Right now I’m heading out to sea

By Mir
June 6, 2010
Category Travel

I can hardly believe it, but as you read this, I’m heading out to the Caribbean. In our case, this trip was pure luck; my father decided to take everyone on a cruise to celebrate a milestone birthday, and we said, “Wow, you are looking very handsome today. And generous. And we love you a lot. We’ll go pack.”

But lots of people actually decide to go on cruises and pay for them, too. Which is why I turned to Want Not regular Patricia Babischkin, because Patricia—in addition to being thrifty and pretty—is also a travel agent who knows a lot about cruising.

Furthermore, she was happy to talk me off the ledge when I realized there was a dinner dress code and I had to pack fancy clothes in tiny suitcases and started hyperventilating a little.

Without further ado, let me turn it over to Patricia, who was kind enough to tell me—and you—some trade secrets about packing for a cruise. Spoiler alert: It’s because of her that I took several pairs of shoes out of my suitcase. I know.

Packing for a cruise can seem like a daunting task. Unlike air travel, there are no bag restrictions, which seems to offer you the option of taking your whole house and the kitchen sink, but ends up just being more confusing than ever. Add to this the endless kinds of dressing up or down for dinner and normal vacation wear and it is easy to have a strong desire to either avoid the vacation OR purchase all your clothing on board the ship.

Of course, there is the possibility that you are flying to get to your cruise, which completely negates the 10 suitcase option, but affords you a whole new problem of how to pack so much clothing in so small a suitcase. And the rule about cruising seems to include that you need two to three times the amount of clothing you normally wear in a week.

Here’s how I pack three humans for any cruise vacation. I have been cruising with my son since he was 13 months old (he’ll be 7 soon) and we go on a few cruises a year. I want to believe I have this down to a science, but the the truth is something is always forgotten (which is why I think we have replaced almost all of my husband’s tuxedo pieces while on vacation). This leads to rule one.

RULE #1: Don’t sweat the small stuff.
While it is annoying, cruise ships don’t typically go to third world countries, so if you forget something it is probably ok. There will be a sundry shop onboard (prices are a bit high—but in a pinch it works). I’ve been known to take a cab to a Walmart or a grocery in a port to pick up sudafed or something too.

RULE #2: Formal isn’t truly formal.
Those pesky formal nights seem to be the most daunting to first time cruisers. I hear from many clients who hate to dress-up or don’t want to commit so much space in the bags for formalwear. The thing is, you are on vacation, not a state dinner with the Queen of England. Ninety percent of the cruise lines out there believe formal nights are dark suit and tie or a tuxedo for men and a cocktail dress or suit for women. Rules are highly relaxed for kids—often no jacket requirement, but please don’t send them to dinner in their swim trunks.

You will see women with big gowns and women who are wearing what they wear to Christmas parties or church and everything in between. I’m big on being comfortable. My formal wear uniform (and yes, it is a uniform. I go on many cruises, I wear the same thing each time—the only person who can get sick of it is me and my husband) is a black floor length skirt and a satin jacket. I change out the top underneath for color or add a handknit shawl. My husband wears a tux (a tux I bought off eBay from a rental shop for pennies and slowly have replaced the shirt, the vest, and the tie). He will change out the tie for the two formal nights.

RULE #3: Re-wear whenever possible—within reason.
I’m not asking you to live a week in a pair of pants and two shirts. I’m asking you to be reasonable about the real amount of time you spend in your clothes everyday on a cruise ship. I figure that my day is divided into port time/pool time (on sea days) and dinner time. For the day time, I figure I ought to plan on sweating or getting my clothing dirty. I will either be going site seeing or be out in the sun. For day, I bring one complete outfit per day I’m going to be gone.

For dinnertime, I’m all about the mix and match. In a seven night cruise, two nights are formal—taken care of above; so I have to worry about 5 nights. The first night I wear what I wore onboard. (Sidenote: when I board a ship, I dress like we used to when we flew—I dress comfortable, but nice. I see better service from staff, nicer boarding photos, and I keep my skirt more wrinkle free.) So, I have my boarding skirt and I bring a pair of solid slacks. I then pack 2 additional tops (the third I have on at boarding). Again, I change them up with jewelry, shawls, or accessories. At most, I wear my dinner clothing for 4 hours, which means if I wear each item twice, I’ve worn it about one day.

