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Cruise Packing 101 (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com)

What to Pack for a Cruise: A Beginner’s Guide

The savvy seafarer follows the packing 101 rule: Thou shalt put into one's suitcase only that which will fit neatly in the allocated storage space without hogging every available nook and cranny for thyself.

Following that advice is getting easier these days because cruising has become a much more casual holiday -- even on luxury and traditional lines. Plus, with airlines charging to check bags and imposing extra fees for overweight luggage, it's economical to pack light. To do so, you need to have a good sense of what you’re going to wear on a cruise so you don't pack your entire closet.

If you're wondering what to bring on your next cruise, here are our guidelines for what you'll need to pack.

To win the battle of the bulging bags, the savvy seafarer follows this rule: Thou shalt put into one's suitcase only that which will fit neatly in the allocated storage space without hogging every available nook and cranny for thyself.

Following that advice is getting easier these days because, for the most part, cruising has become a much more casual holiday -- even on luxury or traditional lines. Plus, with airlines charging to check bags (with extra fees for overweight luggage), it's just plain economical to pack light. To do so, you need to have a good sense of what kind of clothing and accessories you're going to need, so you don't pack your entire wardrobe... just in case.

If you're wondering what to bring on your next cruise, here are our guidelines for what you'll need to pack.


The Female Wardrobe

First Things First: Swimming costumes should be worn only at the pool (though appropriate cover-ups are fine for buffet lunching).

The Daytime Guide: For indoor activities, wear shorts, trousers, jeans, casual skirts and sundresses. Outdoors, of course, swimmers and shorts or jeans and T-shirts are fine.

On Shore: If you're heading off to a kayaking expedition or a snorkelling sail, the most casual of clothing is appropriate. If you're heading into town, opt for those items specified above in "Daytime Guide."

Evenings: Cruise ships assign daily dress codes -- casual, informal, resort casual, formal -- that take effect in public rooms and restaurants from 6 p.m. onward. (Daytime is always casual.) On seven-night trips, you may have one or two formal nights; on some ships there is none. Others have themed party nights with suggested fancy dress costumes. To find out the dress code on your next cruise, read Cruise Line Dress Codes.

For all but the most formal of evenings (even on the more upscale ships), smart casual is the common dress code. That means dress comfortably but nicely, though not in a silk gown. Think flowing cotton dresses or pants and a top that would be appropriate at a nice local restaurant on land.

The Male Wardrobe

First Things First: Casual is OK on most local cruises. At dinner, consider chinos and a collared shirt, polo shirt or (nice) T-shirt. You can wear this type of outfit just about anywhere except formal night (if your cruise has one) when you should have a suit. If you don't want to bring a suit, plan to have dinner in the buffet or room service on formal night. Also, unless you're hanging by the pool, some kind of shirt is required when indoors.

The Daytime Guide: Shorts are pretty versatile. Jeans and casual khakis work, too. T-shirts and sports shirts go everywhere. Singlets are fine on Australian ships except you should make more of an effort at dinner.

On Shore: Going too casual (tank tops, scruffy jeans, any kind of athletic wear) is considered disrespectful in some ports of call. And let's face it: You'll generally be more warmly welcomed in restaurants and shops if you're dressed nicely. The only caveat for men is the same as for women: On active shore excursions or beach days, ultra-casual is just fine.

Evenings: On non-formal nights, smart casual works well. For formal nights, you can pack a tuxedo but tuxes are increasingly being outnumbered by business suits. On some ships, you can rent tuxedos. But, unless it's a 'family fun' type of ship (such as P&O, Carnival and Royal Caribbean), we'd recommend that you do pack at least a suit and tie because some onboard alternative restaurants are so elegant that you really will feel out of place without them. And don't forget the shoes to match. Will you need cufflinks with that shirt?

For Everyone

Jumpers and Jackets: Embrace the layered look. You will want a rain jacket and jumper on a Tasmanian, New Zealand and even Caribbean, South Pacific or Hawaii cruise for those less-than-perfect island days. And Alaska cruisers have been known to need everything from swimmers and short-sleeve tops to warm fleece jackets, hats and gloves; the same goes for cruising round the Horn of South America. Rather than pack clothes for multiple temperatures, bring cardigans or jackets to wear over lighter layers if it gets cold. Obviously, in Antarctica or the Arctic, bring lots of long-sleeved layers, thermals, coat, hooded jacket, scarf, two pairs of gloves (in case one gets wet), beanies, boots, sunglasses (for glare) and waterproof pants.

Hats and Headwear: Throw in a hat to protect against the sun or keep your ears warm during scenic glacier cruising, and remember your sunglasses, as well. Consider headbands, bandanas and scarves for practical and style concerns.

Shoes: Ladies especially should try not to pack a suitcase full of shoes. Try to bring styles that can serve multiple purposes (such as sneakers that go from gym to sightseeing or comfy sandals that work as well by the pool as they do at a casual dinner). Colour-coordinate your formalwear so you only have to pack one pair of dress shoes. High heels are not recommended on a moving ship; most women wear flats, even at dinner.

Non-Clothing Accessories

Day Packs: Small backpacks or totes can be quite useful for carrying cameras, books, sunscreen, water bottles and other items around the ship or in port.

Tech: You'll likely bring your smartphone, but you might also want to take a tablet, DSLR camera, GoPro, portable game player or book reader. Don't forget to check about foreign country and onboard roaming charges before you turn your phone on mid-cruise; if you bring a laptop or plan on accessing Wi-Fi, inquire about potentially hefty internet usage rates onboard before logging on. Since many cabins have limited electrical outlets, some folks bring extension cords and power strips, but always check limitations on these with your cruise line prior to packing.

Entertainment: On the lower-tech side of things, you may want to bring books, magazines and puzzle books for sea or beach days; you can't always count on the ship's library to have a comprehensive selection. Binoculars are a must for Alaska and other wildlife-heavy itineraries. If travelling with kids, consider inflatable water toys for the beach that can be deflated and packed easily. If you plan on going snorkelling in every port, you might consider bringing your own gear.

Beverages: Some cruise lines do not let you bring alcohol or even soft drinks and water onboard. Do check cruise line requirements. One warning about smuggling booze: cruise lines have increasingly cracked down on the practice (they'd rather you buy drinks at their bars), so consider yourself warned. Your bottle(s) might be confiscated on arrival depending on the cruise line's individual policy.

Toiletries and Necessities: The cruise ship should provide soap and shampoo at the very least (and often body lotion, conditioner and body wash), but if you're picky, pack your own. The same goes for hair dryers. If you can't deal with the low wattage of in-cabin dryers, bring your own with you. Additional personal items to consider include any medications you will need and lots and lots of sunscreen if sailing in sunny climates.

Storage: Many experienced cruisers swear by over-the-door shoe bags for storing toiletries or keeping small items from getting lost in cramped cabin quarters. Many bring extra hangers on longer cruises to make sure every item that needs to be hung up can be. If you plan on doing a lot of shopping in port, consider taking a foldable duffel bag that can be packed into your luggage at first and then filled up with souvenirs (or dirty laundry) and checked on the way home.

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