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How to Pack Light for a Cruise: 9 Essential Tips

How to Pack Light for a Cruise: 9 Essential Tips

Whether you’re a packing minimalist or a chronic over-packer, packing light for a cruise vacation has its benefits. Here are nine essential tips to help you pack light for a cruise.

Read on to find out why packing light for a cruise is essential to letting go and just relaxing on your next cruise with family or friends. Plus, I’ve included sample packing lists for men and women to help you get started.

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Unlike with airlines, most cruise lines don’t have strict rules about how much luggage you can take on board. But packing light for a cruise still has its advantages.

Most cruise staterooms are fairly small, and storage space is often minimal. Packing just the essentials means your cabin won’t be cluttered with too much stuff. Plus the dreaded chore of unpacking (and packing up again before disembarkation) will be a breeze!

Even though the cruise lines aren’t strict about packing for a cruise, most airlines are. Many of us live far enough away from a cruise port that we have to fly to our embarkation city and back home again, So even if your bags are fine for your ship, your airline might charge a premium for checked or overweight bags.

It’s really possible to pack everything you need for your cruise into a small suitcase that fits in a plane’s overhead bin, plus one carry-on.

Just imagine how relaxing taking a week-long (or longer!) escape from your everyday life would be if you could cruise with less luggage and enjoy an uncluttered stateroom.

Packing light on a cruise is actually doable, and it’s not as difficult as you might think! It just takes a little planning. Here’s how.

1. Make a list and pack early

The number-one rule for packing light is to make a list at least several days before you leave for your cruise. This gives you time to think about what you’ll actually need for your trip, and to see how well everything fits in your suitcase.

It also gives your brain a chance to cool down and get out of frantic packing mode. Give yourself at least a night to sleep on it—I guarantee you’ll either come up with something else you need to pack or something you remembered you didn’t use last time.

Unless you’ve been packing light for cruises for decades (in which case you’re probably not reading an article about how to pack light for a cruise), you probably won’t automatically pick the best things to pack under pressure.

If I told you right now that you have fifteen minutes to pack for a week-long trip, you’d probably throw too many things you don’t need in the bag. You’d probably also forget some essential items you’ll want to have on your vacation.

But most of us still pack for a cruise the night before (or even the morning of)! Let your brain have some time to think when you’re deciding how to pack minimally for a cruise.

Want a printable list you can use for a warm-weather cruise? Read my What to Pack for a Caribbean Cruise to get your free cruise packing list.

2. Pack with capsule wardrobing in mind

On a cruise, no one expects you to have a completely different outfit each day—we’re all living out of suitcases! But creating a capsule cruise wardrobe lets you mix and match pieces that all coordinate. You’ll look like you’re wearing an entirely new ensemble each day, but you won’t have to stuff half your closet in your luggage.

Instead of laying out seven completely different outfits for your seven-day cruise, shop your closet to find items you can wear on multiple days.

Stick to one basic color scheme, and put together a small capsule of tops and bottoms you can switch around to create different looks.

Some examples of capsule wardrobing color schemes:

  • Classic navy and white with a pop of yellow or red
  • Black and white with gold accessories
  • Neutrals with chambray blue or warm red
  • All white with silver accessories

Choose a solid-colored layering piece, like a jacket or cardigan, that will work with any of your outfits to dress them up (and keep you warm on chilly nights on deck).

Of course, pick shoes and accessories that go with your cruise capsule wardrobe. A pair of shoes that only goes with one outfit is a waste of space.

3. Use packing cubes

I’ll admit, when I first heard about packing cubes, I didn’t quite get the concept. You put smaller bags inside your bag to somehow become a better packer?

This idea made ZERO sense to me. But I gave packing cubes a try, and now I understand the hype.

Packing cubes lightly compress your clothes, which makes them take up less space in your suitcase. No more sitting on your suitcase and struggling to zip it!

Organizing your items into packing cubes also gives you a limit on how much stuff you can take. I use one packing cube per category of item, and once it’s full it’s full. If I can’t stuff yet another sundress or pair of shorts into that cube, it’s not coming on the cruise.

Unpacking your suitcase on the ship takes no time at all—just place the packing cubes right in the drawers or on the shelves in your closet. They have mesh panels so you can see what’s inside!

When it’s time to pack your bags again, just pop the cubes back in your suitcase.

Check the price of my favorite packing cubes here.

4. Pare down shoe choices for your cruise wardrobe

For many cruisers, choosing which shoes to pack can be an agonizing decision. There’s such a wide range of activities you’ll be doing, and it can feel like you need a different pair of footwear for each one!

But shoes are bulky, and they can take up so much room in a suitcase.

You really only need three pairs of shoes to get you through sea days and shore excursions, as well as fancy dinners, formal nights, and evenings in the lounge, casino or nightclub.

You’ll want a comfy sandal for days on the ship, preferably one with a rubber sole for slippery pool decks. I skip packing flip-flops because some restaurants don’t allow them as part of their dress code, but a sandal is usually fine.