RULE #4: Keep the shoes to a minimum.
Mir may have just fainted. [Ed. note: I didn’t faint, but I did gasp just a little. Also? I wore one pair and packed three, which for me is light on shoes. I also heeded Patricia’s advice and brought all flats.] I only ever have 4 pairs of shoes onboard with me. My husband has four pair and my son takes two (he doesn’t own many shoes). I take two pair of comfortable walking shoes (whatever that means to you—for me it tends to be a nice comfy sandal (one I could wear to dinner if I needed to) and a pair of tennis shoes. In Alaska, where I did more adventurous stuff the sandals were replaced with hiking shoes, not boots); one pair of cheap flip flops/sandals for the spa or pool; and one pair of dress shoes. My husband will take a pair of tennis shoes; a pair of deck shoes (he can also wear these on casual nights); a pair of pool shoes; and his dress shoes. My son is a sandal or tennis shoe kid.

Now, if you take my advice about the dinner time attire, then one pair of shoes ought to go with all your outfits. Ladies, also, please leave the really high heels at home. The ship is a moving creature, thus the floor moves, and if you hit any rough weather they are going to ask you to wear flats anyway. Yes, a wedge might be fine—but I would remind you to think comfort over style in your footwear.

RULE #5: If you think you are going to need it before dinner the first night, carry it on with you.
Checked baggage comes in spurts throughout the afternoon and while the ships are masters at moving bags to your cabin, you might need somethings before you get your full wardrobe. Some key things to put in your carry-on are all medications, jewelry/valuables, cameras, laptops, and boarding pass/documentation/passport/credit cards. Somethings that only those in the know think to add to this list are swimsuits (to be able to be in the pool without the crowds who are waiting for their bags OR to see sailaway from the hot tubs); a book/puzzles/knitting—basically something to entertain yourself (the ship isn’t at high entertainment in the first few hours of boarding—the crew is focused on getting you your bags, getting ready to leave, and they expect you to be unpacking and touring the ship… you might be bored, bring a book).

RULE #6: Completely unpack once you get your bags.
When we stay in hotels it isn’t common to completely unpack your life into the drawers and closets and cabinets in a hotel room. There is often enough room for an open suitcase to live in a corner and that system just works. Not so in a cruise cabin—room is tight. Take the time to use the hangers and the drawers and empty the bags—they store nicely under the beds. I go so far as to completely move into the bathroom and spread out, as best as I can. We declare a cabinet to be the toy cabinet (the boy is 6) and that is where we stash toys and stuff for him—he helps clean-up so we don’t have matchbox cars all over the place all week. The bonus plan of this is that when I’m done wearing an outfit, I put it away in the suitcase and I’m packing all week.

RULE #7: Bring unexpected things.
Over the years I’ve built a little bag of stuff I bring on cruises to make my life easier—this is stuff I’ve never needed in your average hotel room.

  1. A power strip. We bring two laptops, two cameras (soon to be three), a DVD player, iPods (times three), plus hairdryer and such. There are never enough plugs for my electric family. The addition of a single power strip makes my life easier and keeps the batteries charged.
  2. A foreign converter. You saw that they are wired for the US 110, right? Well, did you know that the majority of the ship also have the plugs that the British use too? That’s twice the power plugs in your room if you have one of those handy converter things.
  3. A clear folding shoe rack. One of the ones that hangs on the door. I put this on the door to the bathroom. Since space it at a premium, I use it to put bottles of sunscreen, extra batteries, toiletries that I want off the counter, um, even shoes. If it is clear you can see what’s in the pockets. It doesn’t take up much room in your bag and is a life saver when you need to control clutter with three plus people in a small cabin.
  4. A foldable extra bag. I prefer some old soft sided luggage I got from LandsEnd when I left home for college. It folds so small and lives in the outside pocket of my big bag. I don’t buy a whole lot while I’m away, but for reasons I think are as complicated as String Theory, all items that you packed expand when exposed to vacation. This gives you a bit of room coming back if you need it.
  5. Pad of Post-Its. They just come in really handy. One of the first things I do is put one Post-it per day of my cruise on the mirror. I write in the shore trips I’ve planned, special dinners, or cocktail parties. I add things like events on the ship we want to go on or kids’ club hours. Every morning, I tuck that day’s post-it in my pocket and go my merry way. We miss very little this way and I always see the plan in front of me.
  6. Personal cards. Like the old fashioned calling cards. I don’t carry business cards with me—for one, I’m a travel agent and I can get in big trouble if it looks like I’m drumming up business on board a ship—but mostly, when I meet people on board I’d like to keep up with on dry land, I want them to use my personal contact information. In a pinch, your business card works—but personal cards are a bit classier, especially if you have any sort of sales job/business.
  7. A small handbag. I don’t carry a purse on board a ship. I also loathe those key things that go around your neck. I do like to have something with me to keep a few needed items (like my room key). Though I tend to put as much as possible in my pockets, I’ve used my need to have knitting close at hand to tuck my stuff in a small bag. Finally, I got something I like, it has a zipper and a handle. Pretty basic, but I can carry it when I don’t have pockets or need something bigger. On shore, I carry a backpack (daypack sized) that holds all my family’s gear (then I try to ignore my husband’s calling me “Pack Wife.”

