It's tempting to pack tons of stuff for a cruise but don't, urges travel specialist Rick Steves.
When I put my luggage into a taxi at the start of my first-ever cruise trip, it was a shock. I’d never packed so much before: deck wear, nicer evening wear, and rugged travel clothing to use on land. I’d even brought four pairs of shoes … if you count my flip-flops.
But compared to my fellow passengers, I was still packing light. Pulling my wheeled carry-on bag to my stateroom, I had to dodge huge bags that jammed the hallways like a chorus line of beached whales.
Many cruisers eventually learn to keep their luggage to a minimum. Cruise-ship cabins are cramped, and large suitcases consume precious living space. Plus, you’ll still need to get to the airport, on and off the plane, and between the airport and the cruise port. The lighter your luggage is, the easier your transitions will be.
Consider packing just one carry-on-size bag (9-by-22-by-14 inches) and sharing an extra bag with your travel partner. I know — realistically, you’ll be tempted to bring more. But cruising with limited luggage can be done without adversely impacting your trip; I’ve done it, and was happy I did. Pack one bag each, as if traveling alone, then share the third bag for bulky cruise extras (such as formal wear). If traveling before or after the cruise, you can store that third, nonessential bag at a friendly hotel or in a train-station luggage locker.
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Here’s another reason to favor carry-on bags: If the airline loses your checked luggage and doesn’t get it to your embarkation port by the time your ship sets sail, the checked bags are unlikely to catch up to you. If you booked air travel through the cruise line, the company will do what it can. But if you arranged your own flights, the airline decides whether and how to help you — and rarely will it fly your bags to your next port of call. If you only checked the third, shared bag, no matter what gets lost, you’ll still have your essentials.
Baggage restrictions provide a built-in incentive for packing light. Some cruise lines limit you to two bags up to 50 pounds apiece; others don’t enforce limits (or request only that you bring “a reasonable amount” of luggage). But all airlines have restrictions on the number, size, and weight of both checked and carry-on bags. These days, you’ll most likely pay for each piece of luggage you check — and if your bag is overweight, you’ll pay even more.
You don’t need to pack for the worst-case situation. Pack for the best weather and simply buy yourself out of any cold snaps. Risk shivering for a day (or layer a sweater under your rain jacket) rather than pack a heavy coat. Think in terms of what you can do without — not what will be handy on your trip. When in doubt, leave it out. The shops on your cruise ship (or on shore) are sure to have any personal items you forgot.
Most cruisers will want two to three changes of clothes each day: comfortable, casual clothes for sightseeing in port; more formal evening wear for dinners on the ship; and sportswear, whether it’s a swimsuit for basking by the pool or athletic gear for hitting the gym or running track. But that doesn’t mean you have to bring along 21 separate outfits for a seven-day cruise. Think versatile. Some port wear can double as evening wear. Two pairs of slacks can be worn on alternating nights, indefinitely. As you choose clothes for your trip, a good rule of thumb is: If you’re not going to wear an item more than three times, don’t pack it.
During the day, the dress code is casual. People wear shorts, T-shirts, swimsuits with cover-ups, flip-flops, or whatever they’re most comfortable in. But in the evenings, a stricter dress code emerges. On most nights, dinner is usually “smart casual” in the main dining room and at some (or all) specialty restaurants. For men, slacks and a button-down or polo shirt is the norm; most women wear dresses, or pants or skirts with a nice top. Lightweight accessories like a tie or scarf add class to an outfit.
First-time cruisers may worry about “formal nights.” While most cruises do have a few formal nights with a dress code, they’re optional. You can always eat somewhere other than the fancy dining room.
Remember, packing light isn’t just about the trip over and back — it’s about your traveling lifestyle. You’re not on a Vogue photo shoot. With only one bag, you’re ready for any travel adventure.