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Packing Tips Part 1

Brent Betit

Pack it in. A pack of lies. The restaurant was packed. Pack mule. Packing a gun. Pack ice. Sent him packing. Pack rat. A pack of thieves. Pack up your troubles in an old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.

So, you've done your homework, researched, found, and booked that cruise, located a kennel for your dog and/or some perfectly innocent child-caregiver for your rug rats to torture. And you're looking forward to one-fourth of a Month of Sundays: the seven day cruise (or if you're really lucky, something much longer). Before you run out that door, however, make sure it's with something more than just a smile (because there aren't any of those kind of cruises just yet). That's right: you have to pack -- a sometimes-gruesome and mystifying task for first-time cruisers.

So what do you bring? Isn't every cruise different, and don't you therefore need a completely different wardrobe and other items for every one? Well, yes and no. Of course you must pay attention to several things when packing.

The first is obvious -- what's the weather going to be like? The clothing you bring on a Southern Caribbean cruise is different than what you bring on a cruise to Alaska. It's lighter and cooler, with a notable absence of sleeves. But you still need essentially the same amount of gear on both, because the usual routine of daytime shipboard or shore excursion fun, casual daytime meals, and casual/semiformal/formal evening meals and entertainment is quite similar on any cruise. And even in the Caribbean, you may still need a warm sweater for cooler nights, and a raincoat for the intermittent downpours.

The second should also be obvious -- what is the shipboard environment? Is it casual, semi-formal, formal, or a mix of all of these? Most ships offer a mix. Some of the upscale lines (Seabourn) cultivate a casual elegance; and, counter-intuitively, on some of the more exclusive lines you may see fewer tuxedos than on a high-end mainline cruise (Celebrity). Know before you go. Your cruise agent should be able to answer questions in this vein, and the cruise line brochures will also summarize the ships dress code, along with the number of evenings when each type of dress will be expected.

Most cruise brochures also say that there is really no shipboard limit to the amount of luggage passengers may bring (though airlines will impose surcharges if you exceed their baggage limits). Consequently, many first-time cruisers pack as though they were embarking on a winter assault on Mount Everest. This approach is encouraged by the fact that the average cruiser booking an air-sea package has to touch her bags fewer times than most any other traveler during her trip.

LuggageStill, why strain your back and support the physical therapy industry? A good rule of thumb is to bring one large piece of luggage and one carry-on per person (just how many hands do you have, anyway?) In your carry-on, make sure you bring camera, film, prescriptions, jewelry or other valuables, basic toiletries, and one change of clothing in case the worst happens and your checked luggage is lost. Also bring a good book or magazine for the inevitable delays and waiting. To achieve this minimalist approach, you should know that there are several things that cruisers can just decide not to bring.

Nearly every line has a laundry, and will launder or dry-clean clothing for reasonable charges (some megaships even have self-service Laundromats). So if you bring that white dress shirt, don't bring two: just launder it and wear it twice. The same can be said for many other articles of clothing. Most cruise lines supply their cabins with shampoo, conditioner, soap, and/or bath lotion. [SHOULD THE GLARING EXCEPTION BE MENTIONED HERE?] If you're not fussy about your brand, use theirs and leave yours home. Also, many bathrooms on modern ships are equipped with blow dryers. My wife thinks a fly could be caught in the jetstream from one of the shipboard dryers and not be knocked off course, but if you don't need the hot blast of your turbo dryer, leave it home. Most ships have a small store devoted to cosmetics, sundries, and necessaries. If you forget something, relax: you're not going to assault Mt. Everest, after all, and there are almost always places to buy just about anything.

Unless you've got some favorite, old rude T-shirt you just can't do without, don't bother to bring any (ditto baseball caps or hats). Plan on buying one at every port of call and in the shipboard logo store. This has the added benefit of making all your friends green with envy when you return, sporting the "We Be Jammin on St. Maarten" T-shirt. The T-shirts available ashore are ridiculously inexpensive (three for US$10 is common), but purchase the largest one they have, as after the first washing it will probably fit a Chihuahua.

Leave some of the stuff you routinely lug around with you at home. You probably wont need the key to the riding lawnmower, for example, or all those gasoline credit cards. Do a bit of triage on your wallet, purse, and key rings before you leave. If you are male and plan to do the tuxedo thing (usually suggested dress for two evenings on a seven day cruise), be aware that most lines will rent you a tuxedo complete with shoes, cuff links, studs, and two changes of formal shirt for about US$75.00, and have it hanging in your closet when you board ship. Check with your travel agent.

