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7 cruise ship packing mistakes you want to avoid at all costs

Jan. 22, 2022
8 min read
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Packing for a cruise can be more complicated than for other vacations – leaving extra room for packing mistakes. Rigid dress codes, changeable weather and minimal storage space can turn routine packing into some kind of torturous hazing ritual. Get it wrong, and you’ll pay the price – by not getting full value from your cruise vacation or, literally, because you’ll need to buy necessities on your trip.

Here are seven cruise ship packing mistakes to avoid on your next vacation.

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Packing first-day necessities in your checked luggage

Most cruise travelers hand their larger bags to a porter at the pier so they don’t have to drag their luggage up the gangway and around the ship until their cabin is ready. Since the crew won’t deliver your bags to your cabin until later that day, you’ll spend a big chunk of day one with only your carry-on bag.

One of the biggest mistakes cruisers make is forgetting to place all medication, documents (including your passport), chargers and a change of clothes in their carry-on. You’ll likely need these items in order to board or sometime during that first afternoon.

Cautionary tale: On the first day of Caribbean cruises, you’ll always see some passengers staring longingly at the pool area while they sweat it out in their travel clothes. They clearly forgot to stash their bathing suit, a T-shirt and shorts in their carry-on and are missing out on those first few hours of cruise ship fun.

Related: 10 unexpected items I won't cruise without — including a roll of duct tape

Ignoring the dress code

(Photo by South_agency/Getty Images)

Some cruise lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, don’t really care what you wear to dinner. Others, such as Silversea Cruises, Cunard Line and Crystal Cruises, still have black-tie optional formal nights. Ignore the written dress code and you might find yourself kicked out of dinner for wearing shorts, jeans, flip flops or even a business casual outfit without a jacket. Read the fine print before you start packing so you don’t leave key eveningwear at home.

Cautionary tale: On one of the first cruises I ever took, I skipped this step and found myself eating multiple “formal night” dinners in my cabin to avoid the fashion police. Sure, having fine dining room service in bed with a movie is its own treat, but it would have been nice to have the option of sharing the evening with other passengers.

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Related: Cruise packing list: The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise

Not checking the weather forecast

Depending on when you’re cruising, weather can vary widely in some cruise-friendly destinations, and global warming has had a real impact on some areas as well. In Alaska, for example, the beginning and end of the season is usually cooler than a mid-summer cruise – but not always.

And, yes, it does rain and get chilly even in beautiful Caribbean destinations. If you don’t look at the weather forecast before you pack, you’re bound to waste shore time and money buying more weather-appropriate clothing or hunting down umbrellas and ponchos.

Cautionary tale: Who knew that destinations in northern Scotland reached frigid temperatures in August? I didn’t and found myself wasting precious port time searching for wool hats, gloves, scarves and sweaters to fight off the damp, wintry chill I hadn’t accounted for on a late-summer sailing.

Related: How to keep rainy weather from ruining your trip

Packing all your belongings in checked bags

(Photo by martin-dm/Getty Images)

Let’s face it: Delayed and lost luggage situations eventually happen to everyone who checks a bag. But they’re more serious when you’re flying into a destination in the morning and your ship is sailing out later that day. A rookie cruise packing mistake is to pack all of your clothing and toiletries in your checked bags, putting you at risk of losing everything should your luggage go missing.

Instead, stash a couple of outfits and key toiletries in your carry-on. I also suggest packing some of your clothing in your travel companion’s suitcase — and vice versa — so if only one of the suitcases arrives at your destination, you both will have something clean to wear.

Cautionary tale: On a Scandinavian cruise out of Belfast, I arrived on time but my bag didn’t. The airline tried to get it to me before the ship sailed to no avail.

Related: How to (almost) never lose your luggage again

Not protecting your liquids

If you’re checking bags, you’re not limited to travel sizes of liquid toiletries such as shampoo and body wash. You also have room to bring your favorite bottle of wine on your cruise vacation or bring home souvenir bottles of wine or liquor from destinations such as California, France, Italy or New Zealand. However, it only takes one leaky or broken bottle to discover that one of the worst cruise packing mistakes you can make is not protecting your liquids with bubble wrap or inside zip-up plastic bags.

Cautionary tale: I’ve heard stories of other passengers who threw full-size bottles in their luggage … only to spend the first night on board in the cruise ship laundry room washing mouthwash out of all of their clothes.

Related: Everything you need to know about traveling safely with wine

Packing too many pairs of shoes

(Photo by Kathleen Finlay/Getty Images)

Nothing eats up luggage space like shoes — especially sneakers and dress shoes. Don’t make the mistake of packing more sneakers, flats, heels and sandals than you actually need or you’ll be forced to check a bag (or, worse, check two). Nor do you want to bring too many shoes and not enough clothing layers.

Do your best to design a cruise week wardrobe that works with just a couple of pairs of footwear. My advice: Stick to one pair of flip flops and one pair of sandals in a sunny destination rather than bringing along a wide variety of options.

Cautionary tale: I packed workout sneakers on a few sailings and watched them sit idly in my cabin as the week progressed because I never made it to the ship’s gym. That space in the suitcase would have accommodated some larger souvenirs that had to be shipped home instead.

Related: What are the best travel shoes?

Not packing properly at the end of your cruise

Don’t think your packing woes end when you and your bags board your cruise ship. You’ve still got plenty of room for mistakes when packing for your trip home at the end of your vacation.

Just as you set aside your tech toys, your plane read and your medications for the first day of your trip, you want to carefully pack your carry-on and checked bag for the return trip home so you don't have to do any reshuffling in your bags at the airport. Don’t mix your clean clothes with your dirty ones or you’ll have more apres-cruise laundry to do. Cushion any breakable souvenirs with your softest shirts or sweaters.

Most importantly, if you place your bags outside your cabin on the last night of the cruise so crew members will carry them off the ship for you, set aside a change of clothes, travel shoes and toiletries for the next morning. The biggest packing mistake rookie cruisers make is forgetting to leave out clothes and disembarking in their pajamas.

Cautionary tale: I once watched a fellow cruiser tear apart their bags in the airport check-in line, desperately looking through souvenirs and underwear alike for the headphones they carelessly tossed into a bag they were planning to check -- hoping to be spared the ones the airline has on offer in coach.

Related: Mistakes cruise passengers make on disembarkation day

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by Getty Images/EyeEm
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 150,000 points
    120,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.