RULE #8: Do not forget that you will not see 99% of these people again, EVER.
This was one of those ah-ha moments in my life. I don’t have to dress to impress on a cruise ship, I can be my most comfortable self (within a reasonable dress code). I don’t need to lose 10 pounds before I wear that swimsuit—trust someone will look at worse than you at the pool. I can wear the comfy shoes or the floppy hat. In the end, it is vacation and what you wear shouldn’t be major work.

The other part of this rule is that I don’t have to wear anything I wouldn’t normally wear. I’m a mom and I wear, like so many of us, the mom uniform much of my life. And you know what I wear on the ships? Yup, the mom uniform. I stopped a few years back wearing my linen slacks during the hot days and my country club casual at night. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but relax and be yourself—both at dinner AND in your clothing choices.

My point is if you aren’t going to be forever BFF’s with all these people, why are you trying to impress them with your fancy shoes and different outfits all the time. Save the space in your suitcase (and the luggage fees at the airport) and be comfortable.

You are smart and I shouldn’t have to mention this, but… don’t bring firearms, fireworks, booze (there are exceptions on some lines for bottles of wine—check your cruise contract, also known as the legalese that prints with your boarding pass), Illegal drugs… basically, let’s use the if you can’t bring it on an airplane you probably can’t bring it onboard—or use the “common sense” standard.

Are you tired, just reading all of that? I found many of Patricia’s tips helpful in our trip preparations, and I plan to let you know what was particularly useful (and/or if I discovered anything else) after we return.

I’ll have another awesome post from Patricia coming up later this week, too—next time, she’ll tell us how to save money while on the ship.

And now, let’s all hope for smooth sailing….


  1. Great post! I would love to see a post on how to save money on buying the actual trip. We’ve never been on a cruise, but would love to if we could find one with a great price!

  2. Thanks for all the great info! I esp love the over-the-door clear shoe hanger for storage idea. We love to cruise w/our kids so space is always at a premium.

    I’m convinced that cruises offer the best bang for your buck – esp if you get a great last minute cruise deal. As with most of our family vacations, we rarely book more than 2 months in advance. We keep an eye out for last minute deals and jump on it. For example, in 2008 we took advantage of a fab deal booked in Nov for a Dec 7 day E. Caribbean cruise. We got an outside cabin w/balcony on a brand new ship – for just $1800 (inc airfare!!) for my family of 2 adults and 2 kids!! Of course, Christmas shopping/decor/cookies, etc was abbreviated that year, but being away from the cold North East made up for it!

    Mir – hope you’re having a great time! You’re going to wonder how you ever went on vacations before cruising!

  3. JoAnn:

    One of the things I can tell you about saving money on the actual trip is to find a travel agent. The best ones (ok, me), don’t charge you for our services, and we can be on the look out for great deals for what you are looking for. I’m always looking for deals (last minute or otherwise) for people, so I have a sense as to what something is going for and if it is really a good deal or not.

    I’m glad you got a good deal last minute, the way you can double your savings fun is since you like to cruise is while you are onboard the ship book a future cruise — these days you don’t even have to have a clue when/where you will go again. Then you can combined that with other savings you find on land — for an even better deal (often with ship board credits). I always tell people that the best deal on their next cruise is found while they are on their current cruise.

  4. Great post! I have an Alaskan cruise coming up this summer (thanks Mom!) and I have been REALLY concerned about the packing thing. A question I have is about internet access. Are there alternatives to the 50 cents per minute offered by the cruise line? (ACK!)

  5. We got a cruise with our new kitchen cabinets (weird, I know) so we’ll be cruising, sans-kids, next winter. Yes, I’m nervous already. Will have to remember to refer back to this post!

