How to Pack for a Caribbean Cruise

I see it all the time. A weekend cruise and someone shows up at the port with 4 bags. The cabins (rooms) on a ship are not big, unless you're lucky enough to stay in a suite. Generally, space on a ship is utilized as efficiently as possible and spaces tend to be smaller than what you may be used to at a hotel on land. You're usually working with somewhere around 140 - 220 sq. ft.; so you'll want to pack only what you need.  

Here are a few tips to help you out...

A Carry-On Bag is Important

When you arrive to the cruise terminal, if you're checking in luggage, that's the very first thing to do. The porters are there curbside to take your bags. The next time you will see your bags is outside your cabin door, hours later.  Because there is no set time for this to happen, it's important to pack any items you may need right away in a carry on bag. Here are some examples:

  • Swimwear & Sunblock - The activities start the moment you board the ship. So why wait? If your port of origin is experiencing warm climate, the pool area will be alive. So change your clothes, grab a drink and a lounge chair, and start soaking up some sun.
  • Medication - The last thing you want is to be without medication you need; so this is very important. Keep any prescription medication in it's original bottle. 
  • Camera - I use the camera on my cell phone; but if you prefer to use an actual camera, be sure it's in your carry-on bag. You'll want to get shots of the surrounding port from the top of the ship. 
  • Documents - I know this may seem obvious; but you'd be surprised. Time and time again, people are denied boarding because they either forgot their documents or brought the wrong ones. Different cruises may require different documents. Make sure to to review the required documents for your cruise way in advance. The last check before you leave home should be that your cruise documents are in your carry-on bag.
  • Wine or Champagne - Most cruise lines will allow you to bring on-board a bottle of wine or champagne, to be consumed in your cabin or the dining room. They will normally require you to carry it in your carry-on bag. A corkage fee is usually assessed if you decide to have it served at dinner. Here's a helpful article by Cruise Critic to find out what your cruise line rules are for bringing alcohol on-board, "Cruise Line Alcohol Policies." Still make one extra check directly with your cruise line, as policies are changed and updated once in a while.  

How Formal is Formal Night?

You've probably heard of the "Captain's Night" on a ship. Also known as the Formal Night, Elegant Night, Chic Night, and many other names depending on the cruise line. Most cruise lines offer 3 types of dining for dinner; a main dining room option, a buffet option, and specialty restaurant options. Some have chosen to go in a completely different direction, such as Norwegian Cruise Line with their Freestyle Dining; but for the most part, most follow somewhere along the traditional way. 

If you choose the main dining room option for dinner, you'll usually have 1-2 formal nights along with casual nights, depending on the length of the sailing. Formal nights usually mean suits for men and cocktail dresses for women; but you'll even see tuxedos and ball gowns sometimes. 

Casual nights usually mean slacks or jeans with polo or short-sleeve button down shirts for men and pants, jeans, summer dresses, skirts and blouses for women. It does get kind of confusing because there are variations among all the lines. Cruise Critic published a helpful article with dress codes broken down by cruise lines - "Cruise Line Dress Codes". If you use this, I still suggest checking directly with your cruise line, as things are changed and updated every once in a while.

If you choose to skip the main dining room for dinner in the buffet, you can expect a very casual atmosphere; jeans, shorts, t-shirts, etc.

If you choose to spend a little to visit a specialty restaurant, you can usually expect the same dress code as if visiting the main dining room; but some cruise lines will require a jacket and tie for men even on casual nights.  

Port Days vs. Sea Days

On most cruise itineraries, you'll have a mix of days in port and days at sea; but you will find a few that visit a port every day. So what should you pack to wear in port? Remember, I'm focusing on Caribbean cruises, so please do not follow this if you're cruising to Alaska.

The Caribbean has warm weather year-round; so leave those snow boots at home. It's time for swimsuits and shorts. One very important item to pack for your cruise is a beach bag. Depending on what you've decided to do in port, you may need to pack the following for your day off the ship:
  • Change of clothes
  • Sunblock and maybe a hat
  • Cash - some places do not accept credit cards, so always have some cash - US Dollars are accepted in all ports.
  • Camera
  • Towel - most cruise lines supply beach towels that you can even take off the ship for excursions.
  • Hairbrush 
  • Watch - remember to set your time to the "ship's time" before leaving. If you're late, the ship will leave you.
  • Your room key, which is usually how the ship will identify you and a photo ID for identification in port. 
If you've decided to go with one of the cruise ship's guided excursions, make sure to read the description carefully, as they will let you know of any required clothing for your tour. More adventurous tours like zip lining and horse back riding may require socks and sneakers. Water tours may require water shoes, so you can bring your own or rent some on-site.

On sea days, the atmosphere is resort casual on-board; shorts, t-shirts, tank tops, slacks, sundresses, etc. You may decide to lounge by the pool, visit the spa or gym, partake in activities like dance classes or learn how to make towel animals; so pack accordingly. 

What Else Will I Need?

  • Toiletries - The usual; toothbrush, toothpaste & floss, deodorant, shaving cream & razor, lotion & moisturizer, contact solution, face products, hair products, etc. The cruise lines will sometimes provide amenity baskets, but I wouldn't count on that. Usually shampoo and body wash is standard, but you can bring your own if you have a preference; there's no size requirement on bottles. Some cruise lines will provide a hair dryer. If they do, it's not very powerful, so you may want to pack one.

  • Empty water bottle - If you drink a lot of water, you can either purchase bottled water on-board or save by packing an empty water bottle that you can re-fill with filtered water at the self-service stations.

  • Light sweater or shawl - The inside of the ship gets cold sometimes. If you're like me who gets cold very easily, a light jacket or shawl will come in handy; especially at night when going to the shows.

I hope this helped you to pack for your Caribbean cruise vacation. Bon Voyage!