How to Pack Light for a Cruise

While cruise ships will (theoretically) let you take on as much luggage as you like, if you are flying to or from the cruise, you will be restricted by airline baggage policies and fees. Personally, I resent having to pay baggage fees, and I have a long history of bad luck with checked bags, so I make it my mission to only travel with carryon bags: a small bag/suitcase and a personal item. For those interested in traveling light, this is how I accomplish multi-week trips with only carry-on baggage.

First, you do not need to pack more than 7 outfits. Given that you will also be wearing an outfit the day you travel, that gives you 8 outfits. If you are on a trip longer than 1 week, you can re-wear clothes after the first week, potentially switching tops and bottoms for a different look. Cruise ships also have laundry facilities (many of them have self-serve launderettes) so you should be able to get things washed, if necessary. If desired, you can pack more than 7 days worth of socks and underwear (particularly if this gets you through the entire trip without doing laundry) but since these things take minimal room, they shouldn’t be as much of an issue.

If possible, try to pack fewer bottoms (pants and skirts seem to take up much more room than shirts) that are neutral in color, so they can be paired with multiple tops.

Next, and this is where most people have issues, you do not need to pack more than one pair of shoes. Shoes are very big and bulky (particularly for men) and packing shoes immediately takes away a large percentage of your available suitcase space. Women can get away with dressy (but comfy) sandals or flats, and men can wear comfortable deck shoes or loafers. Obviously the shoes you choose to bring need to be in a neutral color, and should go with every outfit you pack. These shoes should be worn on the day of travel. If you’re going on a cruise with a lot of beaches or water activities, then you will have to pack a second pair of water shoes/sandals. Since water shoes tend to be less bulky than regular shoes, these are the ones you want to pack in your suitcase. Squish them down as much as possible. If you can’t squish them down (again, men’s shoes are notoriously bulky and intractable) then stuff them with socks and underwear, so that you are using the space as much as possible.

Unless you do not enjoy swimming/hot tubs, you should pack two swimsuits for everyone in your party. This is so you can have one to wear in the pool/hot tub and one drying in your room. It may seem excessive to have two swimsuits, but you will be glad you do! Fortunately, swimsuits tend to take up very little physical space in your suitcase.

Of course, everyone will need a set of pajamas, or other sleepwear.

Even on warm weather cruises, it is necessary to have a light jacket or cardigan for everyone, and usually some kind of rainwear. I like to bring a cardigan and a packable raincoat. If you are on a warm weather/summer cruise, you should also have a hat to protect yourself from the sun.

Once you have all of these clothes laid out, pull out your bulkiest outfit and your sweater/jacket. These are what you will wear on your travel days. Remember, if you wear them onto the plane, you don’t have to pack them!

Now one downside to cruises (in terms of packing) is that dining tends to be a little dressier, and there are also formal nights. For women, this shouldn’t be much of a problem, as there are many women’s dresses and evening gowns that are thin and light, not adding much in the way of bulk to your bag. For men, it is a matter of packing a pair of nice pants (Dockers or similar style) to wear to dinner. For formal night, men can pack a dress shirt with 1 or 2 ties to bring things up a notch. Women can make a simple dress fancier by adding a couple of pieces of jewelry or a scarf. These items are not bulky and are easy to pack.

But what if you want to dress to the nines and don’t have room in your suitcase? You can always rent formalwear onboard. While my evening dresses take up almost no room in a suitcase, the same cannot be said of my husband’s tuxedo. As a result, he only brings his tuxedo on cruises when we are driving to the port. If we are flying, he rents a tuxedo onboard. The best part of this is that if he is renting a tuxedo, he can also rent shoes! This means that he does not have to bring his tuxedo and shoes back and forth on the plane. While you may balk at the cost of rental, it is cheaper than paying checked baggage fees back and forth on your flights.

Now when you pack your suitcase, you need to be aware of space. There should be absolutely no unused space in your bag. The way to accomplish this is to pack the bulkiest items first, then place the smaller, crushable items around them. This means that in my husband’s case, I usually pack his pants and shorts first, then his shirts, and pad the empty space in between with bathing suits, pajamas, socks and underwear. If you have to pack a pair of shoes, those should go in first.

Another suggested method for packing is to roll your clothes, or use interlocking/bundled folding. It is amazing how many garments you can pack together using this technique. These videos give great demonstrations of how much you can actually fit in a small bag if you pack it in the right manner.

Once you have all of these items in your carryon bag/suitcase, it’s time to pack your personal item. For women, a personal item can be a large purse or tote bag. For men, the personal item can be a backpack or computer bag. I recommend using something that is somewhat flexible (a tote bag or backpack are good for this) since you will be packing more rigid items in your personal item. Remember that the personal item must fit underneath the seat in front of you on the plane, so keep that in mind when you select your bag. Also, some airlines now have size limits for personal items, so ensure that the bag you choose fits within the appropriate dimensions!

Your personal item is where you will carry your personal electronics (laptop, tablet, smartphone) and associated charging cords, as well as your toiletries, medications, wallet, travel documents, and ID. My husband sometimes likes to sneak in an additional pair of shoes into his personal item, down at the bottom of his backpack. Being a man, he is better able to do this than I, as he has fewer toiletry items to bring.  🙂

Whichever bag you choose, it should have a special sleeve/pouch/section for your laptop and/or tablet. You want to make sure these expensive electronics are well-protected when traveling. Next, you need a bag for your toiletries. As a woman who ‘needs’ a large number of toiletry items, I like to use a rollup door-hangar bag. It is flexible enough to shrink down when I have fewer toiletries inside, and compact enough to fit into my personal item. As an added bonus, the hanging bag is easy to store and access in a hotel or cruise cabin bathroom. Men should also use a flexible toiletry bag for their items (don’t forget your razor!). The TSA has made it ‘easy’ for us, requiring that no one bring more than 3 oz of each liquid. While many toiletries come in larger containers, you can often buy small travel sizes, or pour lotions, shampoos, etc. into smaller containers (many stores, such as Target, sell small travel-sized bottles for cosmetics and toiletries). When you have taken each of your toiletry items and brought them down to travel size, you will be amazed at how much less space they take.

Likewise, if you take medications, you do not need to bring entire bottles. Invest in a pill container with 7 compartments (one for each day of the week) and apportion your pills before traveling. Then take a picture of each label and carry it with you on your smartphone, just in case there are ever any questions from airport security, or something happens and you need a refill, or a medical professional needs the information, while you are away. In this way, most people can fit numerous pill/medication bottles into a much smaller space.

Lastly, make sure you put in your wallet, ID and travel documents. You may be surprised after this step to realize that you still have additional room! This is a good thing. Many of us find ourselves taking home extra items from our trips (such as souvenirs) so leaving some extra space on the way out is always a good idea.

Do you have any tips for packing light? If so, please share them in the comments below.