On the other hand, here are some things you might forget that are quite useful aboard ship or during your voyage:

  • Guide books including information on your planned ports of call (photocopy the pertinent pages -- you don't need the whole darned tome).

  • A copy of the ship's deck plans from the brochure you probably used to select your cruise (you can get line drawings aboard, but the glossy, color-coded deck plans are better).

  • A stack of 20 or 30 $2.00 bills. $2.00 is the usual tip for room service, for carrying your bags, and for tour guides and bus drivers on shore excursions. A $2.00 bill will get you remembered, if nothing else, and reduces to some degree the bulk of carrying around small bills. Order these in advance from your bank, as they are not always readily available.

  • A night light. Think about it: you're in an unfamiliar bedroom, which may be pretty space-efficient (read: crowded). You may have a dark, inside cabin that reminds you of an elevator car when the power goes out. You may want to get up in the night and answer nature's call. You may not like barking your shins, stubbing your toe, or smacking your forehead into the wall. Your cabin mates may not like learning all those words you store up for just such occasions!

  • Business cards. A great way to stay in touch with new friends.

  • A list of emergency telephone numbers from home. Yes, this sounds crazy, as you won't even be home. But what if something happens during the cruise and you need to alert Aunt Gert, or you lose all your credit cards, or your family calls with an emergency that requires you to contact several people? It happens.

  • Insect repellent. Okay, so you wont need this on a winter cruise to Alaska, but a warm, tropical island grows insects that can be mistaken for Cobra attack helicopters, with fearsome probosci. They even manufacture double-duty repellent now, that also works as a sunblock.

  • If you haven't found anyone with enough stamina and/or courage to watch your children for a week, and they're of an age to take independent tours around the ship, bring a small clipboard with a notepad and pen on a cord. Hang it on the inside of your doorknob. Make everyone who is exiting write down where they're going, how long they'll be gone, and when they expect to be back. It will keep you from worrying, and provide a nice diary of what you did aboard ship.

And finally, make a list and check it twice. The following is a kind of generic checklist my wife and I have developed for cruising. Print it out and use it as the basis for your cruise packing list:

[In carry-on or kept on your person]

Credit cards
Travel documents
Travelers Checks
Prescription Medications
Travel alarm clock
House keys
List of emergency telephone #s
Change of clothing
2$ Bills for tips
Camera -- film
Camcorder -- film


Personal -- FEMININE

Feminine products
Hair spray
Hair bands
Emery boards
Fingernail polish
Hair dryer

Personal -- MASCULINE

Razor/shaving cream


Eye drops
Hand lotion (First aid creme)
Pocket tissues
Needle and thread
Cold medicine
Imodium AD
Motion sickness medication
Insect repellent
Ear plugs


Sunburn lotion/spray
Sun screen
Lip sun block/balm
Brimmed hats
Aloe lotion (for sunburn)


Shampoo (your brand)
Fingernail clippers
Hygiene products


Pants - jeans
Shirts - dress & casual
Bathing suits - 2 each
Casual night wear
Tuxedo or business suit
Sport jacket
Braces - suspenders
Warm coat or sweater
Theme night clothing

Night wear

Walking - deck
Pool - water
Sneakers - sports
Sandals - comfortable
Inclement weather
Rain wear

Cold weather gear
Thermal underwear
Sweaters, coats, boots
Hats, Socks (for Everest)


Night light
Business cards


Guide book(s)
Ship info: deck plans


Laptop computer
Stamps or IRCs
Clipboard - Note pads

This is by no means what YOU should bring - make adjustments for your own needs and for the type of cruise you are taking, warm or cold weather, short or long cruise, etc. Think of it as a starting point. Plan ahead and try to resist the impulse to throw a few extra items in at the last moment. I don't know how many times I've taken items that I never subsequently touched while cruising. Less is sometimes more, as the saying goes, and if you bring less luggage, you may just have more fun.

Finally, make sure to tag your luggage with covered luggage tags that conceal your name and address, and place a copy of your itinerary inside each bag so if the worst happens, there is some way to locate you. Happy sailing!


Brent BetitBrent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.

Brent is also the Executive Vice President of Landmark College in Putney Vermont, and we are proud to announce that Landmark College has received a U.S. Department of Education Title III (Strengthening Institutions) Grant. Landmark is one of only 32 institutions selected from among approximately 1,800 applicants for this highly competitive grant program and Brent and his staff worked with Senator James M. Jeffords and his staff at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions who provided substantial support, advice, and guidance during Landmark's two-year quest to gain funding within the grant program. Congratulations, Brent!

Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.

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