  6. Cindy:
    The only onboard options for internet are pretty much buying a package to lower the price — I think I’ve paid as little 35 cents/minute. So, not cheap, right? Also, keep in mind that the speed isn’t as high speed as you have at home. This is a satelitte connection that is being used by the ship as well as everyone else on the ship — it can be as slow as dial-up sometimes.

    That said, might I mention one thing special about Alaska — it is a state and most likely your cell phone will be usable in port (it will be usable on the ship too, but at international rates) — if you have an iPhone or a smart phone, you can get internet when you are in port MUCH cheaper.

    Also, think about how you use the net onboard — write e-mails and blog posts offline and just log in long enough to post — that saves a TON of time.

  7. I have never been on a cruise, but I will definitely be coming back to this post when I do! I’m the queen of overpacking in my family, BUT we never find we are missing anything on vacation. LOL

    Patricia, I would love to hear some ideas on how to actually get to the cruise without breaking the bank. We have often found incredible deals on a cruise, only to find that the cost of airfare and such will run us an extra $1500! It’s almost like the airlines are somehow in the know and jack up the prices for where we need to go!

    We’ve also got a toddler (2 years old) and a 5 year old, so tips on cruising with small kids would be great too.

    Thanks, and I hope you have an amazing trip Mir!

  8. Christina:

    Oh the tips on cruising with small kids — that will take a LONG comment. I’ll ask Mir if she’d publish my take on that one. Like I said, I’ve been taking my son for a long time and it works very well for us, but takes planning.

    Now on getting to the cruise itself. This will depend on where you want to go, when, and of course where you are in relation to the port. Last summer I nearly pushed the button to book a cruise to the Med for my family because seriously it was so cheap I think it was practically free — but in a moment of clarity, I looked up the airfare and saw it would be $3K to fly all of us there. Now, had I not been searching for the uber deal, the total vacation was not out of control, but the airfare really halted me.

    My first piece of advice is to look at the total vacation cost. Oh, sure you can sometimes end up paying more for the flight, but the total is still a great deal. Next, please promise me you aren’t looking at airfare through the cruise lines — that’s often full-fare coach, and when was the last time any human paid full-fare coach? Finally, consider some flexible plans — can you fly in a day or two before? Because you are right, if you live someone cold and want to cruise from FL in winter, the airlines KNOW that day is a cruise day and jack the price.

    Finally, think about driving. I know, I know — who wants to be stuck in a car with two small kids for two days. However, we did the math (because seriously, you haven’t met cheaper people on vacation than a travel agent and her family), and found out that two days in the car, with my family of three (with the hotel and food and gas) was less than HALF the cost of three airline tickets. Oh, sure this takes more planning (and days away), but it can make sense.

    Oh wait, one more thing — are the kids in school yet? Save money by going when school is in session — the cruise is cheaper and often the air is too.

    And I’ll put the one plug in here — you know, I can help too….888-286-9827.

  9. Thanks Patricia! Driving actually might make sense, I will definitely keep that in mind next time I’m shopping for a cruise deal! And I do my airfare shopping through the various online sites like hotwire and such, plus the airline sites directly because sometimes I have found cheaper flights there. We are a minimum 2 day drive from any port, but hotel and gas costs might just be better than airfare!

    My daughter will be in first grade this fall, she turns 6 in August. She has 2 weeks off in the Fall and 2 weeks off in the Spring. I’m not completely against pulling her out early for a great deal though!

    Thanks for the tips – I think the driving one will help us the most! Leave the car at the nearest airport or do they have parking at the cruise ports?

  10. There is parking at the ports — and if you plan just right, you can find a hotel with a park & fly or a park & cruise package (stay and night and park for free).

    For airfare, I start with kayak.com and then go to the airlines sites. I’ve never had good luck with the priceline or hotwire — but more because I want to KNOW what the times and such are.

  11. Mir, have a great cruise…enjoy yourself & have FUN!! (And try not to get sunburned!!)

  12. i’m a corporate travel agent, not leisure and have never been on a cruise (both claustrophobic and prone to seasickness). but i do have one bit of advice. if you are flying from a snowy climate to your port you might want to go in ahead of time. one missed connection and the boat will leave without you!!

    ~signed a land lubber

  13. Not a travel agent, but with 2 cruises under my belt, great tips! The only thing to watch are the power strips – I know Carnival no longer permits them on board, so watch your cruise line info! Thanks patricia!

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