before you start hauling out the suitcases.
Packing is a chore, but if you pay attention to the details, you can pack some of your cares away.
Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.