Pack comfortable tennis shoes or closed-toe walking shoes for shore excursions. If you’ll be hitting the fitness center on board, opt for a sneaker that will do double-duty as your walking shoe off the ship.

Your third pair of shoes should be a dressier style you can wear on formal nights (if your cruise has them). Even if you’re not doing formal night, it’s a good idea to have this option to dress up for dinner or dancing.

On the less-formal cruise lines, minimalists can absolutely get away with packing just one pair of shoes for the entire trip! A boat shoe is a good option for anyone committed to keeping it casual. Or consider an easy slip-on (like TOMS) that goes with anything from sundresses to shorts.

Of course, only pick shoes that coordinate with your capsule wardrobe color scheme.

5. Know what you’ll need for ports and shore excursions

It really pays to do a little research into your ports of call and your shore excursions before you pack for your cruise. Although you’re aiming to pack light, you don’t want to leave essential items behind that you’ll really need.

Whether you book your shore excursions through the cruise line, independently through an aggregator like Get Your Guide, or you’re just going off exploring on your own, read as many reviews as you can about your specific tour—and about the destination in general.

From reading reviews, you might find that there’s a specific item or two you’ll really need—like water shoes for visiting a notoriously rocky beach, or waterproof hiking pants for cruising to Alaska during the rainy season.

Not packing things you’ll need in port can leave you frustrated when you just want to enjoy your vacation.

Here are examples of a few items I was glad I packed (or wish I had packed) for various cruises:

Read more: Why You Need a Full Face Snorkel Mask for Your Next Cruise

6. Be a minimalist when packing cruise accessories, gadgets, and entertainment items

There are some neat cruise accessories on the market that can make your trip more enjoyable. From over-the-door organizers to motion-activated nightlights to pop-up laundry hampers, you could easily fill another suitcase with just accessories and gadgets!

But you don’t need to pack every accessory under the sun to have an enjoyable cruise. Designate one packing cube for gadgets, and only take what fits in that one container. This helps you pare down to only the essentials (and gives you a handy place to store all your gadgets while you cruise).

Read more: The 19 Best Cruise Accessories to Pack

New cruisers often weigh down their bags with bulky, heavy items like books, magazines, laptops, and portable video game systems. You can leave these all at home!

Cruises have such a wide variety of entertainment options that you’ll never be bored. But if you’re looking forward to relaxing by the pool with a book or binge-watching Netflix on your balcony, packing a tablet is the way to go.

Download the books, movies, podcasts, or whatever you like to consume before you board so you’ll have everything available (even if you have a cruise WiFi package—it’s often slow and you’ll use up your available data quickly).

Or use the ship’s onboard library to enjoy its selection of books and board games. Many cruise ships also offer on-demand movies (free and for-a-fee) on the stateroom televisions, as well as “movies under the stars” each evening on the pool deck.

7. Have a travel toiletry bag always packed

As a longtime traveler, I always have a travel toiletry bag packed with everything I need. I fill it with travel-sized versions of cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, and oral care essentials. Having my bag always packed ensures that I have everything I need for personal care (and I’m not scrambling at the last minute to shove a full-sized bottle of shampoo in my bag).

Tip: Use refillable travel bottles to take along smaller quantities of your fave toiletries. They have a locking cap to prevent spills, too!

Especially if you often travel with your partner or kids in the same stateroom, consider having just one travel toiletry bag for the whole family. Sharing toiletries saves so much room in your suitcases!

I also put a small first aid kit with travel essentials in my toiletry bag. Simple things like bandaids, ibuprofen, or antibiotic cream can be expensive or hard to come by on a cruise.

Learn more (and get a free printable first aid kit checklist): How to Make a Cruise First Aid Kit

8. Know what you don’t need to pack for a cruise

New cruisers often overpack just because they don’t know what essential items the cruise line provides as a courtesy. Much like at a nice hotel, even budget cruise lines include many items you might not expect.

Beach and pool towels

Beach and pool towels are the #1 item that new cruisers stuff their suitcases with, not knowing that most cruise lines provide courtesy beach towels for their guests. And yes! You can take them along on a shore excursion, or even just on a taxi trip to the beach.

Just don’t lose your cruise line provided beach towel—many lines will charge your onboard account if you don’t return your towel to your stateroom.

Hairdryer

For those of us who blowdry our hair, a hairdryer is an essential grooming tool. Thankfully, all of the major cruise lines provide a basic hairdryer in every stateroom.

But basic is the operative word here—you won’t find high-powered drying or even basic functions like a cool blast. But if you’re looking for a simple, no-frills blowdryer, don’t bother packing one because it’ll be available right in your room.

Shampoo and body wash

I’ve yet to come across a cruise stateroom that didn’t include at least one included toiletry item for washing your hair, and one for washing your body.

However, unless you’re cruising on an ultra-luxury cruise line, you’ll likely only find the most basic toiletries—it’s usually an on-the-wall pump with one container of body wash and one of shampoo (or one of those dubious shampoo-conditioner hybrids). You might also have a small boxed hand soap on the vanity.

As a person with sensitive skin (OK, I’m also a certified toiletry snob), I rarely use the provided toiletries and bring my own instead. But if you’re really looking to cut down on your cruise packing list, you’ll be able to clean yourself up without packing any extras.

