What to pack for a cruise 2021: the essentials while out at sea

Off sailing around the Caribbean, the Mediterranean or up the Norwegian coast to see the Northern Lights? Here’s what you need to take with you

What to pack for a cruise: the essentials while out at sea

Can you survive at sea? Whether you’re spending a few weeks on a mega-yacht resort, hoping for a glimpse of the Northern Lights off the coast of Norway or Alaska, or on an expedition to photograph wildlife, cruising means putting some special demands on the contents of your suitcase. 

Here’s what you need to pack for a cruise:

1. Sun protection

Always pack strong SPF50 sunblock, a protective sun hat like the Tilley T5MO, and good quality sunglasses with polarised lenses. That applies whether you’re visiting the Caribbean or going on an Arctic cruise; any sunlight is magnified by water, and you’re going to be surrounded by a lot of it. 

It’s also possible to buy travel clothes made with fabrics that boast built-in sun projection, such as the Columbia Silver Ridge Long Sleeve Shirt.

2. Non-slip shoes for wet decks

You’re likely to be spending significant time outside in areas where there’s a lot of ocean spray. 

Forget flip-flops, which can be a death trap – a real rookie error that marks you as a first-time cruiser – and instead go for open-toe hiking sandals like the Teva M Hurricane 4 Sport Sandal or Keen Clearwater CNX Sandal, which deliver much more grip.

3. Pack for a few days, not weeks

Two weeks away means 14 pairs of underwear and a clean shirt for each day, right? It won’t surprise you to learn that cruise ships almost always have inexpensive laundry facilities, so you can easily wash your clothes whenever you want. 

If you really want to cut down on luggage, focus on bringing as few pairs of shoes as possible.

4. Check the dress code

Cruise ships may no longer be the reserve of the wealthy elite, but many still have formal events where passengers need to adhere to a dress code of some kind. It may simply be ‘no jeans’ on some cruises, while other sailings may have black tie gala dinners and drinks with the captain. 

Either way, check the dress code carefully before you pack, and be prepared to bring a suit/cocktail dress.

5. A daysack for excursions and/or the pool

If your cruise ship calls in at ports and cities for day trips, a lightweight daysack can be really useful. The Vango Lightweight Unisex Outdoor Backpack and Topgraph Foldable Backpack are examples of strong yet lightweight daysacks that pack down to almost nothing when empty. 

They’re great for carrying coats and souvenirs while you're out on an excursion, but also work well for short hikes. However, they’re just as useful on the ship for taking your swimsuit, towel, sunscreen and gadgets to the pool, or your gym kit to the fitness centre.

6. Binoculars for great views

Whether you’re leaving or approaching port or land, or on a wildlife expedition cruise, binoculars are so useful when on deck or (if you’re lucky) on your own balcony. 

They’re also handy for stargazing at night. However, despite the world’s oceans boasting the darkest night skies you’re ever likely to experience, cruise ships’ decks can often be over-illuminated. 

Head to the area in front of the bridge, which is usually the darkest, and make sure you stand in shadows where there are no direct lights in your field of vision.

7. A tablet full of TV

Although there is almost always WiFi on board cruise ships and you can use WhatApp and Skype to call your travel companions, web access is via satellite, so usually congested and slow. 

You certainly can’t reliably stream movies, so take some time pre-cruise to fill a tablet or phone with downloaded TV series and films from the Netflix, Amazon and/or BBC iPlayer app. 

Or you could just use the on-board cinema…

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8. Wellies for an expedition cruise

If you’re going on an expedition cruise, perhaps to photograph wildlife in the arctic, you’ll be getting in and out of small inflatable boats called zodiacs. 

Tall rubber wellington boots make this process much easier, but before buying/packing some, check with your travel agent; they may be provided.

9. Polar fleece for arctic cruises

Being out on deck in any climate can be windier than you think, so a warm layer can be really useful whatever the weather outside. An excellent and very warm fleece like the Jack Wolfskin Men's Westfjord Jacket is useful in the cold, while an arctic cruise also demands a polar fleece layer like the Rab Men's Microlight Alpine Jacket. Lined with lightweight duck down, layers like this roll-up to almost nothing, so make excellent travel companions.

10. Base-layers for excursions and on-deck

Any cruise to see the Northern Lights in Scandinavia or Alaska likely means many hours standing up on deck waiting in the cold. That’s the key to success. 

So go prepared by packing not only a good quality polar fleece jacket, but by layering-up underneath. Merino wool base-layers such as the Icebreaker Oasis Long Sleeve Crewe or more affordable Helly Hansen Lifa Dry Stripe Crew are ideal.

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Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance journalist, copywriter and author with 20 years' experience. He's written journalism for over 50 publications and websites and, when he's not writing, spending most of his time travelling – putting the latest travel tech through its paces.