Bathrobe

When you’re dealing with teeny-tiny unventilated bathrooms, a bathrobe can be an essential item. Trying to shimmy into your clothes after a shower in a humid space can be a workout you didn’t expect!

Having a bathrobe just to cool down before changing can be an unexpected luxury on a cruise. Many cruise lines, especially premium lines and higher, do provide bathrobes.

Luxury lines usually hang them in the closet or on the inside of your bathroom door, while some premium lines provide them only on request (just ask your steward on embarkation day).

Mainstream lines will often only provide bathrobes for suite guests. Ask your travel agent or call the cruise line before you sail if you’re not sure if they provide bathrobes.

9. Do laundry on the cruise

Most cruise lines offer wash, dry, and fold laundry service for a fee, but did you know that many cruise lines have self-service laundry rooms as well?

You can cut down significantly on how many clothes you pack for a cruise just by planning to do one load of laundry halfway through the trip.

Check your daily planner, or ask your steward about how laundry service works on your cruise ship. For a small fee (or even for free if you’ve become an elite loyalty member on some cruise lines), you can have your dirty clothes washed, pressed, folded, and delivered back to your room, ready to wear again.

Tip: Many cruise lines offer a laundry service sale a few days into your cruise. Check your daily cruise planner or ask your steward for details.

But to save money on your cruise while sticking to a minimalist cruise packing list, see if your ship has self-service laundry rooms. Lots of them do!

I always take along a small ziploc of powdered laundry detergent to do a small load of laundry or two. Even if your ship doesn’t have self-serve laundry rooms, it’s a good thing to have to hand-wash small items, like swimsuits, to drip-dry.

Tip: Almost all cruise ship cabins have a retractable clothesline in the shower to drip-dry clothes.

Sample packing lists for a seven-day cruise:

Here are some sample women’s and men’s packing lists to help you pack light for a cruise. You can easily fit everything on these lists into just one small suitcase per person.

Women’s light cruise packing list

  • Carry on bag for embarkation day essentials
  • Toiletry bag
  • Small makeup bag
  • Two cloth face masks (or disposables)
  • Two swimsuits
  • Coverup or sarong
  • Seven pairs of underwear
  • Two bras (one that converts to strapless)
  • Pair of sandals
  • Pair of dressy shoes
  • Pair of comfortable walking shoes
  • Two pairs of socks
  • Dress for formal night
  • Two casual dresses
  • 3-4 casual shirts
  • Two pairs of shorts/pants
  • Cardigan or blazer
  • Lightweight rain jacket
  • Sun hat

Men’s light cruise packing list

  • Carry on bag for embarkation day essentials
  • Toiletry bag
  • Two cloth face masks (or disposables)
  • Two swimsuits
  • Seven pairs of underwear
  • Pair of sandals
  • Pair of dress shoes
  • Pair of comfortable walking shoes
  • Two pairs of athletic socks
  • Two pairs of dress socks
  • Suit/tux/dressy outfit for formal night
  • Two collared shirts
  • 3-4 casual shirts
  • Two pairs of shorts/pants
  • Sport coat or light jacket
  • Lightweight rain jacket
  • Sun hat

Do you pack light for a cruise? Or do you always overpack? I’d love to hear your best cruise packing tips in the comments below!

Want more cruise packing tips? Visit my Cruise Packing Tips page for resources and printable lists!

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Linzey

Monday 22nd of November 2021

What a great list! I haven't cruised in forever and needed a refresher. I'll keep this handy for when we do finally book something. Also, packing cubes and capsule wardrobes for LIFE!

simplyjolayne

Sunday 7th of November 2021

I always found a power strip with USB plugs to be essential when cruising since there are so few outlets in the rooms.

Carrie Ann

Monday 8th of November 2021

Hi Jolayne, I agree! I actually have a cruise line-approved power block featured in my 19 Best Cruise Accessories You Need to Pack post. But here's a tip if you're really packing light: The TV in your stateroom usually has a USB port on the side that you can use to charge a device! You usually need to keep the TV on to charge, but I just put it on the bridge cam channel and turn the volume off :)

Neely Moldovan

Sunday 19th of September 2021

So important because cruise rooms are so tiny!

Carrie Ann

Wednesday 22nd of September 2021

Hi Neely, I agree! They feel so much more spacious when you pack light :)

LifeMagHealth

Sunday 19th of September 2021

Wow! Thank you for sharing the list! I can never really pack light as I always overdo baggage, bringing mostly clothes that I wasn't even able to use for a certain trip. But now because of your helpful post, I can now improve my packing abilities. :)

Carrie Ann

Wednesday 22nd of September 2021

I hope my tips help for your next trip! I used to be a massive over-packer, but travel is so much easier now :)

Autumn Murray

Friday 17th of September 2021

I always have a travel bag packed and ready to go! These are great tips to know for any traveler.

Carrie Ann

Wednesday 22nd of September 2021

Hi Autumn, that's a great idea! It must make last-minute trips super easy!